TLC: Time to End the Trouble in Paradise


            Regular readers of this page know better than to expect consistency over time. I write what I think, and what I feel: My thoughts and feelings change over time. This inconsistency can breed ill-will. There are times I simply need to eat crow and say I am sorry, as I do now, to a man who gave me far more than he ever asked for in return, Gerry Spence.

           I’ve on only a handful of occasions taken a post down. I spent five years as an editorial writer, writing daily opinion pieces for newspapers. Once something appeared in print, it could never be recalled. There is something honorable about that. If you say it, own it. The electronic world fosters a species of cowardice. It’s too easy to remove something once it’s been said.

           But I did pull a piece I posted last year that was critical of Gerry Spence. I did so after someone whose opinion I value called me on it.

           You see, I now represent Gerry Spence in a dispute with the Trial Lawyers College he founded. There are suits pending in state and federal courts in Wyoming and in state court in California. (My application to appear pro hoc vice in California on his behalf is pending; I represent a party similarly situated to Spence in the Wyoming federal case.)

           How could I represent Spence and his interests while simultaneously being publicly critical of him? What’s more, why would I represent Spence, given the criticism?

           The caller was polite, and did not intend to shoot to kill, but his words found their mark.

           I pulled the piece, and write now, briefly, to explain why I did so.

           I am a sinner, through and through. I know most of the seven deadly sins intimately. I am vain, given to anger, to sloth, to envy. When Paul wrote “All have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God,” he didn’t know it, but he was writing about me.

           I attended the Trial Lawyers College in 1997. Why? I wanted to be a great lawyer, and Spence was a master. I looked at him, and thought, I can do as well or better. I’ll go learn from him.

           The college was 30 days long in those days. We spent the month of August on an old cattle ranch Spence once owned. Spence was generous and open with me. In a psychodrama, he played the father who abandoned me. I think he was startled when I placed a kiss upon his lips in a mock funeral. (I had never so kissed a man, other than my son before.)

           For the next couple of years, I was invited to be on the staff of the college. I traveled around the country on behalf of the college, seeing Spence in New York, California and other places. I was a guest in his home in Wyoming. In some twisted sort of way, I imagined him to become the father I never had. That’s not something he asked for. It is something I imposed on him. I never forgave him for not filling the role my real father walked away from fulfilling. I see that now.

           Of course, I came away disappointed. Some wounds don’t heal, and our efforts to balm them compound pain. What’s more, I realized I could not best Spence: He says he has never lost a criminal case; I’ve won many, but I’ve lost a lot, too, and my nights are heavy with the sights and sounds of men and women in despair, not to mention the suicides, despair from which I could not save them.

           I turned on Spence. Publicly, and bitterly. I did it on these pages.

           Thus, when litigation erupted between Spence and members of the college he founded, I delighted the way small-minded people do. I took pleasure in schadenfreude.

           When asked to represent him, I was stunned. Would a man I had turned on welcome me? He did so, with open arms, arms capable of embracing all my pettiness and more. It is this generosity that makes him a legend.

           Each and every person involved in the litigation involving Spence and the Trial Lawyers College came to the college out of respect for Spence. Those who remained declared their love of the man. Why can’t that love be summoned now to end the dispute?

           Spence is 92 years old. We should be celebrating the man and all that he did in court, and for all we lawyers who came to learn from him learned. Instead, good lawyers gird for internecine warfare. To what end?

           I am asking each and every member of the tribe, for that is what we call and called ourselves, to put aside rancor and to come together in the time that remains to honor a man who gave us all so much. We were all adults when we took from him, each responding with secret needs of our own; some, like mine, are simply too deep to be satisfied.

           Recall those days at the Ranch when you were summoned to address the demons holding you back? Why not a fresh resolve to do likewise now?

           I am representing Spence not because he is perfect, but, candidly, because he needs a lawyer. He created a mountain, and now that he is too frail to climb it, others seek to play at king of the hill. Build your own mountains, each of you. And do so now. Let’s spend the summer in a wild frenzy of reconciliation with a man who taught us to be better warriors.

Comments: (14)

  • TlC Time to End the Trouble In Paradise
    Fully concur. These are the feelings I have harbored since I became acqauinted with the dispute.
    Posted on April 21, 2021 at 4:31 pm by ANDREW L WARREN
  • Reconciliation
    Reconciliation is the order of the day. Mediate a settlement. Bring in a professional to get the job done.
    Posted on April 24, 2021 at 10:17 am by Greg Stokes
  • TLC and Gerry Spence
    I was at the Trial Lawyers College the very 1st year 1994, the 2nd in 1995 bringing unforgettable Dax Cowart to meet Gerry Spence and to attend 31 days. I went back for the Grad Course in 1996. I attended the 10th TLC Anniversary in 2004 and I’ve attended several TLC Regionals. I learned so much from Gerry and I owe him. I am also friends with John Sloan, a great human being and lawyer. My heart is literally torn. We need the best Mediator in the land. For “reconciliation”. Thank you Norm.(I believe you started TLC in 1995 and maybe came back to TLC in 1997, right?) Marty Leewright
    Posted on April 24, 2021 at 10:58 am by Marty Leewright
  • Comment on Spence
    We do not know each other but I have occasionally watched your career with distant interest. The article on Jerry Spence is spot on. I attended the College in 2009. Jerry presented a few times but was not at many of the sessions. I respected and admired his talent. I felt close to everyone of the instructors and my class members. When this dispute broke out I was astonished. That astonishment has moved through anger, disgust, frustration, and a multitude of other feelings. To put it simply, I can conjure no reason in my mind why grown men and women who hold the same Spence-Ranch principles cannot solve their differences. I am not alone. Many of us, the silent majority, are disgusted with this dispute. I have moved on to other trial groups. Sure, say to yourself, “well, that’s your bad luck.” But it isn’t. It’s our group, our tribe, our friendships bad luck. If we as a group cannot xxresolve our dispute, I am not sure I want to be in the group. Deep down all of us want The Ranch back. All of you on each side can solve this issue if you want to. If you don’t then it tells the rest of us a substantial portion of our teaching was lip service, and nothing more.
    Posted on April 24, 2021 at 10:59 am by Mérrida Coxwell
  • A solution.
    1. Both boards pass one final bylaw change establishing procedures for election of delegates from the fwarrior groups based on geography for purposes of electing board members. Dismiss the fucking lawsuits. 2. All members from both boards resign. They can run again but frankly they broke the dam thing without a good plan to keep it going so collectively all of them failed us and the clients who need us. The newly created voting delegation elect a new board for tlc and the trial institute be thrown in trash pile. 3. The Spence foundation enter into a new lease with more traditional terms and without the nuclear clause that accelerated the current dispute. 4. We honor Gerry in some way. Your words about gerry gave more than he ever took from you are true for me too. I suspect it’s that way for most of the tribe. This needs more meat but since I don’t attend tlc events anymore all I have time to think about how to put Humpty Dumpty back together.
    Posted on April 24, 2021 at 12:36 pm by Peter scimeca
  • Gerry Spence
    Sorry, Norm, but you’re just too pclose to this to be offering advice. First you loved Gerry, then you turned away from him and called the whole thing a cult experience, and then, when you perceive that Gerry is reaching out and re-embracing you, you love him again. And at each phase you have wanted the rest oof us to tag along. You can have great love and respect for someone and still condemn and deplore his actions. Gerry is a genius. He’s also fickle and gives and denies love and friendship arbitrarily. His stunt to bluff TLC into building a shrine that most grads didn’t want with their money didn’t work. He lost TLC. So far none of his law suits have worked and the court has made it clear that the Spence board is gone. He’s received very poor advice from the former board members and is now left with an empty ranch, no school, and no TLC organization. If Gerry wants to try to unring that bell, he needs to make an effort and be willing to atone.
    Posted on April 24, 2021 at 12:43 pm by Paul Henderson
  • Your best piece.
    Thanks, Norm. Notwithstanding my position/stance in the legal dispute, I have never and will never have anything but love and admiration for Gerry... and you, for that matter. I, for one, will guard and defend his legacy jealously. I, too, had Gerry as my father in a gut wrenching psychodrama in the Johnson Barn. Gerry was slow to get around, but assumed the role of my father laying... dying in a nursing home. I took an awful lot from him and donated more than my fair share to the college (you’ve written about the sources and destinations of these “donations” in the past). I was always saddened by the fact that everyone wanted a piece of Gerry... like the sick people clamoring to touch the hem of Jesus’ robe... and He felt everyone’s touch. Gerry taught us to be real, but I always thought Gerry was damned to being everything for others, but, never really truly real, himself. I miss Gerry. Terribly. I am hopeful there is some meaningful reconciliation possible, if not in the works. I don’t always agree with you, Norm, but I hate cowards and you are no coward. Kenny
    Posted on April 24, 2021 at 1:04 pm by Kenny Adair
  • Thank you
    Thank you for your heartfelt words Norm. As we say in the world of Filipino martial arts, "Ain't nobody that don't get cut in a knife fight." For such a place born in love, it sure would be nice to stop the pain. Signed, your former and grateful student of TLC '99
    Posted on April 24, 2021 at 3:12 pm by Chris Flohr
  • Warrior
    I am truly hoping that we can find some resolution in this matter. I'm sure that many have tried, hoping that our current impasse would be avoidable. I'm not angry at those who truly believe themselves to be protecting the Ranch, its mission and its legacy. I believe in that devotion. I'm just sad that would haven't been able to find....a different avenue.
    Posted on April 24, 2021 at 6:50 pm by Marcus E. COLEMAN
  • Trial Lawyers College
    I am saddened that my fellow Warriors can’t compromise to avoid ruining an institution which was a glowing testament to its founder.
    Posted on April 25, 2021 at 10:30 am by Tom Marsilio
  • Jacobs
    Norm, i often agree with your posts. In this case, talk your client into mediation. Let's resolve these suit and enact Peter's recommendation above. An entire new board and a better lease that can't be summarily revoked would be a great start. Gerry is a big enough man to settle this now and let his legacy live on for the ages at Thunderhead Ranch.
    Posted on April 25, 2021 at 2:57 pm by Mike
  • Don't tell me, show me.
    Rex, I do not know you. I am a member of the Sept. 2019 TLC class. But, I have gathered the courage to tell you, a senior graduate who has done much with the work in the world outside of The Ranch, that you cannot honestly and authentically speak of settlement without your client's consent. Yet, you said nothing in the post that indicated your client desires a settlement or even wants to discuss it. Instead, you asked, "each and every member of the tribe, for that is what we call and called ourselves, to put aside rancor and to come together in the time that remains to honor a man who gave us all so much." I for one did not come to The Ranch to honor Gerry Spence. I came to The Ranch because of my commitment to the “individuals; the poor, the injured, the forgotten, the voiceless, the defenseless and the damned” who I am honored and privileged to represent. That job is much bigger than honoring one man, or a tribe. That job is way bigger than I am. A lot of times I do not feel I am up to the job. From my perspective, reaching a settlement would be about honoring those whose rights we protect from corporate and government oppression, and to protect the jury system from continual attack by those who would prefer to do away it. It would be about coming together as one to continue to build upon what has been built upon now for over 25 years in service of those much bigger things. Graduates do the hard work on the court of their life every single day of their life. Without graduates and new students, the work would be meaningless and would die. So, please show us, the graduates, that your client and the rest of the group aligned with him have put aside their rancor, which resulted in the eviction, and that THEY want to come together in the time that remains to honor not just Gerry, not just the rest of us graduates, but also those who we protect and honor with this work, and the jury system, above all else. If the case is not settled, for me it is no big deal. We will all move on. The words of Jagger and Richards, which I sang at the top of my lungs while twisting and jumping all around the top of the picnic table in the Big Barn, will ring true: “But it's all right now, in fact, it's a gas. But it's all right, I'm Jumpin' Jack Flash It's a gas! Gas! Gas!”
    Posted on April 25, 2021 at 9:53 pm by Matthew S Martin
  • comment
    This is particularly rich; you criticize Gerry for being a demagogue until you represent him and then he's back to being your savior. His legal team has lost its cases at the state and federal levels, so now you pander to the tribe and beg it to pressure the TLC Board to give you what you couldn't get from the courts. At the urging of the former board members who have sued TLC, Gerry overplayed his hand when he evicted TLC from the Thunderhead Ranch because it wouldn't write a blank check for his shrine- a structure that wouldn't even belong to TLC, but would belong to the Spence Foundation. Gerry is indeed a great man. Sadly he's a tragic hero whose ultimate flaw is his hubris. As for the former board members who led this charge, they'll have to live knowing that they destroyed Gerry's dream.
    Posted on April 26, 2021 at 1:31 am by Susan
  • Thanks for remindng us that
    Words can hurt and cause great pain--a lesson Gerry well taught us. Unfortunate, that we sometimes forget this before opening our mouths...
    Posted on April 27, 2021 at 10:41 am by Mark A. Delphin

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