Bratman holds his hands out to a student during a scene
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A new Pitt course is using improv to build more confident, empathetic lawyers

  • Teaching & Learning
  • School of Law

When describing a good lawyer, one word comes to mind for Ben Bratman.

“Preparation, preparation, preparation” — it’s a crucial part of the job whether you’re making an opening statement to a jury or sitting down with a client for the first time, according to the professor of legal writing.

But the assignments for Bratman’s new course in Pitt’s School of Law discourage any legal research, and no one in the room can prepare for what will happen next — not even him. Welcome to Applied Improv for Lawyers.

Each week, a quiet classroom in the Barco Law Building is transformed. Desks are pushed aside as 20 upper-year law students stand in a circle in the center of the wide room, their chairs mostly unused behind them. They pass energy — zipping, zapping, zopping — play games and act out short scenes. Everyone participates, including Bratman (and me).

It's the first rule on the course’s list of community practices: “Applied improv is not a spectator sport.” Bratman borrowed the tenet from Olwyn Conway, an Ohio State University professor who uses improvisation exercises to teach effective communication and human skills to first-year law students.

The two connected on a colleague’s recommendation after Bratman wrote a Best Legal Practices Education blog post about the potential of using improv training to help first-year law students be more empathetic and clearer communicators. Conway, a longtime improviser herself, was doing that work, so Bratman went to experience her class in Columbus.

“I participated with her students and her,” Bratman said, “And I knew after watching her do it that I wanted to create something like this.”

Following Conway’s lead, Bratman wants his students to build “human skills” like listening and nonverbal communication. The course is meant to be an escape from the high-pressure environment of the typical law classroom, providing a low-stakes place where students can make mistakes and learn from them.

“Improv is about preparation — it's about preparation to handle the unexpected,” Bratman said. “And lawyers need to be prepared to handle the unexpected. Not a finite, long list of every unexpected, specific thing that could happen. Believe me, there are law students and lawyers who would want to do that.”

Among the admitted “overpreparers” in the circle is third-year law student Nick Rossmiller, who along with his classes works for the employment law division of the Pittsburgh nonprofit Neighborhood Legal Services Association. Aware that his time in law school is nearing its end, he joined the class to gain confidence and experiential practice with soft skills like listening, eye contact and empathy.

“It’s time to not just focus on the law itself but who I am as a lawyer and how I want to present myself, who I want to be in the community,” Rossmiller said.

The exercises used to train improvisers are vast, so there’s usually a new game to play in every class. Students might practice quick responses as they build a story word by word, or line by line. Another game may have players construct a scene that justifies the odd position of two chairs on stage. Bratman’s personal favorite exercise involves two improvisers performing a gibberish scene as two others “translate” the lines for the audience — the results are often silly, but the game forces players to recognize body language and facial expressions as they craft the on-stage scene.

Taking a cue from other disciplines

The use of improv among medical, nursing and social work educators to help students build empathy and practice communicating with clients has also inspired objectives for the course. Lawyering is often a client-facing role, after all, Bratman points out.

It’s not the first time he’s integrated teaching tactics from other fields into his classroom. As coordinator of the first-year legal writing program, Bratman launched a program that brought standardized patients — people who are trained to simulate clinical encounters, providing students with hands-on experience — from Pitt’s School of Medicine into law classrooms.

Bratman’s also incorporating what he’s learned from his own extensive improv experience into the course. He’s been taking classes and performing at Pittsburgh improv theaters since 2018, when he joined a class for many of the same self-betterment reasons he’s heard others cite — self-confidence, listening skills and vulnerability, to name a few.

“I didn’t see myself becoming a performer. I wanted some sense that this was going to be a value added,” Bratman said. “And it turns out it very much was. It isn’t just about going and having fun and performing. It’s about so much more than that.”

As he became more comfortable on stage, Bratman found himself feeling more relaxed in the classroom, and a better professor because of it. That’s the feeling he hopes the course will instill in his students as they carry their skillsets into trials, negotiations and client meetings.

“Just a greater level of confidence and level of comfort with themselves,” is on his list of key takeaways. “And being OK with failure, being OK with being imperfect, being OK with making mistakes — and using them as opportunities to grow, because it's going to happen for all of us.”

One person can’t foster a safe environment alone. So, the community practices are explicit about mutual respect and support, a sentiment Bratman echoes during exercises in class. When the students hesitate to step into a scene, he reminds them: “Support each other.”

After only a few weeks of classes, Bratman says this part of the course is still in progress — being vulnerable is “really hard stuff” — but in class, students are progressing. Over the course of the first game of the class, stiff silence from a full day of studying and classes becomes joking and laughing, students stepping forward more readily in exercises and scenes and embracing the play inherent in improv. When Rossmiller looks around, he sees more than just future lawyers having fun.

“In the first classes, a lot of people were scared, and it was a little uncomfortable,” the law student said. “But we wanted to do it, of course. … This whole on-the-spot thing is difficult, but I’ve seen definite growth in my peers and myself.”


— Nora Smith, photography by Aimee Obidzinski