Thursday May 4, 2006

Lights, Camera, Action for Law Students

UD and other law schools nationwide recently started using acting as a way to help students learn interviewing, negotiating and plea bargaining skills.

Actors in courtrooms aren't new, but their place in law school classrooms to coach students on story-telling, posture, tongue-twisters and establishing a rapport with clients may come as a surprise.

University of Dayton law professor Dennis Turner and other law schools nationwide recently started using acting coaches and actors, who portray clients and witnesses, to help students learn interviewing, negotiating and plea bargaining skills.

Third-year UD law student Ross Hunter describes himself as personable but not very emotional. Hunter said having someone teach him how to show more emotion would be beneficial.

"For people less apt to be open, it would help," Hunter said. "It's a good stress reliever in such a serious environment. It's not often you can tell stories and jokes in class."

In one exercise involved, five students told parts of the same story. Their classmates analyzed body language and voice inflection to determine who was telling the truth and who was lying.

"Only 7 percent of communication is verbal. The rest comes from body language," said Fran Pesch, the acting coach Dennis Turner hired for his class. "You are in a consumer-oriented profession and need to develop nonverbal and verbal skills that serve your consumers."

Turner said the hired actors capture the emotions and drama of an attorney-client relationship. Many law students couldn't deliver the bad news that they didn't have a case to actors portraying distraught clients with very weak cases.

"Students often come out of the experience exhausted," Turner said. "However, this is an opportunity for 'free' mistakes that don't hurt a real client."

At the end of the semester, each UD student is offered a DVD for job interviews that shows them in action.

Part of Turner's push for the class was that law students sometimes go into the profession without "real people" experience. UD will test students on interviewing and other skills in the school's new Lawyer as Problem Solver curriculum before they can graduate.

The University of Illinois College of Law developed a program with the school's theater department.

"Our program is designed to give students insight into how their mannerisms, listening skills and even posture may affect the people they are trying to work with and influence," C.K. Gunsalus, program coordinator and adjunct law professor, told the University of Illinois' news bureau.

The New York Law School's Lawyering Skills Center requires a simulation course in which students interact with actors in a variety of legal situations.

Before Case Western Reserve University students do simulations for credit, they attend a class in which they discuss the skills to be covered, watch demonstrations and practice the skills themselves in an ungraded setting.

Since 1985, the American Bar Association's student law division has organized the Louis M. Brown International Client Counseling Competition to encourage students to develop interviewing, planning and analytical skills in the lawyer-client relationship.

"Interviewing and advising are a significant part of most lawyers' work," according to the competition Web site. "Too often, it's assumed that lawyers have the listening and questioning skills needed to conduct an effective interview. Regrettably, not all lawyers possess these skills."

For more information, contact Shawn Robinson at (937) 229-3391.