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Law as Theater : Attorneys learn acting skills to polish courtroom presentations. Some say the seminar offers the key to winning.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Marc Lafer wishes he were Victor Sifuentes: eloquent, inspiring, charismatic.

But Sifuentes, the counselor former ly played by Jimmy Smits on “L.A. Law,” is fictional. Lafer, like most lawyers, settled for the facts: Lafer is only Lafer.

So he attended “Acting for Attorneys,” a one-day course in Studio City run by two actresses who contend that lawyers must come to court with more than legal expertise and the right wardrobe.

In the class, Lafer learned to use more dramatic hand gestures, alter the tone of his voice and establish eye contact with jurors.

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His new skills seem to have helped. One day after taking the seminar in May, Lafer won a case. He gave plenty of credit to the class.

“It helped a lot,” said Lafer, who lives in Costa Mesa and has been practicing since 1985. “I was able to use my emotions, and that’s what wins lawsuits.”

This comes as no surprise to Judith Bohannon and Madonna Magee, two actresses who found a way to supplement their often unpredictable income. Bohannon has appeared in dozens of commercials and plays; Magee has concentrated on film, appearing in “Hide in Plain Sight” (1980) and a television movie about the Challenger shuttle disaster.

Both studied in New York for several years under acting instructor Uta Hagen, who taught such celebrities as Steve McQueen and Tim Conway. Bohannon and Magee figured they could incorporate Hagen’s acting theories into the courtroom.

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After attending numerous trials to enhance their awareness of courtroom theatrics, they began offering the seminars in November. Only three lawyers came to the first session, and four participated in December. But 13 attended in May. Their next session is Saturday at Sportsmen’s Lodge in Studio City.

In each six-hour session, Bohannon and Magee teach students to simplify their legal language and approach the courtroom as a stage. They show lawyers how to use their bodies and overcome the fear of public speaking. They also stress listening skills and how to modify the voice to present a case in the most dramatic fashion.

Bohannon and Magee explain that it’s not necessary to talk like a lawyer. After one attorney used the word terminated to describe his client’s job status during a mock closing argument, Bohannon had him change it simply to fired.

Magee said that any time a juror has to “translate something” means he won’t hear the next few words.

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In the May session, the lawyers seemed stiff and tentative--no hidden De Niros in this crowd. But after a few hours of performing, they loosened up. The students acknowledged that it’s not enough to appear in court with the right evidence.

“Unfortunately, it’s all a performance,” said Lafer, “and it’s a tragedy if an attorney who should win a case lacks the acting skills and gets outmaneuvered by a better actor, but that’s the way it is. The facts are always in dispute anyway.”

But Superior Court Judge John Fisher downplays the significance of dramatic skills in the courtroom. Fisher said he has rarely seen cases in which a lawyer’s theatrics have determined the outcome of a trial.

“Some of the best lawyers I have seen do not use flamboyance,” Fisher said. “I feel jurors are fairly perceptive and can sense when lawyers are doing something that is not themselves.”

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Lafer added that he has observed many lawyers so fearful of their stage presence that they go out of their way to avoid trials. He blames law schools.

“There’s nothing like this class in law school,” Lafer said. “I took a trial advocacy case and they teach you to use proper decorum. Well, in a courtroom you want to do things that are objectionable because the other lawyer might not object. Law schools don’t teach you the stuff you need to win.”

The class also helps lawyers fulfill the mandatory legal education program launched by the State Bar earlier this year. Attorneys must take 36 hours of classes over a three-year period.

“A class like that has a proper role in legal education,” said Ed Kallgren, chairman of the state bar’s committee on education and competency.

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Not everyone agrees. Richard Lubetzky, head of CalJustice, a Los Angeles legal reform group that assists consumers in filing complaints against lawyers, acknowledges the value of the acting class but doesn’t believe it fits the requirements for the new education program.

Don’t tell that to Lafer. When he arrived in court in May--he defended a real estate company against a claim--he immediately adjusted the podium to be closer to the lights.

“The first thing an actor does is locate the light,” he said. “The little things are so important.”

WHERE And WHEN

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What: “Acting for Attorneys.”

Where: Sportsmen’s Lodge, 12833 Ventura Blvd., Studio City.

Hours: 9:30 a.m. to 5 p.m. Saturday.

Price: $350 at door, $250 in advance.

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Call: (818) 763-0973.


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