Double Threat – Donna Lewis ’86, English

Published: Jun 21, 2009

Donna Lewis ’86, English, leads a double life. She earned her law degree at the University of Maryland School of Law in Baltimore and is currently an attorney with the Department of Homeland Security after 12 years in private sector litigation.

But away from the office, Lewis is a humorist who draws cartoons, writes and performs stand-up comedy. (In 2007, she competed in the Washington Post’s “Funniest Fed” stand-up competition.)

UMBC Magazine asked Lewis how she squared the law and the laugh. She argues that they are more intertwined than you might think:

When people find out you’re a lawyer who dabbles in the funny side of life, they respond in one of two ways. Half of the people make the typical lawyer jokes. (I don’t do lawyer jokes.) The other 50 percent find it impossible that a lawyer knows anything about what’s funny. (Much less that a lawyer could be funny.)

Lawyers and laughing? Please.

But then the questions begin. And this is how I answer the ones they ask – and the ones I wish they’d ask.

When did you get funny?

I didn’t realize the value of humor while I was in college or law school. I certainly appreciated good humor, but I firmly subscribed to a clear dichotomy between work and play. For any “serious” endeavor like school or work, I would flip on my somber switch very quickly.

The funny business came from a very practical professional need. After a few difficult years in litigation, I began to notice the weight and burden of my clients’ pain. Individuals would come into the office with fears and stress that distorted their perspectives to the point that they were not thinking rationally.

So I began to use the humor that I had always saved for after hours. My clients became more relaxed as a result. And when I began using humor with other lawyers and with judges, I became a more effective professional.

So you’re a funny lawyer? Does that harm your credibility?

There’s a big difference between being a class clown and a funny lawyer. Class clowns just want attention. They often can’t distinguish between a good joke and a bad joke, or between positive attention and negative attention.

Being a funny lawyer is about strategy. It’s about the bigger goal of getting your audience on board in a fun and positive way. In fact, it’s all about the audience. When you’re dealing with people, you’re dealing with conflict. And in the law, conflict is the name of the game. The entire goal is to resolve the conflict. The key in utilizing humor as a tool in that process is to maintain a seriousness and depth in addressing the subject matter while also balancing a healthy respect for the fact that you’re dealing with humans and not robots.

What’s harder, litigation or standup?

Standup is, without a doubt, the hardest. Making people laugh and laugh and laugh is ridiculously tough. Litigation is easy by comparison. In litigation, you know exactly what you’ve got and you deal with it. You’ve got the law on your side or the facts on your side. Sometimes, you’ve got nothing on your side but a losing case.

In standup, though, all you have going for you or against you is you. A bad night of standup is just truly awful. It just makes you want to cry and disappear off of the face of the earth. Unfortunately, all it takes is one good night of standup to make you keep coming back for the humiliation.

What did comedy teach you about practicing law?

My theory is that if everyone took an improvisation class, there would be a lot less conflict in relationships and in the world. My theory rests on a major concept in improv, commonly called “Yes, and…” It works like this: One character speaks and/or acts and then the next character in the exercise must somehow indicate agreement by continuing the chain of action or conversation. “Yes, and…” keeps the improv scene moving and keeps it from ending.

This exercise is the opposite of a conversation habit that most of us are used to: “Yes, but…” If you listen at home and at work, you’ll notice that many people respond with “Yes, but…” or some similar variation. In litigation, especially, I had gotten so used to the notion of debating and arguing that I would always automatically disagree with the other side.

What I’ve learned as I have matured professionally is that two sides – even opposing sides – usually have more in common than they think. If they start from a point of agreement, they can iron out their differences much faster. “Yes, and…” will get you to a more efficient and painless resolution than “Yes, but…”

With an audience, the goal is always to keep them laughing. In law, keep them agreeing. At home, keep them doing both.

What should you never do in law or in comedy?

The same rules work in both environments. Don’t say things that make people groan. If you don’t have a good joke, why make one? Don’t take cheap shots. You don’t need them and they’re not effective. Say less, not more. Some of the funniest people I know, both on stage and in the courtroom, are the quietest. But when they’re funny, they’re really funny. And finally, don’t use foul language. There’s no need for vulgarity. Sure, you can get away with it in today’s culture. But that’s not a good reason to do it. Rely on your material, your timing, your strategic use of silence and just enough good manners and appeal to keep your audience on your side.

Advice for someone who thinks they’re funny?

Take an improv class. Then take a stand up class. Write a funny article. Draw a cartoon. Do something funny. If you feel funny or if people think you’re funny, you may just be funny. So go be funny!

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