Heads A Rollin' At TLC -- What Did You Expect?

I can't tell what's going on at Gerry Spence's Trial Lawyers College. Of course, I haven't tried all that hard. Spence is stepping down and settling into the sunset. At 81, that's expected. Whether the college can survive without his charisma is an open question. Watching folks try to fill his shoes is sort like watching mules tap dance. After a moment or two, it just isn't fun any more.

But this week I received several emails from folks distressed about the doings at the college. It seems as though a group of popular staff members have been told not to return. What is going on?

Mary Peckham, Fredi Sisson, Lynne Brachter and Carl Bettinger have all been shown the door. Sisson, Brachter and Bettinger were earlier forced off the college board. But assurances were given by the new regime that these folks would remain as staff. It now turns out that is not true. Feelings are bruised. The Kool Aid is suddenly unsweetened and hard to swallow.

For those of you ignorant of the ways of God and man in DuBois, Wyoming, things work more or less as follows: A lawyer applies for admission as a student to the college. If accepted, she attends a summer program. If she knocks the socks off the staff at the college, she is invited to return as staff the following year. Thus, each year, the roster of staff persons grows. The growth is necessary as the college sponsors programs throughout the United States. Staff members attending events to "teach" do so without pay. Spectacularly successful staff people sometimes get invited to serve on the board.

Bettinger, Brachter and Sisson all worked their way onto the board. But once Gerry decided to step aside and turn the reigns over to an underling named Jude Basile, these three were "asked" to resign from the board. This past fall, Basile promised alum that these folks would remain on staff. So much for those promises.

When a new CEO takes control of a corporation, heads are expected to roll. The new top dog needs a team he can trust. It comes as no surprise when body count mounts. To the victor goes the spoils. And so they went to Basile. Some old dogs were retired, and new dogs were invited on to the board. Screw democracy: this is corporate politics spoken with a populist drawl.

But removing these folks from the board has some folks wondering where all the love went. David Tarrell, a Nebraska lawyer who writes In The Moment, http://nelawyer.blogspot.com/, is raising questions about broken promises.

What is my take on all this?, Tarrell asked the other day. Let me answer Tarrell's question with a question of my own: Can you imagine Christianity without Paul?

Sure, it takes a crucified Jesus to make a religion. That is the signal event. But the message must be delivered. Paul's gift was his turn of mind and his philosophic bent. He transformed a simple crucifixion into a message, and then he set about delivering that message throughout the ancient world. Paul was the faith's organizational genius.

I realize analogies are dangerous, and I am not going to assert that Gerry Spence is a latter-day Jesus. But I do recognize the man's charisma, and, as Max Weber taught, charisma means gift of God. Spence has unique talents. He is a great lawyer. During the course of a half century's practice, he won cases, mesmerized juries and earned the respect of his peers. But now this gift is going to seed. Can a college devoted to him survive?

Not without a Paul, and, so near as I can tell, Basile is no Paul. In the few public statements he has made since being handed the college's reins last summer, Basile has chattered about his vision and the big things the college will do. So far, these pronouncements amount to little more than hortatory blather. Basile is a great beer and pizza kind of guy, but in the dark night of the soul one looks to him in vain for inspiration. How can the college survive with a lieutenant cast in a general's role?

What's worse, the college seems to be cutting itself off from what made it distinctive. The core curriculum has been pscyhodrama, and the college has developed a cadre of top-flight instructors to teach students powerful story-telling tools using psychodrama. But in the past six months, the board has forced the lone psychodramatist from the board. There's grumbling that the psychodramatists have too much power over the curriculum. This is a dangerous tampering with the core product. When folks weren't coming to TLC events to see Spence, they were coming for the psychdramatic training. This is sort of like Frito-Lay deciding to foreswear the use of potatos. How do you sell potato chips if all you are offering is hot air?

So what do I make of the sacrifice of Bettinger, Brachter, Peckham and Sisson? They are simply the inevitable road kill that comes of corporate change. In spite of the college's railing against corporate America, its behavior is typical of corporate culture. A new CEO has been appointed by a closely-held board -- no elections in this populist heaven. Those perceived as unwilling to kiss the new emperor's ring will be shown the door. Nothing suprising here. It might just as well be Chrsyler as TLC.

I am not going to sit up nights worrying about the doings at Thunderhead Ranch. Just add the college to the list of those in the business of providing continuing education for lawyers. There's nothing wrong with these enterprises. Lawyering is tough work. There is a built-in and guaranteed market for CLE providers. Just add a new set of initials to the list of those trying to make a buck and foster referrals from the CLE game: There's NITA, NCDLA, ATLA and now, the newest kid on the block, TLC.

Kind of sad to see it come to this, though. More was promised.


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