Wet. Ocean. Fish. Dolphin.

Faster and faster, the words flew around the classroom, each student adding another to the chain.

Green. Algae. Plankton. Whales.

The law students involved in the game are enrolled in a UW School of Law trial advocacy class taught by William Bailey, UW Law’s director of trial advocacy and professor from practice. The word-association drill, known as “Word Ball,” is part of an innovative, two-hour classroom exploration of improvisational techniques.

“Lawyers are a buttoned-down crowd,” Bailey said. “As a group, lawyers are not that well-spoken. In addition, they are generally risk averse. They don’t like to go too far out on a limb and do something foolish.”

UW is one of the nation’s first law schools to bring improvisational skills and persuasive storytelling into the classroom — important tools for teaching law students to advocate effectively for future clients.

Word Ball, for example, accomplishes two things: illustrating how individuals’ reactions to specific words vary; and fostering creative skills, flexibility and tools for collaboration.

I found that improv helped me be there in the moment and to think quickly on my feet.

Andrea Robertson

“The majority of law schools follow a more orthodox approach,” Bailey said. “No other schools are doing it quite like this. We’re ahead of the curve.”

Andrea Robertson, a Seattle criminal defense attorney, UW Law alumna, and owner and partner of Robertson Law, has been working in improv since 2003. She knows the many benefits it offers to trial lawyers.

“In law school, you’re taught to be prepared,” said Robertson, also an actor and teacher. “But in a trial, preparation only gets you so far.

“In the heat of the trial, you have to multitask: You’re watching the judge, you’re scoping out the jury, you’re gauging what’s going on. I found that improv helped me be there in the moment and to think quickly on my feet.”

Telling a compelling story

In the class, Robertson demonstrated how an effective storyteller can alter a listener’s perception by choosing to include one fact or word over another.

“The jury will usually go with the most compelling story,” she said. “You’ve got to get — and then hold — an audience’s interest. And, just as importantly, you have to know when you’ve lost them.”

The key component in any kind of storytelling is narrative arc. A successful story arc comprises the events that contribute to the tale — the peaks and valleys that set the pace.

“The arc has to include an energetic and powerful opening,” Robertson said. “You also have to close well and not fizzle out.”

“Improv is all about teamwork,” said Ron Hippe, an actor, producer, emcee and auctioneer who led the Word Ball exercise. “It’s about navigating the world in the moment without a script. That’s such an important skill. In the courtroom, lawyers are narrating a story. They’re building character and describing a location. Their job is to convince people it’s true.”

Bailey was inspired to delve further into communication skills for lawyers about 20 years ago. His “aha!” moment came when he was on jury duty.

“That was the first time I realized that lawyers are boring,” he said. “I wanted to figure out what makes a good communicator. How can we improve storytelling within a legal context?”

His research into topics such as behavioral psychology and political communications convinced him law students could benefit by embracing the same core elements that work for actors and storytellers: plot, character, theme, dialogue.

In the courtroom, lawyers are narrating a story. They’re building character and describing a location. Their job is to convince people it’s true.

Ron Hippe

Recently UW Law took the idea of communication for lawyers one step further. In 2017, with the support of Associate Dean of Experiential Education Christine Cimini, Bailey and Judith Shahn, a retired UW drama professor, collaborated to develop a class on persuasive oral communications.

Drawing on her background and training, Shahn brings a firm understanding of the power of words, the importance of timing and the well-placed gesture. Her class has become so popular that it fills up almost immediately.

Persuasive writing

Becoming an effective storyteller is not just about the spoken word. It comprises written communications as well.

That’s where UW Law Professor Helen Anderson comes in. Anderson, who specializes in legal research and writing, teaches a persuasive writing class at UW Law.

“A lawyer is really a professional writer, and there are some amazing legal writers out there,” she said. “Unlike what you see on TV, many legal decisions, from motions to briefs, are decided based on written arguments. That’s why clear and precise writing skills are so critical for lawyers.

“And it’s not just in litigation. Being a careful, accurate and effective writer has an impact in so many ways, from writing emails to negotiating for clients.”

Anderson believes that good narrative skills are central to the practice of law.

“The facts are not just sitting there, cast in concrete,” she said. “There is more than one way to present a case. Lawyers must determine the best way to tell a story to benefit their client and then get the jury to be sympathetic to their client’s case.”

In a classroom exercise dealing with a car accident, Anderson gives her students a set of facts that are not in any particular order. Students first use the details to write about the person injured, then use the same set of facts to represent the driver.

The facts are not just sitting there, cast in concrete; there is more than one way to present a case.

Helen Anderson

“They are always surprised to learn the amount of leeway they have,” Anderson explained. “They don’t realize how malleable the law is and how much room there is to argue.”

Her students write in every class, going through several drafts on each assignment. As in any writing class, the emphasis is on organization, clear presentation of thesis and word choice.

“Students submit their assignments online, I choose a few and we look at them in class, parsing out what is successful and what is not,” Anderson said. “This helps the students get used to peer reviews, critiques and rewrites. There’s a lot of writing and re-writing in law, and I tell my students not to wait until the night before to prepare their briefs.”

Whether oral or written, effective storytelling pays big dividends after graduation. 

“Lawyers have told me that new law graduates are far too timid around argument,” Anderson said. “They look at legal precedent and immediately think, ‘We’re going to lose.’ But a well-conceived story can push precedent and cases can be won. Precise communication is the key.”