Simon stepped onto the “stage”, which was simply the part of the loft studio unoccupied by chairs. We watched as he tried to balance a long stick on his head. When he found an equilibrium, he took small steps towards the audience, keeping his upper body as still as possible. Then, he burst into song: “I’ve never seen you looking so lovely as you did tonight, I’ve never seen you shine so bright…”. The room roared with laughter.
Simon was a retired sheriff from Buffalo, New York. Like me, he had enrolled in the two-week summer course on “Clown” at the Ecole Philippe Gaulier, the theatre school of the eponymous, world-renowned director and clown artist. The audience was made up of the other students, who were sitting in a semi-circle around Gaulier himself, unmistakable with his tousled grey hair and scarlet spectacles. The aim of this exercise was to eliminate “parasitic movement” – involuntary gestures that detracted from the focal point of the performance.
Generations of actors have passed through Gaulier’s hands since he opened his school near Paris in 1980. Sacha Baron Cohen, Emma Thompson and Helena Bonham Carter are among his alumni. But, unlike other elite drama academies like London’s RADA or New York’s Actors Studio, Gaulier’s school accepts anyone who wants to learn, including – in my case – arbitration lawyers without any prior training in acting.
I wasn’t looking for a career transition to the circus, or even the theatre. Rather, I signed up because I thought the experience might teach me some valuable lessons about advocacy and public speaking that I could use in my casework.
I was also intrigued by Gaulier’s unconventional methods that have made him something of a cult figure. Now in his 70s, he famously uses a hand drum to direct the class. When he beats it, the performance stops – much like the bang of a gavel in a U.S. courtroom drama. Frequently, the bang comes just seconds after a student appears on stage. I never made it past a minute. Gaulier then proceeds to verbalise whatever the audience might be feeling, which is usually damning. He doesn’t just make a dismissive comment: he annihilates the performer in a protracted, whimsical speech, often turning other members of the audience into accomplices by asking them if they agree with him (which they usually do). It’s the nightmare negative of the Socratic Method. Although everyone knows Gaulier is exaggerating, it is still a deeply unsettling experience. I saw accomplished actors being reduced to tears in this way. It took me a while to understand the pedagogical purpose of this seemingly sadistic exercise. I’ve done my best to explain it in lesson number 4, below.
The course at Ecole Philippe Gaulier was one of the most challenging things I have ever done, both mentally and physically, late-night filings and long hearing days included. But it also provided fertile ground to think about the deeper parallels between the art of “Clown” and the craft of oral advocacy.
In the end, I believe there are five important lessons advocates can learn from the circus:
1. Create an authentic rapport with the audience (the judges or arbitrators) and your co-performers (witnesses and experts).
When the performer creates an authentic rapport with the audience and other performers, the show becomes engaging. This is what Gaulier calls “complicité”. Complicité is what permits the performer to enter into the audience’s imagination. “Without complicité, there is just bla,” he told us. The essential first step to creating complicité with the audience is to make eye contact. Gaulier told us to look at each person as if they were our favourite aunt or uncle who had come to see us in the school play. Advocates should give the same attention to judges and arbitrators. Unfortunately, keeping eye contact is practically impossible in virtual hearings (which helps explain why many practitioners don’t like them). When it comes to witnesses, cross-examinations that feel like an honest conversation between the lawyer and the witness achieve the kind of rapport characteristic of complicité. They are great to watch (and are also more likely to produce the concessions the advocate is seeking). Listening to a lawyer arguing with a witness, on the other hand, quickly becomes boring.
2. Create a sense of play.
The surest way to achieve complicité is to create a sense of play. Playing games – and watching others playing them – made up most of the curriculum at clown school. I was amazed at how engaging it was to observe a round of Grandmother’s Footsteps without even playing myself (as anyone who has watched “Squid Game” on Netflix will know). The enjoyment of play keeps everyone’s attention in the moment. It also permits the imagination to travel. A hearing is full of “games”: the closed-question game of a cross-examination, the open-question game of a re-direct. There are countless ways in which an advocate can “play” with these procedural features to keep the performance engaging. Just like actors, moreover, every advocate will play according to their unique “style”.
3. If you’re having fun, the audience has fun too.
Then the show is a success. It’s that simple. The inverse is also true: if you’re squirming inside, the audience will feel as uncomfortable as you. “The best actor is the one who has the most fun, even when playing a tragedy,” Gaulier explained. Likewise, the best advocates are those who love being in the thick of the action. So, make sure you enjoy yourself during a hearing.
4. Have a positive attitude towards failure.
The clown is a bad student who thinks they’re a genius. Although they fail at the simplest tasks (like opening a foldable chair without getting their leg stuck), they never give up trying to convince the audience of their abilities. That’s why we love them. That was the purpose of the ritual humiliation we were put through by Gaulier: to become so comfortable with failure that we might stop identifying with it and instead become as unshakably hopeful as the clown.
Similarly, every hearing has its low lights. Some of your cross-examination will go nowhere; witnesses will be evasive, experts argumentative. But that doesn’t mean the show is over. On the contrary. “When you flop, you allow your clown to come out,” Gaulier said. One of the best performances I witnessed at the school was when a student expressed her embarrassment about Gaulier’s tirade of criticism by edging closer and closer to the wall until she was literally clinging onto it for support. The audience was in stitches. By candidly expressing her feelings, she restored her bond with the audience and rescued the show. Likewise, a frank acknowledgement that a certain line of questioning isn’t working may increase an advocate’s goodwill with the court or tribunal. It may also break the tension with the witness, and allow a meaningful exchange to resume.
5. Know when to move on.
The clown must get the audience to laugh every few moments. If silence goes on for too long, the performer must quickly move on to something else, otherwise the show flops. Advocacy, too, lives and dies by its timing. In cross-examination, it is sometimes necessary to move on swiftly when the witness has given the desired concession; if the advocate labours the point, the witness may realise and try to back-pedal. Just as important: if the judges or arbitrators appear bored or irritated, it’s time to move on as well.
Of course, there are obvious differences between a courtroom and a circus ring. Nonetheless, trial lawyers have a lot to learn from clowns. Fundamentally, the advocate’s job is not just to persuade their audience, but also to engage it. If the judges or arbitrators aren’t paying attention because your advocacy is too dull, you won’t win any cases. There is no better reminder of this than the judgement most familiar to students of Philippe Gaulier: Bang! Dismissed.
Laurence Doering is an arbitration lawyer at Allen & Overy. He practices in Paris and London.