Theater and law school might not seem like a perfect fit, but one legal clinic is relying on a theatrical approach to teaching about attorney-client interviewing techniques.
Early in the school year, before University of Miami School of Law students ever see a client in the school’s Health Rights Clinic, they participate in an intense training exercise dubbed Forum Theater.
It involves students who’ve already worked in the clinic who assume roles in a play about an attorney-client intake interview. The actors play the roles of lawyer, client, translator or other helper, and a “joker” who facilitates the actor-audience collaboration. The incoming clinic students in the audience who want to change the story line can yell “stop” and replace an actor on stage when they see something gone awry for the “client” in the interaction.
“It’s a very safe space because it’s just their classmates,” said JoNel Newman, director of the Health Rights Clinic. “It helps them tremendously in recognizing the kinds of things lawyers do wrong or disrespectfully in interviews of clients.”
Melissa Swain, associate director of the Health Rights Clinic, said the lawyer in the play is doing the worst job possible—being oppressive, mean, disorganized and unethical toward the client. For example, the lawyer might violate confidentiality by having other client files open on the desk. He or she looks at and speaks to the translator rather than the actual client. The lawyer might not give the client the information he or she needs to make an informed decision, instead presenting the lawyer’s own paternalistic vision of the best choice.
“You have to watch it, go through one full time, even though you are laughing, chuckling and pulling your hair out,” Swain said. “Then when we run it through again, that’s when you have the empowering experience—you are able to say, ‘stop!’”
The joker calls on that audience member, who trades spots with an actor and uses his or her own voice and words to change the situation.
The exercise is based on the Boal Forum Theater method, created in the 1960s by Brazilian write and director Augusto Boal, who encouraged the audience to collaborate with actors by jumping on stage to participate in a play.
The idea to use it in law school originally came from a collaborative class project between two students—one from the Miami clinic, another from an exchange program with a law clinic at the University of Strathclyde in Glasgow, Scotland. Both law school clinics embraced the students’ idea and put it into practice.
Second-year law student Sara Ptachik went through her Forum Theater training in August just a few days before her first client interview. Ptachik yelled “stop” because the lawyer in the play was addressing the translator instead of the Spanish-speaking client. On stage, Ptachik fixed the problem by keeping eye contact with the client and asking her permission for the translator to stay in the interview.
Forum Theater was most helpful because it highlighted subtle things like listening better and being more compassionate to a client, she said.
“It definitely taught me to speak to my clients with more humanity,” Ptachik said. “There was no substitute for an exercise like that. If I had gone to my first interview without doing Forum Theater, I would have made some mistakes.”
Third-year student Josh Mandel, who played the joker in this year’s play, said that law students can endlessly read books about ethical and effective representation, but that it’s more useful to see it in action. He walked away with lessons last year after taking the training, and he even learned something this year while acting in the play.
“I was able to learn there are multiple ways of going about it the right way,” Mandel said.
So far, the Health Law Clinic has presented the Forum Theater training since 2015 to three classes of students—about 60 total. Now Newman and Swain, and their Scottish law clinic colleagues, are trying to spread the method to other legal educators by authoring a paper and making presentations at legal conferences and legal clinics.
“I think this is sort of a perfect serendipity with clinical legal education,” Newman said. “We are very focused on learning by doing. We are also very focused on trying to be empowering for clients—doing client-centered work. This methodology really opened my eyes to how you can teach that to a group in a group setting in a very revolutionary way.”
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