Volume 18 • Issue 31 | December 16 - 22, 2005

Downtown Express photo by Talisman Brolin

They may look like lawyers, but these are actors on a break from playing attorneys at New York Law School in Tribeca as part of a program to train attorneys.

Lawyers turn to the stage for help in the courtroom

By Albert Amateau

Maggie Polisi, a lawyer who is suing her former law firm and a partner in the firm charging sexual discrimination because she broke off an affair with the partner, went through some intense witness preparation and questioning by lawyers one weekend last month.

At the same time, Simon Clark, a law partner in Parker & Gould and Polisi’s former lover, was being prepared as a witness on the defendant’s side of the sexual discrimination suit that played out. at New York Law School in Tribeca

For anyone new to the action, it could have been confusing. There were actually 11 Maggie Polisis and 11 Simon Clarks, all actors with I.R.T., (Interborough Repertory Theater) a theater company based in the Village, which has been providing Maggies and Simons for the National Institute for Trial Advocacy for the past 12 years. The actors were taking part in a course at New York Law School, training lawyers — mostly recent graduates — in taking depositions from plaintiff’s and defendants in a civil case.

The course at New York Law involved giving lawyers a realistic experience of preparing their clients for depositions and taking depositions from the other side. Depositions, a record of sworn testimony used as evidence during a civil trial, is often more difficult to learn than trial work, Schatz said.

For many of the actors, it was like performing in a long-running play.

“I’ve been playing Maggie for 10 years,” said Kate Haggerty, an actress who has been in Off-Broadway, regional theater and national tours and who last year became director of the IRT PowerPlays, a training program for professional lawyers.

“We’ve been Simons and Maggies for N.I.T.A. courses at law offices like Sullivan & Cromwell in Lower Manhattan and at the New Jersey Attorney General’s Office in Trenton,” said Haggerty, who began acting with I.R.T. in 1995.

“I love the character of Simon,” said Paul Kawecki, whose career has included television soap operas, Off-Broadway and regional theater roles and has been playing Simon Clark for six years.

Instead of a play script, the actors learn their roles from casebooks, one for Simon and another for Maggie, which have all the facts and documents, pertaining to the lawsuit, and some personal information about the character. Maggie, for example, is a single mother and Simon has had other affairs with law firm associates. Their casebooks include things like e-mails, letters and copies of the law firm’s evaluation report.

Among the 80 students taking the course at N.Y. Law School in November were lawyers with three years experience, like Eric Whitaker, from New Orleans, whose law firm had recently returned to the city after the devastation of Katrina. He was in New York to hone his skills as a plaintiff’s lawyer in preparing his client (Maggie) for a deposition. He said the program felt-like a real life case.

Other student-lawyers appeared nervous as they questioned the witnesses.

Some of the students were lawyers with more experience, like Polly Gruenberg, a lawyer with 12 years experience, mostly in criminal practice, which usually does not involve depositions.

The course instructors direct the actors playing Maggie and Simon. “Sometimes we’re under control, but there are times when Maggie can get pretty emotional,” said Haggerty.

All the facts were invented by two Temple University Law School professors, Anthony J. Bocchino and David A. Sonenshein, 13 years ago for the N.I.T.A. course.

“Once you get the case under your belt, it’s fun,” said Michael Lewis, another actor who was playing Simon at the November New York Law School course. The casebook for Simon is 17 pages long and the casebook for Maggie has nearly 30 pages.

The actors must also improvise details of Simon’s and Maggie’s personal experience because they don’t know exactly what questions the lawyers taking the course will ask. “I use my own personal experience,” said Jonathan Fluck, a co-founder of I.R.T. who was one of the Simons at the November weekend course, “It’s more efficient than making something up.”

When N.I.T.A. gave the course for the first couple of years, the lawyers who were taking the course took turns playing Maggie and Simon. But the instructors felt that the “learn by doing” program needed more realism.

“A Hofstra law professor, Richard Neuman, one of the N.I.T.A. instructors, was also a member of our I.R.T. board of directors at the time and he suggested that we could find actors to play Maggies and Simons,” Fluck recalled. “We’ve been doing it ever since,” he added.

The theater company, based in the Archive Building, 153 Christopher St., was founded by Fluck and Luane Davis 18 years ago. In addition to the professional training program, I.R.T. produces standard plays performed in American Sign Language by deaf performers for deaf audiences, as well as children’s theater, and touring shows.

“The actors are indispensable to a good program,” said Philip Schatz, one of the law instructors in the N.I.T.A. course. “They allow people taking the course to concentrate on what they’re supposed to be doing. When we had students acting as plaintiffs and defendants, it was much less effective.” Schatz said.

There is an outside chance that Maggie, Simon and their lawyers will take their case before the public at large. “I was talking to David Sonenshein, one of the creators, and he mentioned that Bocchino said he was thinking of turning it into a film or television script,” Haggerty said.



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