Suspend your disbelief. That’s the first thing constitutional law expert Donald Scarinci tells the room of attorneys gathered at the New Jersey Law Center for a recent continuing legal education (CLE) seminar.
A few moments later, the two speakers sweep into the room. They are dressed in waistcoats, knee breeches and stockings, hair held back by ribbon at the napes of their necks. They greet each other with the congeniality of old friends—friends who have been through good and bad times, through the founding of a nation.
This is “John Adams, Thomas Jefferson and the American Dialogue.” Presented for the first time in July 2015, it is part of the popular form of ‘historic interpreter’ CLE seminars from the New Jersey Institute for Continuing Legal Education (NJICLE). The seminars feature actors in historic roles delivering first-person performances. Scarinci, a partner at Scarinci Hollenbeck, often serves as moderator.
In the last three years, NJICLE—the educational arm of the New Jersey State Bar Association—has presented a number of ripped-from-the-history-books luminaries, including Jefferson, Adams, Benjamin Franklin, John Marshall, James Madison and Theodore Roosevelt. On Feb. 16, Eleanor and Franklin Roosevelt will make their first trip to the Law Center for “Eleanor, Franklin and the Re-thinking of America.”
“We don’t need to make educational seminars tedious and boring,” said Scarinci. “They can be entertaining, alive and fun.”
Scarinci said NJICLE staff approached him with the historic interpreter idea in 2015. He took to it immediately. “I love doing these things,” he said, noting he puts countless hours into creating the materials that accompany the programs and then rehearsing with the actors. “I give it the focus to be meaningful and instructive for lawyers.”
Often, history reveals patterns, themes and parallels to modern-day conflicts, Scarinci said. The programs also allow attorneys to gain insight into legal theory, ideas like strict constructionism and minimalism, and how they have been interpreted since America’s earliest days.
“Instead of just reading about it in a judicial review, they’re hearing the actual debate that went into Marbury v. Madison…it gives their understanding of the law a greater depth,” Scarinci said. “When they have a deeper understanding of the law, they can apply that in their handling of everyday cases.”
The seminars have become so popular that Scarinci and the actors have been invited to present CLE programs in other states. “We’ve taken the show on the road,” he said.
Steven Edenbo is the Philadelphia actor who has played Thomas Jefferson in all of the NJICLE programs that have featured that founding father. In fact, that’s all Edenbo does; he travels the country playing Thomas Jefferson full time.
Working through the nonprofit American Historical Theatre, Edenbo has performed before a wide array of audiences, from middle-school students to visitors at historical sites to leadership presentations for corporate clients.
After 18 years of playing Jefferson, he says, he’s learned that while specific content may vary, the same rules apply for all presentations, whether the audience members are eighth-graders, judges or lawyers: You can’t tell people why they are supposed to care. You have to show them, to make the historical figures real and human.
“If we do our job, if we succeed, I hope they walk out with a feeling not only that these guys and women who are giants to us, these titans and sometimes villains, they’re humans…If we do it right, they’re no longer statues, they become colleagues,” he said.
For more information on the Feb. 16 Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt program, visit http://bit.ly/RooseveltsNJICLE.