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Professional actors don’t just play witnesses on TV � they play them in real trials. In an attempt to connect more effectively with juries, a number of attorneys are using professional actors to portray people who were deposed, but who are out of subpoena range and whom lawyers could not � or preferred not to � bring into court. Reading depositions used to be done by paralegals, secretaries, or associates, many of whom read nervously or in monotones, lawyers say. An actor can make a witness seem credible, confident, and authoritative � or not. There is no evidence of an appellate court formally objecting to this practice, but it is controversial. That’s because lawyers not only cast the talent � choosing someone attractive or repellent � but they also direct them in how to play the role. In 1992 Ian Harris founded an agency in Chicago, called Law Actors, that represents actors who work in courtrooms. He says that the group has specialized talent and that business is booming: “We’ve developed the expertise � we know who will work well in a courtroom situation.” In its brochure, Law Actors says it casts those who will provide “a winning courtroom performance using voice, tone, inflection, projection, articulation, and body language � subtle looks, gestures, and facial expressions.” But giving a “winning courtroom performance” does not mean that the actors always end up on the winning side. “I can’t say it’s outcome-determinative,” says Arthur Howe, a partner at Chicago’s Schopf & Weiss, a business litigation firm that has used Law Actors more than 20 times. “It’s a tool to be a more effective advocate.” Last December, Howe’s partner William Schopf used Law Actors with a mock jury before he tried Goss Int’l Corp. v. Tokyo Kikai Seisakusho Ltd. He went on to win a $32 million verdict in the case. “We always use actors with mock juries because we try and take our personalities out of the equation and just test the facts and arguments,” Schopf says. Harris says he has worked with more than 50 law firms and jury consultants, in Illinois, New York, Texas, Florida, and California. Fees run from $100 to $125 per hour. His actors have twice testified in criminal trials in place of witnesses who were in witness protection programs. “People expect a trial to be what they’ve seen in the movies and on TV,” Harris says. “We help bring it alive, make it understandable and conversational.” It’s also cost-effective. “Hiring them is a lot cheaper than hiring a lawyer for $300 an hour to read it,” Schopf says. Keeping jurors’ interest piqued has been a central theme of jury reform. In some courts, jurors are now allowed to question witnesses and even discuss a case while it’s unfolding. Using actors involves no change in the rules. Jurors are informed that the actors are surrogates. But jurors are generally not told that these are trained thespians, or what they get paid, say lawyers who have used them. Jurors are simply told that someone other than the witness is reading the testimony. In addition to trials and mock jury practices, Law Actors also provides actors for witness preparation, deposition training, and presentation skills. Last year, in winning an $18 million verdict (later reduced by the trial judge to $7.5 million), Lynn Murray of Chicago’s Grippo and Elden turned to Law Actors. The case was Republic Tobacco v. North Atlantic Trading Co. “We had to make those depositions come alive, since the witnesses’ credibility was key,” says Murray. That’s exactly why Kevin Mohr, an ethicist at Western State University College of Law, in Fullerton, California, thinks using actors could be misleading. “One of the main things a jury assesses is credibility,” says Mohr. “I’m not sure how you make the determination, [but] if an actor has been told to put emphasis here or there, it’s over the top.” William Simon, an ethicist at Columbia Law School, thinks lawyers should stay out of the casting business. “It’s a civil procedure problem…and only secondarily an ethics issue,” he says. Simon believes that deposition readers should, like the translators used in trials, be hired by the court. “I think it’s a mistake to allow partisans to do this,” he says. “The court should pick the reader.” Harris disagrees: “I don’t think that judges have the time to do this, nor do they have the expertise.”
A version of this story originally appeared in The National Law Journal, a sibling publication of Corporate Counsel.

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