Don't flirt, I'm supposed to be your client

Actors help law students to hone their interview skills, sometimes with farcical results.
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The exam papers told law student Rebecca Silcock that she was going to interview a 75-year-old wealthy widow about her will and a trust fund for her six grandchildren. But the woman sitting in front of her looked about 18, was nervously shuffling her Doc Martens under the table and didn't even have a bank account. The part of the elderly client was being played by a rather unconvincing trainee actor.

Rebecca, now a 24-year-old solicitor in Newcastle, says: "We were the first and only year to use these students. The next year they bussed in a whole load of real OAPs."

Today, trainee solicitors' interviewing skills are still assessed using actors, but since 1993 the law colleges have employed professionals, instead of drama students. At both the College of Law, where solicitors sit their final exams, and the Inns of Court School of Law (ICSL), where barristers qualify, actors are called upon to inject authenticity into the examination process.

All student barristers and many student solicitors must successfully interview actors before they can qualify as lawyers. The actors play the part of a distraught client, typically an elderly person who requires legal and financial advice after a bereavement.

The idea has been borrowed from industry, where actors are already widely used in role-play training exercises. An actor taking part for the full two weeks of the student barristers' assessments could do as many as 100 interviews. The law colleges pay them about pounds 50 a day.

Barbara Heys helped to introduce the idea at the College of Law's London branch. Each year she arranges for more than a thousand students to be tested in interviewing skills.

"Some students are frightened to death of these 30-minute assessments," she says. "There are very few things in life which are so stressful." Particularly since a student who fails this exam can fail the whole course, wasting pounds 5,000 in fees.

The actors are well briefed for their roles, and told not to be too realistic. But Rachel Jennings, a 22-year-old law student who has already taken her interview exam, encountered a different problem: "When I came into the room I didn't expect the actor to be smiling after receiving the news that his wife had died."

Her fellow student Martin Fuller, 31, even found himself flirting with his actress. "She was very attractive, in her mid-twenties, and playing the role of a recently widowed 50-year-old. She's grinning at me and I'm grinning at her in this farcical situation."

David Emmet, himself a part-time actor and director, is a permanent reader at the ICSL in charge of organising the actors. He pioneered the scheme six years ago, when the ICSL radically changed the way barristers are trained.

"It's very hard work indeed," says Mr Emmet. "But we schedule them to play different parts so that they are kept relatively fresh."

Christopher Oxford, 35, is an actor who regularly takes part in the College of Law assessments. Like many jobbing actors, he has had bit parts on TV series, such as The Bill and Grange Hill, and has also appeared in a stage play with Judi Dench. Coincidentally, he is currently appearing in the courtroom drama Twelve Angry Men at Bristol.

"It certainly beats theatre education for schoolchildren, which a lot of actors do when they are resting," says Mr Oxford. "The temporary job market is pretty bad and actors would prefer to do this type of work rather than temping as secretaries or market researchers."

Most trainees find the professional actors an improvement on the drama students. "It's better than having a spotty student wearing a Motorhead T-shirt pretending to be a pensioner," one former student says.