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The University of Pittsburgh's Daily Student Newspaper

The Pitt News

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An attendee speaks during the “Be a Good Neighbor” Town Hall in the William Pitt Union on Thursday evening.
Panel discusses renters’ rights, red flags to look out for
By Marissa Kelley, Staff Writer • 12:08 am

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An attendee speaks during the “Be a Good Neighbor” Town Hall in the William Pitt Union on Thursday evening.
Panel discusses renters’ rights, red flags to look out for
By Marissa Kelley, Staff Writer • 12:08 am

Applied Improv for Lawyers course takes novel approach to teaching future lawyers

The+Barco+Law+Building+at+the+University+of+Pittsburgh.
TPN File Photo
The Barco Law Building at the University of Pittsburgh.

Third-year law student Emma Ryan felt excited to take Applied Improv for Lawyers with Professor Ben Bratman after hearing it would combine her passion for theatre with her goal of becoming a lawyer. 

“The skills related to theatre and lawyering have a surprising amount of crossover,” Ryan said. “I was excited to try a new, interactive class that could be both fun and challenging that integrated another interest of mine.”

Bratman currently teaches 19 students in his Applied Improv for Lawyers class at Pitt’s law school. The class is structured in two ways — either a circular discussion or “on your feet” exercises, which consist of different improv scenarios. Bratman said he begins each class with warm-up exercises that focus on active listening, eye contact and paying attention to non-verbal communication. He conducts these exercises in either a large or small group of students. 

“Just like the improv performer who goes onto the stage alone to start a scene gets support from a teammate who comes out soon after to join the scene, each of my students who steps out in an exercise needs and gets support from their classmates,” Bratman said.

Bratman decided to create the Applied Improv for Lawyers class after noticing the connection between improv comedy and lawyering. Bratman said he is a fan of improv comedy because humor develops “organically” from scenes made up on the spot.

“Five years ago, I read a bit about the concept of ‘applied improv,’ the idea that techniques used by improv performers could be harnessed to help people in applied settings,” Bratman said. “Not with a goal of doing a performance on stage or being funny, but rather with a goal of becoming more confident and comfortable with themselves, in relations with others, and in their work.”

Bratman began taking improv courses in 2018 and quickly realized that he could use what he learned to both improve his performance as a professor and help students prepare for the demands of the law field.

“I became a much more confident, more relaxed and better teacher,” Bratman said. “I decided I wanted to try to help law students get that same benefit as future lawyers. I think this is especially important when we consider the very stressful, high-pressure environment that prevails in much of the legal profession and in the more traditional law school classroom.”

Ryan said taking the Applied Improv for Lawyers course requires students to be “incredibly vulnerable” and taught her the importance of resilience.

“I’ve gotten to bond with students that I haven’t necessarily interacted with in the past,” Ryan said. “Professor Bratman has created a safe space to test your lawyering skills as long as you are willing to fall flat on your face in the process.”

Bratman said because a career as a lawyer requires the ability to work well with people, his class is not about studying or learning law, but about “learning and practicing core lawyering skills and growing as a professional.”

“[Lawyers] represent and help clients in much the same way that doctors treat patients,” Bratman said. “As a result, like doctors, [lawyers] need what are sometimes called the soft skills, but that I prefer to call human skills. These are all the communication skills apart from writing, which is separately important.”

The syllabus for the Applied Improv for Lawyers class lists important communication skills for lawyers. These include listening, empathy, mindful presence and awareness of status, confidence and authenticity in verbal and nonverbal communication, adaptability, resiliency and collaboration with others.

Jayme Tocci, a third-year law student, said he decided to take the course to improve his public speaking skills before entering the law field.

“I am not an especially talented public speaker, and I tend to get very anxious in social settings,” Tocci said. “Every class I am challenged to not be preoccupied with my anxiety and to really focus on the topic at hand. Working alongside classmates who are just as willing to buy into the concept makes [the class] a really provocative, growth-inducing experience for me.”

Bratman said utilizing hands-on exercises during class makes practicing law skills less stressful for students. 

“I am creating a low-stakes environment where students can practice and develop these various skills without the pressures and stresses that exist in a traditional law school classroom,” Bratman said. “And it’s fun. Students are laughing and smiling frequently during class. Humor happens organically, but it’s not the goal.”

Tocci said he appreciates how each class is opened with warm-up improv games because it helps calm nerves and allows people to be “a little more themselves.” He said he believes the class will improve his conversation skills and ability to adapt to unexpected circumstances.

“It is improving my overall ability to have measured, productive discussions with others, which will someday be my clients,” Tocci said. “The ability to improvise and not be thrown off by surprise elements or comments will also be useful, considering how much of being a lawyer is fact-gathering and public speaking.”

Bratman said he receives largely positive feedback on the course.

“Reactions are all anecdotal and informal so far, but everyone participates and seems to be enjoying themselves and benefitting,” Bratman said. “I’ve had no complaints. I also hear second hand from our dean of students, who has the pulse of the student body, that my students are loving the course.”

About the Contributor
Anna Kuntz, Staff Writer