While sitting in traffic court one day, waiting my turn to contest a ticket, I recall hearing a mirthful judge tell an overzealous young defender, “Just relax – this isn’t Perry Mason.”
Courtroom drama may indeed best be left to the likes of Andy Griffith and Raymond Burr. But for students at the Columbus School of Law in Washington D.C., a bit of play acting has become integral to their education.
The Columbus School of Law (also known as CUA Law) is the law school of The Catholic University of America. Established in 1897, its name comes from its ties to the world’s largest Catholic fraternal service organization – The Knights of Columbus. Along with a pioneering externship program, which allows students to pursue fieldwork each semester for credit, the school also maintains an on-campus legal clinic. The clinic is manned by second and third-year law students who, under the supervision of their lawyer/professors, provide legal services to people who could not otherwise afford to retain counsel.
Schooling the students for a career in jurisprudence is the job of the instructors at CUA Law. But readying them for a cornucopia of clientele is the charge for a handful of seasoned actors.
I have been lucky over the past six years to be one of those actors, working with the students on their interviewing skills. In that time, I have shouted and simpered, feigned and flirted and wailed and wept my way through a dozen different scenarios. It may be a child custody case, a workman’s compensation claim, a wrongfully terminated employee or simply a neighborhood squabble. It is the students’ job to get the particulars from the fictional client. We actors are allowed to make getting said particulars as easy or as arduous as we wish.
Over the years, I and my fellow players have fashioned almost every situation imaginable: Cross-dressers and same-sex couples. An interloper who knows it all. A woman accompanied by her autistic brother. An angry witness who storms out the door. There are always a basic set of facts with each scenario, such as dates, locations and the names of offending parties and friendly witnesses. Tangential storylines are often included. These help to ascertain the student lawyer’s ability to keep not only the client but also the case at hand on track.
The interviews are conducted in an office setting between one or two student lawyers and an actor/client. A professor is present in the room, as are several other students, all making notes on the pros and cons of the interview which is taking place. Each interview is timed and, depending on the case, may run from fifteen to forty-five minutes. When the time has expired, or when the interview is complete – whichever comes first – the professor and the other students evaluate the student lawyer’s performance. The actors also weigh in, answering various questions about their comfort level with the young counselors and offering advice for ways the students might improve their skills.
There are two to three mock interview sessions each day with the students taking turns being the attorney or an observer. Because of the size of the class, which ranges anywhere from 15 – 20 students each semester, interviews are conducted simultaneously in three to four offices. Between sessions, the professors and students gather in a central conference room to discuss the preceding exercise and glean what they can from the observations of their classmates and teachers.
For most of the students, the interview classes are the final such training before they start working with actual clients. It’s an elective but one many students eagerly embrace; enough so that they are willing to give up their prized Saturdays off.
The CUA Law legal clinic has been in operation for more than 40 years and in that time, it always has offered some kind of workshop or class to help the students become better prepared for meeting with clients. But it has only been using actors for the past seven years, during which time both instructors and students have become enthusiastic advocates of this method of teaching.
Faith Mullen, a clinical assistant professor at the Columbus School of Law, remembers the problems the school encountered before turning to actors for the mock interviews.
“We used to have students conduct the interviews with their classmates, but it was hard for most pupils to quickly master a role play character,” Mullen said. ”For many, it felt burdensome to get into a character. Plus, students said it was difficult to suspend disbelief when they knew the friend they were interviewing was not a homeowner about to lose his house nor was it some woman involved in a child custody dispute.”
Mullen also noted that using actors allows for a fairly standardized experience from class to class; something which wasn’t possible using the previous method.
Mullen said the feedback has been positive. “Post-class evaluations always mention how good it was working with the actors. The students really do love it. Many are surprised by the challenge of doing the simulated interviews but even more surprised how self-prepared they are when they start working with their first real clients. They find they are more at ease because of the experience of working with the actors.”
Omolayo Adeybayo, a third-year student, echoed some of the points professor Mullen made, while adding a few insights from her own experience. “When you are paired (with another student) for a case, you will talk with your partner about how to prepare. Sometimes you do it in your head. How to form your questions. What terminology is best to use. You try to do this from the client’s perspective. The classes with actors are helpful because fellow students are all familiar faces. Not as real to think of them outside of the school setting. The actors have helped me learn the value of asking good questions which (in turn) has helped me to be better prepared.”
Other students offered similar thoughts when asked to evaluate their experience. Stephanie Martin said, “I’ve learned how important silence in the room is to allow clients to think through their options.”
Karey Hart added, “I’ve learned not to be afraid to ask the hard and uncomfortable questions.”
Finding a comfort zone with a new client isn’t always an easy thing, but it’s something the graduates from CUA Law are better primed for than most. Mullen is pleased with her stable of actors and the challenges they present to the students. And she is usually confident enough with her thespians to give them a case and just let them go. For this actor, she only has one set direction:
“You may cry, but don’t make the students cry too.”