Improv for First-Year Law Students?

Just over a year ago, in search of a mid-life growth opportunity, I began taking improv (i.e., improvisational performance) classes at a small theater in Pittsburgh. For decades, I had been a fan of improv as a comedy form but did not have the confidence to think that I could step on a stage and do it myself. Then I happened upon Alan Alda’s book, If I Understood You, Would I Have This Look on my Face? Post his acting career, Alda has become a communications consultant of sorts, working primarily with scientists to help them explain complex ideas in ways that a lay audience can understand. One of the central messages of the book is that improv training and exercises can help professionals of all types relate to others more empathetically and communicate with others more confidently and clearly. Alda references studies showing the benefits of improv training and describes his own experiences running improv exercises for groups of engineers and other scientists.

After reading Alda’s book, I realized that my job as a law professor is to communicate complex ideas to a lay audience too. So, I decided that I could benefit from improv classes—and have some fun at the same time.

My improv experiences over the past year, including joining a team and performing numerous short sets before a live audience, have convinced me that, in short, legal education needs improv. More specifically, to improve the learning environment throughout law school, entering first-year law students need improv! (I could write a separate post on the salutary effects that improv training has had on my teaching, but I will focus for now on how exposure to improv could benefit law students.)

There are CLE courses on improv offered for practicing lawyers (for example, in California and Florida), and there is a blog on improvisational skills for lawyers. But how about improv for law students? Based on a cursory online search, it appears that a handful of law schools offer or have offered improv courses or workshops, including Drexel and Indiana University McKinney. How much improv work has been done with 1Ls, if any, is unclear.

The benefits of improv for law students seem most apparent in the context of skills or experiential courses involving oral communication. Indeed, I have begun using some limited improv exercises during oral argument lessons in my 1L legal writing course. No doubt faculty members at various law schools—Northwestern, for example—have used improv exercises in other skills courses. Thinking more broadly though, and extrapolating from studies discussed in Alda’s book, I believe that offering improv workshops to law students early in their law school careers could very well improve in-class performance and learning throughout law school.

Improv revolves heavily around a group or team dynamic. Someone on the team must initiate a scene by stepping out on stage and doing something, or saying something, or both. One or more of her teammates then must step out in support, accepting the reality established by whatever the first person did and adding to it to help build the scene. That is the essence of “yes, and,” the fundamental premise of improv. The priority in every scene is to make one’s scene mates look good and to never hang them out to dry.

A quick example: An improv teammate and I walk onto the stage. She purposefully walks to a corner of the stage where there is a chair, sits down, puts her head in her hands, sighs deeply, and then begins to sob. Since I have walked onto the stage too, I am the team member in this scene who must accept her established reality: she is distraught about something, and we are in a location where she has taken a seat. However, I must also add to that reality. There are myriad ways in which I could do so. I could, for example, walk over, put my hand on her shoulder, and attempt to comfort her by saying, “It’s alright, honey, I never really liked our BMW anyway, and the side of the house that you hit—we really don’t use it much anymore now that the kids are gone.” She in turn accepts the reality that I have created, and on it goes from there, each of us supporting the other as the scene develops.

I see multiple potential benefits for law students (and, in turn, their professors) that could come from some basic improv training with exercises, offered perhaps within an orientation program before classes begin. For starters, law students, like lawyers, need to work collaboratively and need to relate to each other in a civil and empathetic manner. Improv’s emphasis on teamwork can help in that regard, enhancing students’ abilities to work productively and constructively with classmates in group exercises and projects.

Then there is the classroom learning environment and the sometimes strained or unproductive exchanges that take place between professors and students. Consider the ways in which exposing students to improv could mitigate the impediments to learning existing in the following classroom scenarios, each of which should be familiar to most law professors:

  • Professor poses a question or discussion topic to the class and waits for a volunteer to raise a hand and respond. Nobody does. Or, in a similar scenario, professor calls on a specific student, and the student asks to pass (even though the student might very well have done the reading).
  • Professor poses a question to a specific student, and the student asks for the question to be repeated, or answers in a manner that is not directly responsive to the question.
  • Professor poses a question to a specific student, and the student couches his or her answer in the form of a question, not a statement, suggesting uncertainty and lack of confidence. (For example, in my Legislation & Regulation course, I might ask regarding a case, “Which of the three opinions—majority, concurrence, or dissent—seems to approach the statutory interpretation question most like a textualist would?” The student somewhat meekly responds, “Is it the dissent?”)
  • Professor poses a question that is not explicitly addressed in the reading for that class but rather concerns a hypothetical scenario or a thematic issue in the course that is implicated by the reading. In response, the student struggles to answer or fully engage with the question because, as some students are wont to say, “it wasn’t in the reading.”

These are usually not scenarios where the student is incapable of responding insightfully; rather, the student is just not confident enough to respond or too nervous to respond. Students who have done improv exercises involving initiating scenes and supporting teammates in scenes would naturally be less averse to speaking up in class and doing so in the form of confident and clear statements. They would also naturally be less averse to joining in a discussion after a classmate speaks up (akin to supporting one’s teammate). And they would naturally be more inclined to listen actively and carefully to the professor’s questions and their classmate’s statements. All of which is to say that each of the above scenarios might play out differently—with some robust student participation leading to more productive and constructive discussion. The final scenario in many ways gets to the heart of what improv is all about: going with the flow and accepting whatever comes your way. With exposure to improv, students would perchance be less phased by the question that, while technically not encompassed by the day’s reading, is still well within the scope of the course and their abilities.

In classroom discussion, students whose answers are “wrong” or whose contributions to discussion are somewhat off target tend to view the episode as an embarrassment and a reason not to ever answer a question in class again. I would expect that, with exposure to improv, students would be at least somewhat more inclined to view the episode as a learning experience, which is indeed how it should be viewed.

Posted on the wall of the green room at the theater where I take improv classes is a sign that reads “You Are Enough.” For any law student, improv can impart the message that, even though there will be struggles and mistakes along the way, you are indeed enough. I continue to get nervous before my improv team’s shows, and on more than a few occasions, I have said or done things on the improv stage that fell flat, did not effectively advance the scene, or otherwise just did not feel right. Yes, I get frustrated. But I keep confidently walking in front of the audience because that is how I will continue to learn and grow. So it should be for law students in the classroom, and ultimately in the practice of law, and in life.

2 Responses

  1. My colleague Olwyn Conway teaches a 1-credit improv course for 1Ls at Ohio State. It’s part of a new elective program we have for 1Ls. The 1Ls absolutely love it!

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