Learning Improv Can Help Lawyers by Zarina Hora

When I first started taking improv classes over five years ago, I had no idea how it would change me. I love surprises and improv continues to give me little, cherished gifts that pop up out of the blue.  I knew that improv would give me a new skill, but not a new community. I knew that I would be pretending to be other people, but didn’t realize that in doing that, I’d learn how to be myself. Oh! I could write a 2000 word essay on how it has changed me as a person, and how it can change you. But for the sake of brevity, I will be focusing on how it helped with my career as an attorney.  Like so many of the other benefits of doing improv comedy, improving my professional skills through improv was an unanticipated but welcomed gift.



It will Make you a Better Speaker

The number 1 fear of people is public speaking. Now imagine, speaking when you haven’t learned a script, memorized a speech or even know what you will be speaking about until you are on stage. That’s what improv is. And that has carried over to the courtroom. I find myself better able to respond to unanticipated questions from the judge or arguments from my opposing counsel that I was not prepared for. I am able to think quicker on my feet and all of this has made me a much better litigator.


With improv, you will learn that if you plan, premeditate and have too much of an agenda, your scene will not go over well. How do you learn not to anticipate? You have to be present, young grasshopper.  Learning to be in the moment has helped me respond thoroughly, genuinely and organically in the courtroom- often resulting in a thoughtful response that people find persuasive.


It will Make you a Better Listener.

One of the skills that you learn in improv is to listen to your scene partners. If you listen well, you will be able to respond with an observation that heightens the scene and can lead to hilarity. The better you listen, the better you will improvise.

Lawyers love to hear themselves speak. It’s irritating. I have heard lawyers yell over each other in the courtroom and are constantly focusing on what they want to say.  But by learning how to listen better, I hear the arguments my opponent is spouting as opposed to just thinking about my response. Ironically,  by listening better, I am able to poke holes in their argument or come up with a compromise that works in all parties favor.


It will Make you a Better Networker

Whether you are interviewing for a new job, or have to wine and dine business executives on a regular basis- Improv can help. First, as above, improv can make you a better listener which makes you likeable. It also can make you funnier, witty  and more entertaining. All things that make you likeable. And Let’s be honest since most lawyer jokes end up with the lawyer being dead- we could use all the help we can get in the likeability department. Now, don’t get me wrong, people still don’t like me, but I’d like to think improv has made me a little more tolerable to others.


It also gives you something to talk about other than law. People hate “talking shop”- even at professional events.  Lawyers are notorious for not having balance. Pity the person that is at a job interview and can’t come up with an answer to “What are your hobbies?”  Unlike your children (people really don’t want to hear about your kids. No really. Just stop talking about them) or the weather,  it sparks an interesting,  honest conversation that isn’t mundane or ordinary. It’s the antithesis to small talk.  Most people don’t know what  improv comedy even is so they will ask follow up questions: “So you mean, you do stand up?” And then you have to explain (for the umpteenth time) that, no, improv is not the same thing as stand up..and voila! You are now great at engaging others in interesting conversation. Improv sets you apart  and makes you memorable because it is such a unique hobby.  I wouldn’t suggest going into improv just to become less dull- but it was one of the surprising consequences I  soon realized when I told people I perform improv in my spare time.


It’s truly a Team Sport

Lawyers aren’t exactly known for being laid back. We probably had messed up childhoods where we learned to equate love with achievement and thus, we are competitive. When you become a lawyer, you are constantly trying to “win” an argument, motion, or trial.  Improv gives you a break from all that competition in a way that sports and even theatre could never do for me.

With musical theatre, you have to audition with others, get rejected, and  Ms. Dune always gives the lead to Lauren Torres anyways so what’s the point of even auditioning? Oh, sorry….that was my highschool experience.  But with improv- there is none of that competitive stuff. To become good at improv, you actually have to play as a team. In fact, those that constantly try to “have their  moment” often don’t do well at improv. As I have honed my improv skills, I have learned to play and work  better  with others-  both on and off the stage!

You never know what your role is going to be until you are in a scene and you all work together. There are no solos. No stars. And No leads. Sometimes, you have to support others taking center stage and other times, you have to take the reigns and drive the scene. It changes by the moment and I think that’s what I love about it.



It Will Help You Take Risks and Fail

You essentially fail almost every time you do an improv scene in one way or another. You can’t think of what to say, you don’t listen to your partner, or you make a joke that lands flat.

But the more you fail in improv, the better you get. And when you catch your fails on stage while performing and call it out,  it turns into a joke. Everyone laughs. You feel great. And you are  ready to fail again! I failed so much that I can honestly say I am not afraid to fail in other areas of my life.

By learning how to take risks and fail with improv, I started taking more risks with my career. And yes, sometimes I failed. Fail. Try again. Fail. Fail. Succeed. Try something else. Fail. Fail. Succeed. That’s my trajectory these days. Recently,  the willingness to fail has actually led me to have the courage to leave a very secure job and start my own firm because I saw the potential.  I thought, “What’s the worst that can happen?  My colleagues and associates will laugh at me!” …um, I pretended to be a broom with a hangover at improv class, last week. I can handle people laughing. Well, turns out that scary risk ended up being the best decision I have made in my life. In part, I think years of improv beforehand made me more comfortable with failing and trying something new.