By KATHY MATHESON
PHILADELPHIA (AP) – The future attorneys stood in front of the class and took turns weaving a crazy tale about a spindly-legged boy named Tommy, a glass of poisoned wine, and a dinner of macaroni and cheese with hotdogs.
Their peers at Drexel University’s Earle Mack School of Law laughed as the story became increasingly ridiculous. But the students had to keep the plot going, because thinking on their feet was the point of this improvisational exercise. The name of the course, after all, is “Improv for Lawyers.”
Taught by actress and comedian Sharon Geller, the class is designed to build confidence in attorneys-to-be by teaching them to think outside the box, approach scenarios from many angles, and react evenly when something unexpected happens – which, in improv, is all the time.
“If something’s not going your way … take a deep breath, don’t get flustered,” said student Mike Lavner, 27. “You’re learning to control the situation.”
Improv has been used for years as a professional development tool for seasoned attorneys. But offering it to students is unusual, said Micah Buchdahl, a lawyer from Moorestown, N.J., who serves on the American Bar Association’s standing committee on continuing legal education.
For litigators – those who interview witnesses in court, or seek to charm juries or judges through storytelling – the value of improv is clear. Yet it also can help lawyers who shun the spotlight, Buchdahl said, sharpening the skills needed for taking depositions, negotiating settlements and wooing new clients.
“For a lot of attorneys, it’s a lot easier to write a brief than get up in front of a crowd,” he said.
Geller began teaching the course about three years ago after a Drexel law school administrator took one of her improv workshops at Philadelphia’s Walnut Street Theatre. It was a hit before she even stepped into the classroom.
“Someone from the school called and said, ‘Your class crashed our computer system because so many students tried to sign up,'” Geller said.
There is a lot of laughter in each weekly, two-hour class. In one exercise, students must create conversations using only questions; another requires them to nimbly switch between the pro and con arguments of a topic – say, “I love camping” – whenever Geller claps. And she claps a lot.
In a storytelling exercise called “conducted orchestra,” Geller acts as maestro by randomly pointing at students to continue an ever-more convoluted tale.
Miscues were common throughout one recent night. But that’s core to learning, said student Steve Budd, 24.
“People don’t remember the mistake. They remember how you react to the mistake,” Budd said.
Earthen Johnson, a class alumna, said that what she learned has been useful in her job as an associate for investment management at Drinker, Biddle and Reath in Philadelphia.
“It forced you to really be able to read body language,” Johnson said. “Paying attention to those subtle nuances really helps you in a courtroom or at a negotiation table.”
Former student Brieanna Wheeland, now an associate in the business and finance group at the local offices of Ballard Spahr, said Geller’s class taught her the importance of being able to use a variety of communication styles and tactics.
“She makes you do really awkward things,” Wheeland said. “Sometimes I think that’s what working is – how you respond to difficult things or difficult people.”