Inside DC’s Acting School for Lawyers
Where attorneys who want to get ahead learn performance techniques that aren’t taught in law school.
Acting for Lawyers encourages attorneys to loosen up.
Courtney Kasuboski, an associate at the law firm Finnegan, is unwinding a story that involves murder, threats, and the unjust detainment of her client, a Honduran man who was denied asylum. “He endured physical and mental pain and suffering that amounts to torture,” she says.
From a lawyer’s point of view, it’s powerful, case-making stuff. But there’s a problem, and it has nothing to do with the asylum seeker’s story. Rather, it has to do with Kasuboski, the man’s attorney. She’s telling the story in the same lilting tone she might use to place a Starbucks order.
Which is why it’s a good thing she’s not actually talking to a judge or a jury right now. She’s in acting class, standing on a stage in a church basement on 16th Street, Northwest, as she struggles to make eye contact, staring down at her notes, her long blond hair hanging around her face.
Theater director Gillian Drake shifts slightly in her seat as she watches. Attorneys such as Kasuboski are the reason she created this eight-week workshop, Acting for Lawyers. As Drake sees it, too many attorneys value being serious and deliberate above all else. “They tend to speak each word as if they’re choosing each word before they say it,” she explained to me earlier. “That’s why lawyers seem heartless.”
Drake’s job is to help the litigators, client reassurers, and wannabe rainmakers who seek her services loosen up and sound more, well, human. In the coming weeks, the seven new students gathered will be expected to master skills they’re unlikely to have encountered in law school—including how to recite one of Shakespeare’s sonnets while holding a wine cork between their teeth.
For now, though, their task is
simply to stand and give short presentations about themselves and their work.
When Kasuboski finishes, Drake’s only reaction is a cheerful “Thank you!” She’s
saving her real feedback for the end of the evening.
Drake is sixtysomething—she declines to give her precise age—with dark-framed glasses and a platinum bob. She founded the Acting for Lawyers program 34 years ago when she realized that Washington’s huge population of lawyers provided a fertile market for her theater background—as a literary and casting associate at Arena Stage and currently as a director at the smaller Spooky Action Theater near U Street. (According to the American Bar Association, DC proper has more than 56,000 lawyers, or one for every 13 residents.) Drake figures she has taught about 1,700 attorneys over the decades. Her eight-week workshops, which range from seven to 12 students, cost $695; she also holds shorter-term programs and one-off lessons.
She doesn’t coach only trial
lawyers, though their job is arguably closest to that of a performer onstage.
Her classes draw attorneys who want to communicate better with clients, explain
complicated practice areas more clearly, or give more compelling pitches to
their bosses and potential new clients. Her company, On Trial Associates, also
offers witness preparation, creates focus groups for trials, and supplies
actors for mock trials.Unlike public-speaking courses, Drake tailors her
curriculum to the legal set, pushing students to think about how they come
across in court and deterring them from using the bullying tactics that
frequently wind up in an attorney’s playbook. “Lawyers often pick the easiest
voice, which is to be louder,” she says, when a more modulated tone can
actually be more persuasive. She also makes them do things that can at first
seem silly, such as silently acting out the process of getting out of bed and
starting the day—an exercise meant to show them how effective body language can
be without saying a word.
A handful of other acting coaches for lawyers exist around the country, most notably in Los Angeles. LA coach Katherine James, for example, estimates she has taught acting to some 40,000 attorneys in 42 years. But Drake appears to be the only one in the District.
One of her past students, Charles Wayne, senior counsel at DLA Piper, remembers learning that moving around a courtroom is a lot like staging a play. “You can use the space in a particular way,” he says. Drake taught him not to hide behind the lectern. If the jury could see his whole body, she advised, he’d appear more credible. Wayne says Drake also got him to think beyond the objective of just winning. “Now you’re thinking about it in dramatic terms—how is this coming across?” he says. “So we’re thinking of the legal aspects, but we can’t ignore the performance aspects.” Since taking the class, he’s more conscious of where he stands and how he moves.
Another exercise Drake likes to deploy involves assigning students a one-word description to inform how they give a presentation to the class. Michael Shor, who now practices law in North Carolina, recalls getting “seduction” as his word. “Apparently, I pulled it off,” he laughs. He says focusing on the descriptor made him more aware of how to convey a message to his audience. “You know the law, the facts, the case, the judge. But what kind of approach is most likely to grab that judge’s attention?”
To be clear, all the techniques serve the goal of honesty. “The name of her class is a little bit of a misnomer,” says Justin Hendrix, now an intellectual-property counsel for an aerospace company. “In a courtroom, credibility is king. You never want to fake tears, fake outrage.” The objective, he says, is to be genuine, to “always have that credibility, but to understand the effect your words have.”
Back inside this night’s acting class, the lawyers have all finished their presentations and Drake is doling out critiques. “There were some people who could dwell in silence a little bit,” she begins. “We like that. It shows confidence, right?”
She zeros in on Courtney Kasuboski, the lawyer from Finnegan. Drake tells her she was crushing her diaphragm by looking down and was making herself look small by clutching the podium. “Stay with the words,” Drake instructs. “Embody them.”
Other attorneys ignored one entire side of their audience, had a “disconnect” between their hands and their words, made unfocused eye contact but didn’t actually seem to see the audience, or spoke with no energy, Drake says. But it’s not all bad news. One student “had great arm gestures,” she observes, referring to the fact that he moved his limbs freely rather than gluing them uncomfortably to his sides.
She asks how long he’s been practicing. Three years, he answers. “That’s a lot of swagger for three years,” she says, ending class on a positive note.
Next week’s assignment: memorizing sonnets.
This article appears in the January 2020 issue of Washingtonian.
Sometimes a client has everything going for them as they prepare for a speech; they’ve thought about what they want to say, they’ve outlined their ideas in a clear and cogent way, they have an objective for the speech that they can articulate, they are excited to reach the audience with their message — they are prepared, but they are nervous. The client wants to make a good impression, and they know they need help but they aren’t sure what is wrong or what to do. So, they come in for a coaching session to rehearse the speech; and when they deliver the speech in rehearsal — it’s flat, uncompelling, and teeters on the verge of boring. Why does this happen?
Obviously, there are many reasons why this could be happening — but a common one is that the speaker has not connected in an emotional way to what they are saying. Their brain has done a great job getting ready for the speech, now it’s time for their heart to follow suit.
How do you get an emotional arc to a speech that is not emotional in nature? Generally in business you are conveying information, but an effective speech must do more than state facts. An effective and compelling speech guides the listener to a specific point of view, or action step, or feeling about the speaker and their ideas. For a speech to have dynamism and life, you must convey a passion for the subject and a genuine interest in your listener. To do that, you must think about the audience in a more specific way. In session with clients when we are rehearsing a speech, I often ask: When you finish speaking, how do you want your audience to feel? What do you want them to think? Say? Do? When you finish speaking how will they be different? First you answer these questions in an overall sense for the entire speech. And once you have an answer you go back and break the speech down into smaller chunks — smaller ideas within the larger one that you are trying to convey, and you ask those same questions again. By answering these questions the client begins to sense the life behind the carefully crafted words. And then you can begin to coax a vibrant and persuasive presentation out of the client.
Here is a small example:
Coach: When you finish speaking how do you want the audience to feel overall.
Client: I want them to feel secure that our company has their best interests at heart and can solve this problem for them.
Coach: Great — so you want them to feel???
Client: Happy that we are working for them.
Coach: OK — let’s look at the speech itself, you have three main ideas here, in the first one, you seem to be presenting a problem that could come up for the listener.
Client: That’s right, it’s a big potential problem that has large consequences.
Coach: And how do you want them to feel about the problem
Client: Worried, scared, alarmed.
Coach: Terrific, that’s a great active idea — you can scare them in the first part of the speech as you present this problem. In the second half of the speech you present a number of solutions that you can offer the listener. How do you want them to feel about that?
Client: Obviously I want them to feel happy that there is a solution.
Coach: Yes, good, so now in this section you can calm them down, reassure them, soothe them into not panicking. And in the third section you talk about how your firm can specifically tailor these solutions to their needs and give them the personal attention they want. Might I suggest you rally your listener here…. Let them know that not only is there a solution, but that you are the best person to solve it for them.
Client: so they will feel excited about us and our company’s work?
Client: I like that idea — that seems right for me.
Coach: So now let’s try the speech — Frighten your audience, then soothe them, then rally them to call you should anything go wrong.
Client: OK. Let’s try.
As we rehearse the speech again, the client begins to find their own voice, their own passion for the ideas they are conveying because they are focusing on the listener, they are actively pursuing a reaction from the listener and as a result, their voice and their physical being begin to communicate the excitement of the speech and the intelligence, organization, and the main points of the presentation become apparent.
A good speech is more than words on the page. Only when a speaker is truly engaged with, not only their own words but, the pursuit of a reaction from their listeners, only then will their authentic voice, their inner public speaking rock star begin to emerge.
– Melissa Flaim
The single most frequently asked question of my witness consulting work, “What should I wear when I take the stand?” is also the last thing I advise on during witness preparation. This seemingly simple question requires a careful understanding of both the witness and the trial narrative in order to present the right picture to the jury.
There are some obvious answers to this question, which don’t take an expert trial consultant to offer: what you wear should first and foremost show respect to the court and all who work there. It must be true to the witness’s station in life and work. It shouldn’t unintentionally set the witness apart from the jury in terms of class or economic status. Conventional grooming and meticulous hygiene is essential. Hair styles and facial hair should be styled and trimmed to reveal rather than minimize the visage. The clothing must fit to the witness’s current weight and body type. These are basic and they go a long way to getting it right.
How appearance enhances credibility, bolsters your trial themes, and reveals character takes a level of sophistication to address. Credibility is the appearance of congruity in what we do and say and how we appear. When all of those elements are in concert, then the person will appear to be integrated, sincere and perhaps speaking from their core. Within this frame, appearance must support the story and the biography of the speaker – a successful, older businessman will dress in a traditional suit, tie and wing tips. A young tech executive may modify this uniform to match contemporary standards. Both types stay true to stereotype and expectations. Unless your trial themes are about defying expectations, you don’t want the jury to be wondering why a wealthy businessman is wearing khakis, a short-sleeved shirt and loafers. Deviations from the norm create questions, and we don’t want the jury wondering about anything that we are not purposefully and intentionally directing them towards.
What your witness wears should support your trial themes and refute the plaintiff’s. If a doctor is accused of sloppy surgical technique, her wardrobe should reveal how meticulous she is: crisp colors, highly tailored suit or dress, well-polished shoes, traditional jewelry. Everything should read “careful, clean, neat, and intentional.” If, on the other hand, a doctor is being accused of neglect because he didn’t care enough, then one might consider softening his look via the silhouette or the color palette, e.g. a jacket and trousers in warm, muted colors or softer fabrics, or a friendly tie, for instance.
The last aspect of “dressing the witness” has to do with revealing a part of their character which might not otherwise come out in the testimony, but is essential that the jury observe or experience. For instance, we once worked with a victim of an airplane accident who had sustained a significant head injury and lost a lot of her executive functioning. She was a proud, beautiful woman who refused to let her guard down or publicly admit how depressed the after-effects of the accident had made her feel, and how difficult her life had become with this new disability. Her status, intellect and work ethic were important, but they were evident from her testimony. Her dyed black hair, bright red lipstick and highly preppy, tailored look did not reveal what a confused, broken woman she was- — she hadn’t been able to hold a job down since the accident. We advised her to let her hair go natural, wear what she wears now to her home office, go without make-up, and let the jury see who she really had become as a result of the accident. This was a critical aspect of her courtroom appearance and told a truth that was otherwise hidden.
On one hand, one must stick to the obvious — dress to the stereotype and enhance the most positive aspects of your witness’s character and “story.” On the other hand, one looks to reveal what might not be obvious from the outside or from the testimony.
The balance of these two aspects of “costuming” can only be achieved from a careful understanding of the trial narrative, the witness’s testimony and personality, and the important trial themes from defense and plaintiff perspectives, as well as the jurisdiction and jury pool.
With all of these elements in harmony with their appearance, your witness is already on the road to testifying success.
By Gillian Drake OTA, Inc.
Our voices tell a listener our history, whether we know it or not. Subconsciously we convey from where we hail, how we communicated with our families growing up, what our peers were like and what they are like now, who we defer to, how we express ourselves in stressful situations, and what we do to get what we want from those around us.
Our voices give a first impression to the people we encounter just as our physical appearance and demeanor do. The voice, like our bodies and our taste in clothes, can be trained to communicate our very best selves to the people around us.
Often it is not what you say, but how you say it. As attorneys, you are all trained to know what to say, and when to say it. But often HOW you say it can help you win or lose a listener.
An effective voice is pitched appropriately, is full sounding with appropriate volume for individual situations, and is positioned forward in the mouth.
Let me elaborate a bit on each of these and give an exercise for each to help open up and release your natural and true sound.
• An effective voice is PITCHED APPROPRIATELY.
This means that you are not speaking to high or too low. You aren’t forcing your voice to be anywhere than where it naturally should fall. Unfortunately, many women have learned to pitch their voices a bit higher than their true voice, and many men push their sound down into their chest to create a lower more authoritative sound. When in actuality by speaking on the pitch that is most physically appropriate for your body, you display a tremendous amount of confidence and power without really doing a thing.
EXERCISE – So how do you find your appropriate pitch? HUM. It seems like a simple thing to do and in many ways it is, but humming can do a number of things for the voice and for the speaker.
Humming is a natural warm up, it’s like warming up a car on a cold Midwestern morning, the longer you warm up the car, the easier the gear shift will move and the smoother your ride into town will be.
By merely humming, you give the voice a chance to wake up, vibrate and become accustomed to making sound for a sustained period of time. It also helps find your natural pitch. When you wake up in the morning, in the shower, or in the car on the way to work, begin to hum. Moving the hum up and down in pitch, find the one that feels most comfortable to make, and that you can sustain for a period of time.
When you feel that in the hum, open your mouth and let the “HUM” become an “HUMAAAAAAHHHHHH”. Letting the sound fly easily out of you – as you make the MAAAHHHH sound – move up and down in pitch just to test your range of sound and see what feels the strongest coming out of your mouth. Try not to listen to yourself, the ear is deceptive. Really try to feel in your body where the easiest strongest sound is coming from.
When you do that, bring the hum to some words or some singing – and stay in that strong centered vocal place. Now you are pitched appropriately.
• An effective voice is FULL SOUNDING.
This means that you are using your diaphragm and lungs to support your voice and give it the power and the fullness that will catch the ear of listeners. By supporting your voice with your breath, you create the sense that you are speaking with your full body and not just your mouth and throat. Once you are breathing fully, and completely, you will have more power and volume without any effort.
EXERCISE – STAND AND BREATHE – Stand with your feet against a wall, press your bum against the wall, as well as your shoulders and the back of your head. You may feel as if your belly is protruding a bit and that your chin is slightly tucked down. This is normal. Place your hands on your belly and exhale all of the air in your body. When you feel the need to take in oxygen, allow the breath to fly into your nose and breathe into your hands still resting on your belly.
Feel the belly expand even more (this is no time to worry about your flat stomach!) release the breath through the mouth (you can even hummmaaaahhhh a bit if you like!) and continue like this for at least five more breaths.
Feel the whole body breathing, the diaphragm moving down, the ribs opening, the belly expanding. Now you are filled with oxygen and can make sound with support and power. Now, take your right foot and step out toward the room, then do the same thing with your left foot, keeping your shoulders and head connected to the wall. You should feel as if you are holding up the wall as it were, and that you could stay in this position for a while.
Next, bring your right food back to the wall and then the left foot, as you do this you will automatically push away from the wall with your shoulders and find yourself standing up straight. Your spine is now aligned and you will feel a bit taller perhaps, or as if there were more space between your vertebrae.
Do the breathing part of the exercise again, this time definitely adding the humming, and feel your body take in a great deal more oxygen and feel your voice become more relaxed and yet stronger and clearer at the same time.
• An effective voice is POSITIONED FORWARD in the mouth.
You aren’t holding the sound in the back of your mouth or putting too much of your voice into your nose. By bringing the voice to a more forward position in the mouth your voice is clearer, louder, and more inviting to the listener.
Subconsciously the listener feels you have a personal relationship because your voice is coming forward to connect with them.
EXERCISE – RAISE THE SOFT PALATE, HIT THE HARD PALATE — First, stand in relaxed upright position and stretch and yawn – feel your soft palate lift in your mouth ( the soft palate is the fleshy part of the roof of your mouth, the hard palate is the bony dome in front of it).
Once you have felt your soft palate lift, you can recreate this on your own with the KAA inhale – let your jaw drop open, bring the back of the tongue up to the soft palate, inhale through the mouth and let the tongue drop away from the palate as you lift the soft palate on a KAAAAAA. Now feel how the palate is lifted and high in your mouth and how much space there is in your mouth for sound.
Lift the tongue to the now raised soft palate as if you were making a “k” sound (which in fact you are) and let the tongue come down again as you exhale and voice the KAAAAA sound and let the soft palate come back down. You will sound a little like a dying crow, and that is good. By exercising the soft palate you will find you have more space in the back of your mouth and that sound can travel up out of your body into this large cavity where it can reverberate.
Repeat the exercise 3-5 times. Now, you are ready to hit the hard palate. Stand in a relaxed upright position, allow the breath to drop into your body and as it flies out on a HAAAA, imagine that that HAAA is bouncing off of the hard palate in the front of your mouth. You will actually be able to feel the air of the HAAA bounce off of the hard palate and fly out of your mouth. When you feel this, then, try a few other words, “HELLO, MY NAME IS ______”, and feel the sound bounce off of the hard palate as it moves out of your mouth.
Your voice is now in a more forward position. Try to speak this way all of the time (it will take some practice and some getting used to), the rewards are worth it. Try practicing these three exercises daily for a month and you will start to hear the results and with a little more practice, they will be long-lasting.
Remember that the first impression you make with a client or a colleague involves all of the senses, but it is the voice that leaves the biggest and most enduring impression. If you so desire, you can always pursue the work on your voice and presentation skills in a deeper and more purposeful way.
Through On Trial Associates, Inc., Melissa Flaim offers a series of individual sessions which focuses on your voice and applying the work to your presentations. OTA, Inc. is offering a new class, “Applied Acting Techniques, Voice and Improvisation Workshop,” this Fall here in Washington, DC which will take a more improvisational, fun approach to applied acting techniques.
And of course, we can continue the one-on-one coaching on current or upcoming marketing opportunities, litigation or speaking engagements.
By Melissa Flaim and Gillian Drake