January 11, 2018
The hottest acting roles in New Orleans every January just might be at Tulane Law School.
The first week in January for the past six years is reserved for Intersession Boot Camp, a crash course the week before classes resume that jolts law students back into the business of learning to be lawyers. It gives them the chance to learn from attorneys and judges who travel to Tulane Law from around the country to create an intensive simulation of law practice in one of three alternative tracks: civil litigation, criminal practice, and business transactions.
Actors play a big part in boot camp, taking on roles of real-life witnesses, experts (some with attitudes), clients or other characters in the mock legal matters. Students learn how to ask questions in depositions, handle belligerent witnesses, and protect their own clients under questioning. The actors make cases come alive.
Holly Rochelle, an actress from New Orleans, arrived on Monday to play the role of a pregnant inmate awaiting trial for a crime she did not commit, and meeting her ‘lawyer’ for the first time. During her interview with students in the criminal law track, she cried and demanded to know how old the students were and whether they’d ever tried a case before.
“She was great,” said Katherine Mattes, a law professor and the Director of Tulane’s Criminal Law Clinic. “She really surprised them, and that’s good.”
“I just get into the characters and try to live their reality for a little while,” Rochelle said. “If you were in jail and pregnant, wouldn’t you want to know if your lawyers had tried a case before? They all looked so young.”
Then there was Mark Watson, an actor from Picayune, Miss., who played a role for the civil litigation track students – that of a bar owner who was about to be sued following a shooting at his establishment. Disregarding his potential liabilities, the bar owner at one point demands that his lawyers “make this thing go away” and in turn, sue the families of the shooter and victim because “they’re both bums.”
Jim Sojka, an actor who has worked before with Tulane Law Clinic students, said he tries to listen, read the students and become very good at improvisation.
“You have a great deal of material given to you to prepare you, but you have to do a lot of improv. It’s not easy but you never have a full and complete picture of the character so you have to go with it,” he said. “Sometimes, you can say things to rattle a student, see how they would react if it were real life.”
Tulane law professor Tonya Rhodes Jupiter, the Assistant Director of Tulane Law’s Pro Bono Program, coordinates the scheduling and booking of many of the actors during boot camp. She said using real actors give students a much more realistic experience.
“We have used students in the past and volunteers to play the roles, but the actors are far more effective,” said Jupiter. “The simulations are very real, and the students forget these are actors.”
Christine Tonry is an actor – she’s also married to an attorney. She’s playing four different characters during this week’s boot camp, from a young woman in distress to Roberta, a 70-something witness to a shooting, to a doctor called to be an expert witness.
She admits maybe she thinks of some of her husband’s clients while acting out some of the roles, but mostly, she’s just trying to keep her story line going.
“It’s so much fun,” she said shortly after wearing a silver wig to play the elderly Roberta. “There is no written script so you’re not held back and you can run with it. I had so much fun!”
For students, it was another chance to learn how to manage a witness.
“There was one point where one of the witnesses was really stonewalling, and not answering my questions,” said Eric Hamilton a second-year law student. “He was glib at times, and maybe overselling his part, but then I thought I have to be ready to handle anyone. With actors, it’s more formal, and more respectful. You’ve got to be prepared.”