John Windmueller, PhD: Why improv skills can be a game-changer for attorneys

“Don’t ask questions that you don’t know the answer to.” 

That’s the advice law students are often given for their trial work, and it makes sense: prepare well and control what you can in the courtroom. But at the same time, attorneys often find themselves in high-stakes discussions and negotiations that are beyond their full control. Along with their knowledge of the law, they need the ability to listen fully, engage and persuade, read the room, adapt, and creatively solve problems in the midst of uncertainty and change. 

These are core competencies for attorneys, and I’ve found improv to be one of the most effective (and enjoyable!) ways to build these skills. Here’s why… 

Every night improvisers hit the stage, they engage and delight audiences entirely without a script. It’s opening and closing night, all at once. Yet despite the impromptu nature of improv, improvisers still rehearse every week, using improv principles and games to build skills in communication, collaboration, and creativity–core competencies equally critical to effective work off the stage as well. 

When I first enrolled in an improv course, I was a college professor pursuing a fun new hobby. And yet, after my first improv class, I found myself the very next day stealing (with credit) improv exercises to use in a course training participants to become court mediators. Over time, I gradually found myself using improv exercises more and more often in my graduate classes and professional training. 

The reasons why? Because:

  • Improv’s core competencies–communication, collaboration, and creativity–align so closely with the competencies and soft skills that are vital in professional negotiation and dispute resolution work. 
  • Improv offers unique and effective principles for doing constructive work in the midst of off-the-cuff, unpredictable, high-stakes situations. 
  • Improv exercises do a wonderful job of isolating specific skills and allowing participants to rehearse and improve in those areas. 
  • Improv is fun. There is laughter in improv (but not because anyone is put on the spot to be funny or made the target of a joke). And laughter works—by that, I mean the laughter and fun of improv engages participants and makes the learning and “aha!” moments more memorable, ultimately making the lessons more likely to stick. Also, fun is fun.  

So on the question, “Is improv a good fit for attorneys?” I do know the answer in advance: Yes. If you’d like to see it for yourself, here are some options:

1. Bring WIT to your firm to foster professional development. Our Improv for Attorneys workshop uses improv-based principles and exercises to help attorneys better engage with clients and colleagues, to negotiate effectively and creatively, and to present and persuade successfully. Workshops can be hosted in-person at your site or online. Email john@witdc.org to arrange a session.

2. Let us organize an event for your Summer Associates. Improv can be a wonderful way for your summer associates to bond and get connected to the city while having fun and building skills along the way. We can host an event at your site, here at the theater, or online. Email john@witdc.org to arrange a session.

3. Dip a toe in with an upcoming virtual class. We’re offering a one-hour workshop How Improv Can Make You a Better Attorney workshop on March 3, 4-5 PM. Sign up for a taste of some of improv’s key skills.

 

WIT@Work Director John Windmueller has led applied improvisation trainings for multiple law firms as well as Fortune 500 companies and government agencies. He holds a PhD in Conflict Analysis & Resolution from the Carter School and has over twenty years of experience teaching graduate courses in communication, negotiation, and dispute resolution.

Published:
February 9, 2022
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