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Clinic students hone vital interpersonal skills during legal simulations with trained actors

December 22, 2021

Trained actors assist law students to practice their legal representation skills before jumping into real-world work.

Thanks largely to media portrayals in popular shows like “House” and “Seinfeld,” many people know that trained actors pose as ‘standardized patients’ to help medical students learn to become doctors. Lesser known is that 40 years ago, the University of Pennsylvania Carey Law School’s Gittis Center for Clinical Legal Studies (“Gittis Legal Clinics”) made the bold decision to adapt similar ideas to the legal classroom.

Today, actors portray a myriad of roles across almost all clinical courses, empowering students to develop vital interpersonal legal skills that help them grow into more effective and empathetic lawyers.

Philadelphia actor Julie Cauffman has portrayed roles in clinic simulations for approximately 30 years. To her, taking on these roles is more than just work — it’s a chance to help students become better, more empathetic lawyers.

“It’s not about the money; it’s about making a difference,” said Cauffman. “The Law School told me that this would make a difference in how the law would be presented to clients, and that attracted me more than anything else. As an attorney, you have to have a little more depth than just pressing for facts. That’s what the professors want to find: the whole attorney.”

Embracing technology

Douglas Frenkel, Morris Shuster Practice Professor of Law and Director of the Mediation Clinic, became the Gittis Legal Clinics Director in 1980. As Director, Frenkel focused his attention on building a program that prioritized honing students’ skills. At the time,  he used educational videos, wherein lawyers and professors role-played scenarios that could be watched, paused, and discussed in the classroom. Though the quality of these videos varied, Frenkel remembered being “struck by the power of the screen” as an educational tool.

Douglas Frenkel, Morris Shuster Practice Professor of Law As video recording technology became more widespread, Frenkel began implementing it in various stages throughout the clinical curriculum. Recording interactions between students and clients allowed supervisors to see and hear interactions without being in the room — and to Frenkel, this was invaluable.

“The beauty of the video is that you don’t have to just describe what happened; you literally have a transcript of it and people can replay the moment, not just the words, but what provoked the exchange,” Frenkel said.

At clinical conferences, Frenkel faced heavy criticism. At the time, some feared that recording clients verged on exploiting them — this was an ongoing conversation in medical academia, too. Instead of buckling under the feedback, Frenkel advocated for the usefulness of the technology. He explained that clients would only be recorded with their informed consent, and that recordings would be protected by privilege just as handwritten notes would be.

Retroactively, Frenkel noted that the “proof is in the pudding” for the usefulness of video recording as a constructive resource in clinical legal education. The practice of videotaping has now become fairly standard across clinical programming; the use of actors, however, remains less common.

Incorporating actors

“When we began to learn about the availability of actors who were then assuming the early days of standardized patient roles at the medical center, I said to myself, ‘Why can’t we avail ourselves of that kind of talent here?’” said Frenkel.

Frenkel and his team began by reaching out to Penn’s Annenberg School for Communication and other local drama graduate programs to find actors who were interested in portraying clients in legal simulations. As the clinical program grew, the simulation program grew as well.

The Clinic provides actors with a profile and a set of goals for each person they portray. From there, actors are encouraged to fill in the blanks with information consistent to the profile as law students practice a range of skills such as asking intake questions, conducting negotiations, and providing advice.

Cauffman explained that committing to the role is paramount to enabling students to take the situation seriously and grow into effective attorneys. Once, when playing the role of a car accident victim, a student suggested they visit the scene of the accident together — so she limped alongside them to Walnut Street.

“I ask myself, ‘What are the challenges of this individual and why would I feel this way? What is it about them that hurts them? Why are they here to see this lawyer, and what are their needs?’” Cauffman said. “You have to get into someone else’s skin and see: this is where they are, and this is what it feels to be them. I make a whole biography up to know why they’re upset or why they’re hurting.”

In addition to drawing on her improvisation skills, Cauffman also relies on a strong sense of empathy to ensure that she understands the full dimensions of the people she portrays. For her, the process she goes through to understand her role is not unlike the process a lawyer should go through to understand their client. In both situations, she says, “you have to make a connection.”

“You have to get that comfort level so that you get the facts for your case. You can’t just assume, ‘Oh I have my outline, I’ll just fill it out.’ There’s a lot more,” Cauffman explained. “That’s what the professors are trying to do: to get students to establish a rapport. It’s just like anyone else. If you don’t like a person who you’re talking to, how are you going to convince them to go back and forth? That’s why rapport has to be established — so you have the right amount of information for the situation you are representing.”

Educating empathetic lawyers

For Cauffman, one of the most important aspects in participating in simulations is helping students become self-aware of how they make a client feel.

“The simulations help the students become aware of themselves personally,” Cauffman said. “If the student shows up looking like a student, how do they get the respect of the client? They have to be aware of how they present themselves, how they talk to someone, and how they listen. As a client, I pick up on if someone is speaking fast or not very clearly. You have to slow it down, because a client who has never heard this stuff before is lost.”

When the COVID-19 pandemic drastically reoriented the way people communicated, it suddenly became necessary for lawyers to learn how to pivot their skillsets to provide service under a range of circumstances. Today, many simulations are hybrid, with one or more people engaging via video calls, thus allowing the students to practice incorporating an additional layer of technology into their legal training.

In reviewing a simulation, whether in-person or hybrid, Frenkel pays careful attention to both verbal language and nonverbal cues.

“Language matters,” Frenkel said. “One of the beauties of a videotape is that one can literally isolate an exchange. You can quote it, and students can rewatch it to see both the verbal and non-verbal exchange between the student-lawyer and the ‘client.’ Then, one can stop and examine what the student did and replay it and say, ‘okay what do you think of that exchange? If you were to do it again, what alternatives exist at that moment?’”

For Cauffman, strong interpersonal skills are indispensable and will likely transcend far beyond the students’ clinical experiences and touch every aspect of their lives, both in and outside of law school.

This work is needed everywhere. We’ve all been in situations, whether we’re the client or the customer, and thought, ‘Oh gosh, this person has zero people skills and doesn’t know how to relate to me,’” Cauffman said. “It’s a credit to Penn Law for choosing professors who implement these programs — they want their students to be grounded.”

Learn more about experiential learning opportunities through the Gittis Legal Clinics.