Acting workshop teaches lawyers how to be themselves in court

November 27, 1993|By Arthur Hirsch | Arthur Hirsch,Staff Writer

Without their briefcases, yellow pads or file folders, without even their shoes, the five lawyers stretch out on the carpeted floor and breathe deeply. They exhale in a droning hum and for a moment the conference room in this prestigious Baltimore law office sounds like a Buddhist temple.

This is just the warm-up. Before the night is over, the attorneys will recite Shakespeare sonnets, perform mime and talk in gibberish. They will work on opening trial arguments as an actor might prepare for a scene.

Welcome to Acting for Lawyers, where participants apply stagecraft to courtroom strategy. It's a production of On Trial Associates, a consulting firm run by Gillian Drake, who has never filed a brief, tried a case or earned a law degree.

Ms. Drake, an actress and director, says attorneys can learn a lot from actors.

"We're not teaching people to be actors, or to be fake or to lie," says Ms. Drake of Rockville. "I'm trying to get them to be comfortable with what they're saying and who they are. . . . When people get into the public eye, they become not themselves. Juries want people to be themselves."

For eight years, Ms. Drake has been playing the legal circuit, giving seminars, lectures and workshops. She works with attorneys and with witnesses, using theatrical methods to help make their courtroom presentations more persuasive. She believes that hers is the only service of its kind in the area.

"When lawyers talk, it all sounds the same," she tells the group of lawyers during a recent workshop in a downtown Baltimore law office. "If everything sounds the same, a jury doesn't know what's important. . . . If it's all the same, it's impossible to sort out."

During this eight-week workshop, the lawyers learn how to use their voices to emphasize key points of their arguments, how to bridge the emotional gap with the jury as an actor might with an audience and how to stay focused on what they want the judge or jury to do.

The evening workshops open with warm-up exercises. At Ms. Drake's instruction, the lawyers shake their arms, shake their feet, make funny faces, make funny noises, lie on the floor, breathe deeply, sigh audibly and sometimes do jumping jacks. What's all this about?

Ms. Drake says it's about shaking off workday inhibitions, dropping the office mask. It makes people feel silly, but Ms. Drake says it's a necessary prelude to the search for raw motives behind a character's actions or, in this case, a lawyer's ,, argument.

After warm-ups, the lawyers recite Shakespeare sonnets, seeking the action behind the words. The previous week, the lawyers were assigned to pick verbs that suited the sonnets and portray those actions with their motions and tone of voice.

Steve Ney, who has been practicing law for about 20 years, stands up and begins Sonnet 129: "The expense of spirit in a waste of shame. . . ."

Ms. Drake breaks in, finding his delivery too low-key.

"How many verbs working there?" she asks.

"I was trying five."

"Five? I didn't see five."

"Plead, warn . . ."

"Then let's do plead, and not all this neutral stuff. . . . The next one is 'warn.' Jump into it; don't be passive about it."

This stuff is hard, Mr. Ney says in an interview during a break.

"It makes me more aware of the options available when you're speaking," he says. "The way you use your body, your hands, your motions. It doesn't mean it's easy to do."

Glen Allen, a soft-spoken man whose legal work involves primarily research and writing, finds expressing emotion in public very difficult.

"It's painful in the sense that she asks us to use emotions we rarely use," says Mr. Allen, who has been practicing law for five years. "But I feel invigorated after her classes. . . . I regard it as a pretty essential part of legal education."

In law school, he says, he was taught how to find facts and law to support an argument, but not "the aesthetic part of how to present a story, make the connection to a jury."

Steve Grossman, who teaches trial practice at the University of Baltimore Law School, says he has not heard about Ms. Drake's classes but that he can see how theatrical techniques could be used in the the courtroom.

"Absolutely, I think a background in drama would be helpful," Mr. Grossman says. "Emphasis is an important thing to understand -- how you use your voice, waking up some jurors who are sleeping."

Ms. Drake says she got the idea for On Trial Associates in 1988 after she directed a play at the Woolly Mammoth theater in Washington. Two lawyers called her to say how much they liked it. It was real, they said, but a tad larger than life. As she recalls, they both said that was how they would like to present themselves in court.

She later coached one of those lawyers on opening statements. She then placed a little advertisement in the Legal Times and conducted her first workshop in the basement of Arena Stage in Washington. Now her work is divided between coaching lawyers and witnesses, and conducting mock juries as part of an attorney's trial preparation.

She works with five consultants in Maryland, Washington, New York and Chicago.

Most of the major law firms in Baltimore and Washington have used her services, she says.

"It teaches them how to tell their client's story in the most positive, strong way," she says. "You'll find there are tons of lawyers who have had some acting here and there."

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