Manny Fernandez was defending an insurance company in Miami-Dade court when a witness, speaking in a halting, Ecuadorian accent, got emotional when he recalled seeing his roommate mauled in a construction accident.
"He was amazing," Fernandez says. "I was really blown away."
The testimony was especially impressive because the real witness — the man who'd actually seen the accident — had moved out of the state and couldn't come to the hearing. The man on the stand was a professional actor paid to read a deposition in his best Shakespearean tenor.
The performance came courtesy of Actors at Law, a Lincoln Road firm that hooks up unemployed thespians with attorneys in need of dramatic testimony. Business has been slow so far — perhaps because lawyers worry judges could get pissed at the legal drama — but the owners say they've hit a new legal niche market.
"The last thing you want is a jury falling asleep during key testimony," says Ellen Jacoby, a casting director who cofounded the group with attorney Marc Brumer.
That's exactly what Jacoby says happened to her when she filed a lawsuit after hurting her neck in a car wreck. When a police officer couldn't attend the hearing, Jacoby suggested Brumer hire one of her actors to read his deposition.
"I used to just have my secretary come in to read," says Brumer, who's also a Screen Actor's Guild member. "But she was so loud and monotone you could just see the jury tune out."
Combine the ploy's success with a recession-decimated local acting industry, and Jacoby and Brumer saw a chance to cash in. It hasn't happened yet — the pair has hired actors out only about a dozen times — but the owners say clients have noticed a difference when a professional reads testimony. "They just make it so much more interesting for jurors," Jacoby says.
Fernandez, for one, sees a future in county court for would-be Law & Order stars.
"If I could afford George Clooney, I'd never lose," he says.