Managing Self

Five tips from improv theatre for busy legal professionals

Written by Allison Wolf

Mary starts each day by choosing her top three priorities. Inevitably, by noon at least one of those priorities has been swept aside in favour of something more urgent coming in.

This is just a small example of what our lives are like these days. Change is upon us continuously. Changes in technology, in the marketplace, in our clients’ businesses, and at our firms call for us to develop our ability to respond creatively to our environment.

Improvisation is about performing in the moment. It is about being fully responsive to the world around us. We see the opportunities and respond to them. Like the surfer who adeptly rides the wave, the way to thrive in today’s business climate is to adopt the stance of the improv artist.

As a teenager I loved improvisational theatre and spent many weekends training with an improv theatre troupe. Then came the night of our first competitive performance on the big stage. I was utterly terrified. The terror got to me and after that first performance I left the company. Now years later I have been reflecting about what I learned through that experience and how it applies to thriving in our modern legal environment.

Here are 5 lessons from improv theatre that we can apply in our professional lives.

1. It is all about yes

There is only one rule in improv that is hard and fast – always say yes. If your partner jumps on stage and says “your grandmother has mononucleosis” you don’t respond “sorry sir you are mistaken, it is just a common cold.” Rather you go with the premise and build on it. “Yes, and I don’t think Grandfather gave it to her.”

The magic is in the moment of following the yes, building on it, and creating something new. This premise is equally valid in our business lives. What we say yes to, particularly when it moves us into new territory, opens up great opportunity for learning, growth, and everyday magic to occur.

When the opportunity knocks and it feels in your gut like something good – say yes to it. Take the risk.

This does not mean saying yes to things you think you “should” say yes to such as taking on that file because senior partner asked you to even though you are already swamped, or doing something because it is the “right thing to do” even though you will hate to do it.

Say yes to things that align with your purpose. For instance, say you want to meet new people and expand your network; when a colleague invites you to attend an event with her where you will know no one, say yes. You might feel shy and a little uncomfortable at first but the experience is likely to carry you in a direction you would like to go.

“Yes, and” is also essential for creative brainstorming and innovation. In law we all quickly master the ability to pick apart ideas and find fault. “This won’t work.” “Yes I hear why you say that, but….” The word but functions as an eraser of value.

Try this:

Watch how many times you and your colleagues wield the negating “but” in your next meeting. Then try spending a week focusing on saying “yes, and” instead. Notice the impact.

Say yes to a new experience, or something just out of your comfort zone. Notice what you learn.

2. Show up

Improvisors understand the power of just showing up. A group of performers come together and create stories simply by showing up and being present. I believe it was Woody Allen who famously said: “80% of success in life is showing up.”

In legal practice it is all too easy to choose not to show up. For most of us, most of the time, there is a huge volume of work and seemingly not enough hours in the day to do it. This becomes a reason for choosing to skip lunch, miss that event, stay late, and essentially not show up for much beyond the demands of the billable hour. This is a mistake. I have heard more than once the reflection “I thought if I just kept my head down and worked hard I would be successful.”

I heard some great advice on the advantages of showing up from a commercial litigation associate last month. He was presenting at a roundtable on business development and offered the following experience:

“I used to decide if I would attend the CLE based on the topic of the presentation that month. Then I realized the value was simply in attending, sitting at a table, and meeting the other lawyers in the room. I will often have a chance to connect with my contacts and usually meet new people. Showing up for events like this has helped me grow my practice.”

Try this: Next time you are about to choose “not to show up” for something meaningful, think again, and attend.

3. I feel fear and discomfort and that is ok

What I wish I knew at 16 was that stage fright was natural and part of the territory. It didn’t mean I wasn’t cut out for theatre sports. I gave up something I loved because of feeling scared.

The lesson I learned is that it is ok to feel fear. Acknowledge fear and then keep going. If you have a voice in your head that tells you, as it did my young self, “you aren’t good enough,” question the thought. “Is it really true that I am not good enough? Might this not help me get even better? Is this not something important to me?

For example I am always nervous just before public speaking. No matter how many times I present the anxiousness is always there. I have learned that it goes with the territory and carry on.

My mother is a very introverted woman. She recently attended a memorial service held for a friend of hers who passed away. No one stood up to make any remarks. She was scared to speak up but knew it was deeply important. She took action. My mother stood up and moved to the front of the room and delivered an impromptu speech honouring her friend’s life. This encouraged others to speak up and changed the entire tenor of the event.

Try this: Next time you feel an urge to try something but are discouraged by a feeling of fear, of possible failure, or a worry of being disappointed if you don’t succeed, proceed forward. Notice what happens. What do you learn? What opportunities opened up?

4. Follow your purpose

In improv we are there with a purpose: To have fun, to entertain, and to tell a story using whatever parameters the audience has set for us.

My mother was attending the service to honour her friend’s memory. In that moment of silence in the room, she followed that purpose. She said yes to the opportunity, set aside her fear, and acted.

Purpose in this instance does not mean the grand purpose of your life – as many of us don’t have a clear fix on what that is for us. Rather it is a simpler concept of pausing and thinking about what is important to me now? Is it a commitment to spending time with family? Or maybe to put some focus on business development? Sometimes the opportunity will align with a goal or objective we are focused on. When this happens, welcome the interruption to your plan, and say yes.

5. Pay attention

One of the skills that rapidly gets honed in improvisational theatre is attention. On stage the action moves quickly. Characters take on names, a story line unfolds, and as a performer you have to closely attend to the other players and to the audience. What I and the other performers notice and respond to is what establishes the sketch.

The same is equally true in our lives. In her book Improv Wisdom, Patricia Ryan Madson reflects: “what we notice becomes our world.”

Shift your attention from yourself to others. If you are preparing a presentation ask not “what am I going to say?” Instead, try asking: “what do I want the attendees to learn and experience? If I put myself in their shoes, what will make this topic engaging?”

If you are feeling nervous, place your attention on helping the attendees rather than on your performance. Focus on who is in the audience. What they are wearing? Move your attention away from self to the environment and people around you.

If your day is like one endless session of beat the clock then you likely have your attention on your screen and are losing track of the world around you. If that is the case, create a small oasis in your day for wider attention. Go for a ten minute walk and notice your environment. How does the air feel on your skin? The pavement beneath your shoes? What are you seeing, hearing, smelling? What are you tasting? Experience full attention.

If you are a person (like me!) who can’t remember people’s names, try this: Make improving your ability to remember names your attention training ground. Pay attention when you meet someone new. If they are wearing a name tag read the name tag. Say their name in your head, or out loud in conversation. See how well you can do and try focusing on this every time you have the opportunity and your ability to remember names will improve.

Parting thought

Improvisation skills aren’t just for the actors, they can benefit us all. In fact, we are all improvising every day. Most important is to actively live our lives. To make choices that serve our values and commitments. To say yes to, and show up for those things that are most important to us.

Editor note: This article was one that I wrote for June 9, 2014. It’s a favourite of mine so I have posted it again here at AWAL for readers who missed the Slaw appearance.

Photo courtesy of Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 International license. Photo source is Hideouttheatre at

About the author

Allison Wolf

I am the founder of AWAL and one of the most senior coaches for lawyers in North America. I have helped countless clients over the past fifteen years, develop thriving legal practices and before that served as director of marketing for award-winning law firms. My specialty is uncovering the thinking traps and gaps holding clients back and helping them acquire the mindsets, skills, and habits for growing successful and rewarding legal careers. After a career in legal marketing and business development with law firms in Beijing, New York, and Vancouver, I was trained as a coach in 2004 at Royal Roads University and now coach clients from across North America. You can reach me at or learn more about my coaching practice from the coaching section of the Attorney With A Life Website.

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