All the World’s A Stage

By Barbara Engstrom, Executive Director

The other day when I was searching the KCLL catalog for something totally unrelated, the title Acting Skill for Lawyers popped up.  I envisioned advice on how to chew the scenery with “Law and Order” level aplomb, did a big eyeroll, returned to my research, and moved on.   Later in the week while giving a presentation on resources available for remote access through our Lexis Digital eBook subscription, I remarked that resources ranged from the full run of gold standard treatises like Corbin on Contracts to lots of “fun” titles such as… (naming the first title that popped into my head) Acting Skills for Lawyers. Dang it.  That title had infiltrated my psyche.

Hmmmm…what’s the literary equivalent of a musical earworm?  A bookworm?  I think that word’s taken but wouldn’t you know, the New York Times featured a whole discourse on whether a word can be the equivalent of an earworm.  In that case, the word was amygdala.[1]

Beware of Acting Natural

My interest peaked, I had to at least take a look at Acting Skills for Lawyers. Much to my delight the book was a quick read full of practical advice specifically geared to how attorneys present themselves in the professional arena (not just court). For example, in discussing stage presence the author notes:

Stage presence is the quality that allows us to hold a very public position in a relaxed manner. …For attorneys, the scrutiny is much more intense. Actors will have a director and the cameraman right in their face, but you will have everyone—the jury, witnesses, opposing council, your client, and your colleagues—staring you down and watching your every move. Stage presence allows us to remain ourselves under intense scrutiny from others.

The goal of stage presence is to be yourself—just a more relaxed, interesting, and focused you. Once you are free to be yourself, you are more relaxed and will carry less tension in your voice and body. Once the tension is gone, you are free to respond naturally to what is actually happening, using integrity and finely tuned reflexes.[2]

People are often advised to “act natural” but in a high-pressure professional setting, acting natural might mean breaking out into a sweat, stammering, stiffening up, or staring at the floor – all natural responses to stressful situations.   Just as athletes train for big competitions to prepare for whatever comes their way, training for stage presence allows attorneys to navigate unexpected twists and turns in a variety of professional settings.

Be Like (the Other) Mike

In this case, I’m not talking about Michael Jordan but rather Michael Phelps – the guy with 23 Olympic gold medals in swimming. I remember the discussions during the Beijing Olympics about whether Michael had a freakishly portioned body that gave him physical advantage over other swimmers. A study by Scientific American concluded that while Phelps has slightly longer arms, he’s well within the standard range for persons of his size.[3]  His dominance was bred of his outsized work ethic and willingness to train not only for things going right but to prepare for when things would inevitably go wrong.  Phelps and his coach focused on conditioning himself to push through and maintain perfect form like a mechanical geartrain even when at the breaking point.

Early in the Games, one of those things that could happen did happen. In the 200-meter butterfly, Phelps’s goggles leaked. They flooded with water until he couldn’t see the wall. He stayed calm, relied on his rhythm, and won pulling away, though with bloodshot eyes. “I was ready for my goggles to fill up with water,” he said later, gratefully.[4]

Phelps’s Beijing Olympics, with seventeen races over nine days, culminated in him winning eight gold medals — breaking Mark Spitz’s 1972 record. In his last individual race, with a fatigue-wracked body Phelps won by one-one hundredth of a second which his coach attributed to a conditioned response based on years of preparation.  Interestingly both Acting Skills for Lawyers and the Washington Post article on Michael Phelps both referenced a Soviet area study on optimal athletic conditioning. A central tenet of the study is that an athlete’s optimal readiness requires “harmonious unity” of physical, psychic, technical, and tactical skills.[5] Athletic grace under pressure and professional stage presence are not innate gifts that only the lucky few have.  They are skills that seem effortless but have been cultivated with hard work over time.

Tools of the Trade

The central thesis of Acting Skills for Lawyers is that stage presence is a major benefit for attorneys in all practice areas.  It is achievable by anyone, including introverts, but requires work.  Each of the chapters presents actors’ tools of the trade within the framework of legal practice.  The author discusses tips and tricks for a variety of basic acting skills with practical exercises for each tactic. For example, in the section on speaking styles she discusses how to hold an audience’s attention with techniques such as rate of speech, inflection, pauses, and volume.  In the chapter on your physical presence, she outlines how what you do with your body when talking to colleagues, opposing counsel, or juries can either enhance or undercut what you are saying.  She also gives practical tips on conducting depositions, being an effective improvisor, using storytelling to craft compelling narratives, preparing witnesses, and delivering closing arguments.   She even tells you how to take a great head shot – hint – the “eyes are the secret weapon.”

Why Acting for Lawyers?

As I was looking at articles discussing acting skills for attorneys the following quote from Michael DeBlis, a trial lawyer who is a graduate from a prestigious acting conservatory, struck me as an apt argument for why attorneys should consider enhancing their professional toolbox with acting skills.

The ability to perform at a peak level night in and night out is a trait that great actors and great lawyers possess, and one that I deeply admire. To me, having a technique provides me with the artistic freedom to stand in front of the jury and build something that bears my imprint just like an artist stands in front of a blank canvass and creates an original painting. The only difference is that my tools are not a canvas, palette, paints, and brushes. Instead, they are my words. Nevertheless, my words are used to paint images in the minds of the jury in the same way that an artist breaks the whiteness of the canvas with a stroke of the brush not worrying so much if it is what he’s really after but instead discovering the painting in the act of painting itself.

While “Acting for Lawyers” might sound like a theater genre, in reality it is designed to loosen up attorneys and prepare them for the practical uses of confident and effective communication in the courtroom, something that is severely lacking in courtrooms around the country today.[6]

Learn More at KCLL

I encourage you to check out Acting for Lawyers in our Lexis Digital eBook database.  Along that same vein, you may also be interested in the following titles:

  • Jonathan Shapiro, Lawyers, Liars, and the Art of Storytelling: Using Stories to Advocate, Influence, and Persuade
  • John S. Worden, From the Trenches: Strategies and Tips From 21 of the Nation’s Top Trial Lawyers
  • Frederic Block, Crimes and Punishments: Entering the Mind of a Sentencing Judge

If you would like help accessing these titles or any other titles in our collection, please contact us at  Information on becoming a subscriber with remote access to the Lexis Digital eBook collection and many other benefits can be found here.

[1] See James Gorman, Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da, Amygdala: Word as Earworm, (Jan 11, 2005)

[2] See Laura Mathis, Acting Skills for Lawyers, pg 29-30 (ABA Publishing 2012)

[3] See Adam Hadhazy, What Makes Michael Phelps So Good?, Scientific American (August 18, 2008)

[4] See Sally Jenkins, How Michael Phelps Learned to Make the Right Calls, Washington Post (May 28, 2023)

[5] See Leo Pavlovic Matveyev, Fundamentals of Sports Training (Progress Publishers Moscow, 1981)

[6] Michael DeBlis, Why Acting for Lawyers?, Medium (Oct 22, 2017)