When Katrina Hull decided last year to sign her practice group at Michael Best & Friedrich up for an applied-improv workshop, her goal was simple.
She wanted to do something different. And different was what she got.
Improv is about observing and connecting with your surroundings and responding to them. Applied improv, on the other hand, is about making use of the principles of improv in a specific professional setting.
When she was in the workshop, Hull, now an attorney at the Washington, D.C., firm Markery Law, was a partner at Michael Best & Friedrich and the leader of the firm’s trademark practice group. The team had more than a dozen attorneys, paralegals and business-development professionals from different offices, including offices in Memphis, Denver and Chicago.
“I definitely didn’t have a lot of expectations going into it,” Hull said. “I was excited to do something that would help our group bond, especially because we had a lot of new additions to our group. I was looking to do something to help us get to know each other and get comfortable with each other.”
Although improvisation is nothing particularly new to the law profession, what was different about Hull’s workshop was that Wisconsin’s Board of Bar Examiners approved it for 1.5 hours of continuing-legal education credit.
Hull’s workshop is part of an applied-improv program at ComedySportz Milwaukee, an improv organization offering both instruction and entertainment. More specifically, the workshop Hull’s team took part in was developed by Association of Corporate Counsel Executive Director Amy Westrup.
She and Alan Guszkowski, who are both what ComedySportz calls “professional players,” brought the workshop to Michael Best’s Milwaukee office. Westrup worked with Hull’s team as well as labor and employment attorneys and paralegals there. Guszkowski dealt with members of the business-development team.
“You’d think, ‘Well, the labor and employment guys and gals are really going to crush this and enjoy this and be open to it – and they were,” Westrup said. “But I wasn’t so much expecting it from the IP attorneys. They were just so fun and willing. They were like, ‘Hey I haven’t used this part of my brain before. This is great!’”
Guszkowski and Westrup stressed that the workshop is no laughing matter, despite ComedySportz’s name.
“We’re just trying to get you to think quickly, on your feet and react the way you would and recognize that and then allow your reactions to become more beneficial to whatever work environment you might be in,” said Guszkowski.
“I always try to put people at ease and say, ‘First and foremost, this is not about being funny,’” she said. “It has almost nothing to do with it. The funny kind of naturally comes out because we’re all separate human beings with different brains, and we all think differently and react differently.”
As it has done with its other applied-improv workshops, ComedySportz spent years developing and testing the workshop so that attendees would have solid takeaways applicable to the practice of law. The organization hopes to branch out to other law firms as well as law schools.
One exercise that Westrup does – and legal professionals love – involves listening.
“Everything in the practice of law is so fast-paced and now so much of it is electronic, right?” she said “So people aren’t actually talking to clients face to face. So we actually have them do that: Sit down, make eye contact.”
For Hull, that was one of the main takeaways from the workshop.
“I think sometimes as attorneys, we’re so focused on what we’re going to say next or what argument we’re going to make that we don’t always do a good job of listening to each other or our clients,” she said.