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Making the Law a Laughing Matter

July 03, 2018

group of students standing in a room and shaking hands
Students participating in improv games during K.M. Zouhary’s Public Persuasion class.

By Ines Bellina

A lawyer, a professor, and an improviser walk into a bar — and they’re all the same person. In fact, Northwestern Pritzker School of Law has several faculty members who play all three roles. Before ever appearing in a court of law, Professors Jason C. DeSanto, K.M. Zouhary, and Stephen Reed had all gotten comfortable commanding the stage as improv players.

Improv comedy, which originated in Chicago and is still integral to the city’s culture, launched the careers of comedians like Tina Fey and Steve Carell, and it had a similar impact on all three professors, albeit in a slightly less hilarious field. DeSanto, who teaches courses on law and public advocacy, is a political satirist and commentator on Chicago radio and a graduate of the Second City Conservatory. Zouhary, another Second City alum, uses the skills she honed as a performer in New York’s Peoples Improv Theater and Magnet Theater in her Public Persuasion class. Reed, the Assistant Director of the Donald Pritzker Entrepreneurship Law Center, was a founding member of Princeton University’s improv troupe Quipfire! and trained at the Groundlings in LA. Since moving to Chicago, he’s performed with different house teams at the iO Theater.

For these professors, improv goes beyond a fun hobby. They consider it an integral part of their legal and academic careers. “Improv and theater are naturally collaborative,” says Zouhary. “What people don’t tend to realize is that the key to practicing law is communicating with a client and understanding them in such a way that it allows you to build a case together.” Zouhary likes to use improv games in her courses to teach students the importance of mindfulness, successful interview techniques, and better communication skills. In one recent Public Persuasion class, Zouhary began the lecture by asking her 15 MSL students to walk around the room, make eye contact with a fellow student, and maintain that eye contact for five seconds (or, as many might describe it, an eternity). Another exercise involved repeating the word “you,” but with different emotions — overjoyed, angry, and disgusted. Though students burst into fits of giggles over the silliness of it all, Zouhary also made them take note of their body language, their state of mind and their overall presence.

Presence is also an important factor in DeSanto’s Advanced Public Persuasion course. Though he doesn’t use improv games, he emphasizes that “for presentations, it’s important to be present.” That means “thinking hard about what it is you really believe in that moment and thinking hard about what your commitment level is to the other people in the room at that moment,” he says. DeSanto draws on his improv experience in his areas of legal expertise: public advocacy and First Amendment law. They both require passion, generosity, and — a scarce skill among lawyers, he jokes — listening. “Listening is crucial for your ability to connect with people in a way that comes naturally,” says DeSanto.

Reed agrees. His comedy background has helped make topics like business acquisition and entrepreneurship accessible to students who may find the subject matter overwhelming. “Improv helps you to be good on your feet, be good at listening. I can really hear what the students are talking about and what their concerns are.”

Unlike her colleagues who pursued improv before heading to law school, Professor Dana Hill sought it out specifically to help her legal career. During a training program as an associate lawyer, Hill had the chance to work with a speech coach who suggested taking improv classes. “I was very comfortable giving prepared speeches but less comfortable speaking extemporaneously,” says Hill. After a six-week improv course, though, she felt more confident about her own public speaking skills. “It just made me feel more confident. It made me feel that it was ok to take a break to collect my thoughts but also, that if I did start speaking, my thoughts would come out in a coherent way.”

Hill is aware that many of her first-year students might share the same challenges and has adapted a few classic improv exercises to help them prepare for the Arlyn Miner Moot Court. For example, in one classroom activity, students are divided into two teams and asked to stand in front of the podium. The first student in line starts stating the facts of the case until they are signaled to stop. The next student then has to continue the arguments wherever the other person left off. “It’s helpful for the students because it’s a very low-stakes situation and it’s about material they’re familiar with,” says Hill. “It proves to them that they can in fact do this.”

The approach of these professors has been such a hit among students that other faculty members have decided to follow their lead. Leonard Riskin, the Harris H. Agnew Visiting Professor of Dispute Resolution, was inspired to take classes at Second City after collaborating with Zouhary in his Advanced Dispute Resolution Seminar. “I wanted to develop my skills at improv and at introducing it in my work. It enhances the students’ understanding of negotiation,” he says. 

According to these professors, there are several improv skills that can help you become a better lawyer:

  • Yes, and. One of the basic tenets of improv is “yes, and,” or the idea that a performer should accept what another team member has said and then expand on it. “‘Yes, and’ is about collaboration,” says DeSanto. “Connecting with people is the key to inspiring others and being able to work together. You have to be able to connect before you can lead.” Zouhary adds that it teaches “the power of affirming the opposite side’s demands without agreeing with it 100%. It allows you to see the possibility in an argument in a way that lets you be open to hearing it. From there, you can build and move forward with a negotiation.”
  • Thinking on your feet. The law may require methodical thinking and a knack for long-term strategy, but there are situations that demand quick decisions. Improv “helps you to be in the moment,” says Reed. “You take joy in things as they’re happening and you’re reacting to them as they happen, in a very honest and open way.” 
  • Creative problem-solving. “One thing improv teaches you is to be open to all possibilities,” says Reed. “I’m a typical lawyer in that I tend to think within the rules. Improv forces me to be creative beyond that.” Zouhary agrees, explaining that one of the main objectives of her course is to shift the minds of law students whose adherence to the rules may stifle their ability to find innovative solutions.
  • Stress management. “Imagine trying to be funny in front of a room of people who are expecting you to be funny,” says Zouhary. “Once you have that heat, you can use it to speak in front of a court.” Plus, it’s a chance to take a break from daily life, play pretend, and get a few good laughs. “I would recommend lawyers, or anyone who’s in a position of influence, to take improv,” says DeSanto. “Or do something that allows you to focus on what can be created when you least expect it.”