TLC: A Note To Cheryl Carpenter

Cheryl Carpenter posted a recent comment that bears independent commentary. She asked a simple question: When did I decide to post the material about the Trial Lawyers College finances? Since this question has been begged by those who accuse me of hypocrisy, I respond publicly.

I remain extremely ambivalent about TLC. There is plenty that is good about the training of lawyers going on in DuBois, Wyoming. I am all in favor of becoming a better storyteller and a better man. The couple years I spent kicking around in the dust in Wyoming, Palomar and a few other locations are important parts of who I am.

As for my involvement with the college, it was, simply, too much for me. People play with fire there; my fingers got burned to stumps. I got too much attention. Folks talked, and apparently still do talk, a lot of smack about me. All of the nice words pleased me, but not in a way that is good for me. The praise became something I craved, and I wondered about what drug that mimicked. I walked off the ranch because I was suspicious of who I was becoming; there were too many folks wanting too many things I couldn't recognize, much less understand. I needed to take things slower and to move at my own pace.

Perhaps more important, in an idiosyncratic way, is the time I spent with Spence, both in the group's presence and alone. I am ambivalent about that, too. In the end, I decided it was better to distance myself from both the ranch and Spence than to remain. It seemed to make little sense to walk my adult life in another man's shadow, and I came to the conclusion that Spence, for all his talk of love, is really no better or worse than the rest of us: he loves himself best of all. I don't begrudge him his ranch, his name-brand, his following. And if others find what they need in his shadow, that's fine, too. I want to cast my own shadow and see just how far it will reach.

When I broke from the ranch in 2000, Spence wrote me a long, long letter describing my departure as one of the most painful experiences he had ever had. The letter stunned me, and stuns me still. What could I have possibly done to mean so much to the man? I have asked him this point blank. The only response is "that's a good question." Frankly, that seems manipulative, even dishonest. I've spoken my truths to him and about him, and I have laid bare issues all my own. My initial psychodrama at the ranch involved my father, with Spence playing my father: I buried my father in the drama, and I recall Spence laying in the milk barn as may father's corpse, kissing him farewell. I gambled a lot revealing that pain.

In response, Spence has taken what amounts to the Fifth Amendment. That strikes me as a power play and manipulative. In this case, I am holding the magic mirror, and what I see reflected in his behavior disappoints me. Honesty is a two-way street.

But none of that mattered to me a few weeks ago. I decided to go to the 80/15 celebration and to behave, to simply enjoy the scenery and to wish the man happy birthday. I was all set to register for one of the grad seminars, too. I figured a psychodramatic tune up could do me some good. But legal work prevented me from attending the workshop.

At the reunion, I elected to avoid controversy and not to stir the pot, even when playfully invited to do so by no less than Jude. When I arrived at the ranch, I had not given the TLC financial structure any real thought. Nor had I paid a whole lot of attention to why folks had left the board. I have some good friends on the current board, and I've never discussed these issues with them, even now, when the pot is boiling.

I wrote a piece published here the night I left the 80/15 entitled "A Weekend in Wyoming." I didn't expect to write another. It expressed some disappointment in Spence, but it was a disappointment that I knew grew out of my expectations. I was prepared to let the mirror drop. Spence owes me nothing. If he is no better thatn any other man, he is still a good man. There is goodness in every sinner.

In response to that piece, I heard from several old friends from the ranch, all surprised I had returned. As we talked, I told them how unnerved I was by a video shown during the 80/15 purporting to be a history of the college. It totally deleted any reference to John Nolte, to Garvin Isaacs, to Charlie Abourezk. These are all people who were instrumental in making the ranch what it is today. I knew that all had walked away from the ranch, as had I. Until last week, I never gave their departure much thought. I knew I was done; that was enough. But the video struck me as a bad piece of work: Winner's history ignoring the honest and legitimate contribution of warriors present at the creation; all was devoted to the new and giddy feel of hermetic conformity. History is not hagiography. It bugged me.

One person to whom I spoke about this asserted that the departures of Nolte and company were related to questions about TLC's financial structure. I was encouraged to look at the IRS 990s. So I spent a couple hours one afternoon studying them, and I reached out to double check a few facts. What I learned stunned me, and, disappointed me.

In the wake of the Wizard of Wyoming pieces, I have received a lot of notes. Some condemn me and castigate me. Some question why I would go "public" rather than raise the questions internally. Others encourage me to go forward. Others say I am not bold enough and that there is plenty more to tell. I don't know whether I am being fair or not. I am spotting issues and raising questions. The questions that I raise strike me as fair ones, and ones that can easily be answered in a way that does the college no lasting harm.

Thank you, Cheryl, for the kindness in your note. I don't know whether this answers the question you raised, but the bottom line is that I didn't go to the 80/15 with a ticking bomb in my pocket. I heard some ticking while I was there, though, and when I looked at documents, things did start to explode.

You are from Detroit? I lived on the city's East Side in junior high school and high school, graduating from Denby High School in 1973. You?


About Norm Pattis

Norm Pattis is a Connecticut based trial lawyer focused on high stakes criminal cases and civil right violations. He is a veteran of more than 100 jury trials, many resulting in acquittals for people charged with serious crimes, multi-million dollar civil rights and discrimination verdicts, and scores of cases favorably settled.

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I believe that the state is a necessary fiction and that failing to combat it is the first step toward tyranny.
– Norm Pattis


Nothing in this blog should be considered legal advice about your case. You need a lawyer who understands the context of your life and situation. What are offered here are merely suggested lines of inquiry you may explore with your lawyer.

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