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Advice for lawyers: Learn improv

30 June 2017 - By Katie Cowan

I don’t like advice per se. In this column, and in my podcasts, I try (often unsuccessfully) to replace advice with stories or allegories. It’s less obnoxious and assumes we are equals, which is much nicer than the alternative. But that goes out the window with the following: all lawyers (all people?) should learn improv.

This is not a metaphor; I’m urging you to enrol in an improv class.

In improv comedy, you improvise scenes. Sometimes you get suggestions from the audience; sometimes there is a game to be played; sometimes (mostly) you are playing with other people, but the idea is that you make up the scene, the setting, the characters, as you go along. You bring nothing to the scene except yourself. Ideally, it is funny, but some of the best scenes I’ve seen were not.

Two actors performing improvisation
Photo by Jeff Salmore CC-By-NC
https://flic.kr/p/SMasoj

I grew up watching Whose Line Is It Anyway?, where the improv is game-based, and in high school I went religiously to see Scared Scriptless every Friday. It’s a late night improv comedy show in Christchurch, run by the Court Jesters at the Court Theatre. I would watch them like a mortal might watch a god, with no sense of how they could do what they do and be funny; it really seemed impossible.

I am now a musician improviser for the Jesters, and I know better; while the performers themselves are extraordinary, the skills of improv are not god-like magical powers. Rather, they are skills, like any other, that can be learned. (In the Jesters’ case – to an internationally-recognised standard.)

As a greater point for this column though, the framework of principles on which improv is based are rules for life (the truism in improv is that improv rules are life rules). Let me explain.

Because it is improvised, you cannot prescribe much. Instead of scripts and stage directions you learn various principles, and you generate scenes from that loose framework. There are innumerable principles, but big ones include “make your partner look good”, “be present”, “commit”, and the ubiquitous “yes, and” (a command to accept others’ offers and build on them). Those principles, and the practice you get applying them, are why everyone should learn improv.

I took my first improv classes around the same time I started doing court appearances. I was terrified of court, and I thought it would help to get training to loosen up my mind and get more confidence talking/staying vertical when I was questioned by a judge. This was a good impulse. You should do it too. Especially if you were a high achiever in academics.

In her book Playing Big, Tara Mohr observes that academic success is mostly based on preparation, and is predicated on the idea that you will always be able to prepare in advance. She writes:

“Nothing could be further from the reality of our careers, where we are constantly called on to improvise, particularly as we move into more and more senior levels. We are asked difficult, unexpected questions we don’t have the answers to, and we have to find a way to respond on our feet. Challenging situations we didn’t anticipate and couldn’t have prepared for arise, and we have to trust our ability to meet them.”

She rightly notes that while preparation is always necessary, career success often requires the opposite: “accessing what we already know, trusting its value, and bringing it forth”.

That is improv.

While Mohr’s comments apply to all kinds of professional success, improv is especially important for lawyers. We are generally on the Type A, anxious, highly-strung end of the spectrum. We do not easily let go; we do not freely yield control. Often we do not easily enjoy ourselves or even have fun; a professionally-required critical eye becomes a critical eye that controls the rest of our lives.

But in improv we have permission to let go, maybe even crack a smile. We get to fail with enthusiasm and practise relying on our own inherent capacities, preparation be damned. We get to do a thing where perfection is booed and joyful mistakes are celebrated. Where rules are there to be bent and flouted. Where authentic emotional expression enriches everyone in the room.

In short, you get to play, and in doing so, watch your confidence grow and your anxiety recede. And if nothing else; even if you didn’t get all this beautiful career and personal development, the damned thing is FUN. And that, in itself is enough.

Look up local classes and enrol. It’ll be excruciating to begin with, but everyone else in the class will be in the same position, and there is joy in camaraderie. Your career as a lawyer and your life as a human will only benefit.


Katie Cowan katie@symphonylaw.co.nz is the founder of Christchurch based litigation services provider Symphony Law Ltd. She has set up The New Lawyer fortnightly podcasts for new and prospective lawyers with the aim of thinking in new ways about the practice and culture of law.

Last updated on the 1st December 2018