Gerry Spence v. Trial Lawyers College -- Trouble In Paradise

            There’s trouble in paradise just now: Gerry Spence has sued the Trial Lawyers College, and he has evicted the college from Thunderhead Ranch, his sprawling property on the outskirts of DuBois, Wyoming. At issue, money, vanity, and Father Time.

            That’s sort of like Jesus turning on the 12 Apostles and telling them all to go to Hell.

            Spence created the college in 1994 to train lawyers sticking up for little people against big corporations and the government. I attended the college in 1997, and remained active for a few years thereafter as “faculty,” intermittently traveling to Wyoming and other locations to offer seminars on trial skills. I walked off the ranch on or about 2000. Something didn’t sit right.

            Don’t get me wrong, I liked – even loved – Spence. My father deserted me when I was a kid. I guess I was looking for a strong man, a father figure. Who better than “America’s finest trial lawyer,” a man who boasts that he has never lost a criminal case?

            There was chemistry between Spence and me, to be sure. Others saw it. I felt it.

            But it wasn’t a good chemistry. At least not for me. I wanted something he couldn’t give; and I suspect he sensed that weakness, and was prepared to take more than I could healthily offer. You don’t learn to stand tall sheltering in the shadow of another.

            When Spence created the college the goal was simple: Teach lawyers to be better advocates by getting them to tell more genuine and human stories. Show juries yourself, the human truths about your case; jurors will respond with justice to human authenticity. To serve that end, the college worked with pyschodramatists, running lawyers through intense encounters intended to penetrate the defenses behind which we hide our humanity.

            It’s all right to be afraid, to show the jurors your fear. Vulnerability sells. There is something like redemption in authenticity.

            It went down like liberating Kool Aid on the windswept ranges of Wyoming. I wept when I graduated from the college. I made lifelong friendships and formed powerful associations with others.

            But I also got spooked. The web of associations always kept Spence at the center. Although the college had a board, Spence was always the first among equals. I saw grown men agonize over whether they’d get a board seat. Once seated, there was jockeying to remain in the good graces of the master.

            I’m a loner. I couldn’t play the game.

            Things got interesting not long ago. Gerry restruck the bargain he’d formed with the college. You see, the land on which the college sat was owned by the Spence Foundation. The lease gave the Spence Foundation the right to serve a notice to quit the premises on the college for almost any reason at all.

            The Trial Lawyers College itself, like the foundation, was a tax-exempt entity. Both were independent of one another in the eyes of the law. But the college was fatally dependent on the foundation. The college was required to pay for the upkeep of the land and maintanence of its buildings; in exchange, the college got, well, what exactly?

            In April, the foundation, a.k.a., Spence, threw the college off the ranch. There are two sides to what the dispute was all about. Spence’s side said the college was asked to leave because some board members had agreed to represent the government in certain disputes, a violation of the college’s charter to help ordinary people fighting the government.

            Others tell a less idealistic story.

            The college, it turns out, was, and perhaps still is, a cash cow. As of a week or so ago, it had $5 million in the bank. Spence wanted that money used to create a conference center on the grounds of Thunderhead Ranch. Members of the college board didn’t like the idea – why should they build a center and spend their money on a structure and property from which they could be evicted at will?  No, they told Spence, giving up all this money for nothing would be a violation of our fiduciary duty to the college.

            Spence, 91, blew a gasket.

            The college was suddenly without a home.

            But it had the $5 million, and Spence apparently wants it. He founded the college, didn’t he? He nurtured it for decades, didn’t he? He is the college’s heart and soul, isn’t he?

            Yes. Kind of. And no.

            Good men left the college persuaded that in the end the project was but a vanity mirror for a man with no real center, a man sustained by the power he could derive from securing the dedication, if not the admiration, of others. Narcisissm, I’ve heard them say.

            Well, all narcissists die. Gerry is a narcissit. Therefore, at 91, Gerry had damn well get his estate in order. The clock is ticking.

            Throwing the college off the ranch was a move as predicable as the setting Sun.

            Spence and loyalists on the college board have sued the Trial Lawyers College seeking title and control of that $5 million dollars. It is an unseemly end to the dream of a refuge for warriors seeking justice. In the end, it’s all as grimy as the “injustices” we used to rail against in the big barn, the milk barn and around the camp fires.

            Keep an eye on this lawsuit.

            I envy the lawyer retained to represent the Trial Lawyers College. Imagine the thrill of cross-examining “America’s finest trial lawyer.”

Comments: (12)

  • Spence and the Lawyers College
    Spence cannot keep the money if it was given to a 501c3. If the Lawyers College is a 501c3 and the money was given to the college the only way he can get it back maybe is if be put in writing the purpose for the donation. The cavezt is building on his property enhances his property and is not arms length. If the building is built somewhefe else sans the conflict of interest fulfilling the purpose of the money he is probably out of luck. Mot an unusual situation even laeyers no very little abkut 501c3s.
    Posted on April 30, 2020 at 6:39 pm by diana Silverman
  • Spence law suit
    Norm – you nailed it.
    Paul Henderson. TLC ‘96
    Posted on May 1, 2020 at 12:15 am by Paul Henderson
  • The Passing of TLC
    Norm, let me begin by saying that you bring a tremendous amount of credibility to this discussion. Your bravery in the face of outrageous attacks is extraordinary. And your steadfast support for free speech, individual rights, and the rule of law inspires all lawyers.
    I am a graduate of the 7-Step program and cannot say enough good things about TLC. I, like many others, benefitted from TLC on so many professional and personal levels. I only wish I had embraced TLC as a younger lawyer and applied those lessons and insight at an earlier time - but of course it is never too late to learn and embrace the truth. I also made life-long friends and TLC infuses everything I do as an advocate. It is interesting how we can immediately recognize the TLC in someone else we have just met or watched in court.
    Having said all of that, I always recognized that TLC was a cult in perhaps the best sense. Our leader was and always will be Gerry. But being a loner as well, I was equally suspicious of needing self-affirmation through joining or belonging to any thing. So I purposely stayed away from trying to be on staff (not that they would have me) or jockeying for a position of responsibility within TLC. I don't doubt the sincerity and contributions made by anyone taking a different path and indeed TLC became what it is not simply because of Gerry but because of his followers who gave so much of their time, energy, and money.
    But, as with any cult, there is going to be disruption and perhaps even schism when the leader leaves this earth. I really don't see the current situation as being resolvable after reading the lawsuit. My best guess is that TLC will continue in some form without Gerry and the Ranch, which is too bad. Yet we are all adults and have seen heartache and conflict in our family lives, and TLC is one big family. Live will move on.
    The bigger question is what will TLC become in the future and whether the current leadership will use this conflict to think hard about its mission and objectives. To me, TLC has become a big, bureaucratic business quickly becoming ossified. It has lost its way. Five million in the bank is a healthy stash of cash, yet I noticed that TLC is charging $1,500 for a regional. That $5 million comes off the backs of staff who give there time away for free and contributors who believe in the magic. The $5 million should be used to help lawyers enjoy the benefits of TLC and spread the good news at a reasonable price. I doubt though that anyone wants to be part of yet another corporate entity with all that entails. I also doubt Christ(you correctly started with this analogy) and his followers ever envisioned the institutionalization of the Word in a powerful and oppressive structure - but that is right where TLC is heading. I also detest the self-righteous wave of political correctness and political posturing that has swept over TLC. TLC was never intended to be a political lobbying group, and becoming one will only alienate its members and lessen its message. TLC should be a place where warriors from all walks of life - regardless of political persuasion - come together to better represent individuals facing corporate and governmental power. TLC has to return to its roots with or without Gerry.
    Finally, there is not doubt in my mind that the Tribe is still alive. TLC is in everyone who has embraced the meaning of being at the Ranch. I truly hope that the strength of it members - including the loners - will keep it moving forward for years to come. The spirit of TLC is too important to die with its leader.
    Posted on May 2, 2020 at 5:56 pm by john lauro
  • TLC and Gerry Spence's TLC at Thunderhead
    There is a small group of white men planning on terminating the Trial Lawyer's College and claiming the assets of it, and thinking they will be continuing the legacy of Gerry Spence without the Trial Lawyer's College I have known and loved for twenty years. I don't like politics, so I only trained, every year for all these years. I know and love Gerry Spence. I love Kent Spence.
    I'll not be part of this madness, this new creation, with a two-minute video by the aging master saying "everyone is welcome," when we all know that is not true. As you know, Norm Pattis, when you get on the wrong side of Gerry, it is usually forever.
    Trial Lawyer's College will continue and will thrive, with some new leadership of women and men of all creeds and colors, of all preferences and faiths. Come on back, Norm. I'd enjoy seeing you.
    Posted on May 3, 2020 at 9:25 pm by Gary Wenkle Smith
  • TLC vs Gerry Spence
    Norm, I was at TLC in '99 (again in 2000) and I remember you well. I was publicly humiliated by Mr. Spence in the Big Barn and made to cry in front of everyone. This is the mark of narcissism. Many others experienced similar. I did return there again for the Death Penalty Seminar which was truly exceptional and redeemed TLC in my mind in many ways. I do have life long friends from there. But most of the great staffers I knew, including you, Cyndy Short, Jude, Charlie, I could go on and on and on , left long ago. You hit the nail on the head. Gerry does not understand that his legacy IS the COLLEGE not some building. And I don't know how you do the crazy college stuff (good or bad) unless you have the vast wilderness around you. Thank you for your candor.
    Posted on May 8, 2020 at 11:46 am by Susan Gellman
  • Gerry Spence
    I attended the Ranch in 1999, having been to two regional events before that. I obtained a tremendous amount of benefit from the philosophy of the college and many of the people I met in the program. I made and strengthened friendships made there. However, I learned very quickly that Spence is a narcissist. And a sexist misogynist. If he considers himself “first among equals” as you said, he puts women (trial lawyers or not) in a lesser category. Women are preyed upon by some predatory men–-many of them staff members (I.e. other trial lawyers who have been through the program and deemed worthy by Spence)–who use the fact that the lawyers attending the program have their emotions laid bare and are in a vulnerable state after having gone through a week of excruciating psychodrama. This happened to me and virtually every other woman who attended the college with me in 1999. During the time I was at the ranch, I brought my experience to the attention of staff and ultimately to Gerry, who publicly castigated me and accused me of “destroying” the college by calling out my attacker. I was told before going to Wyoming that I would be asked to join the staff; afterwards I was not asked to be on staff, yet my attacker was kept on, and for many years was Spence’s heir apparent. After 1999, the duration of the program was shortened to under three weeks, because, according to Spence, “After three weeks, we always start having a problem with the women.” No mystery as to why he used the three week reference. Now apparently even “the heir” has been ousted for failing to properly worship at the feet of Spence. It is too bad, because many of the college’s lessons are invaluable, and it’s stated goals are admirable. I find it ironic and sad that Spence is now tearing down the monument he has spent so many years building to himself. And that he doesn’t recognize that his legacy is the lawyers who have come away from the experience with a zeal to fight for the little guy, and instead that he insists that he needs an ACTUAL MONUMENT to himself. You are right–it is all about the money, power, and control to Spence. It will be interesting to see how long the cadre of narcissists who are currently on his side of the dispute last as a group. All of them jockeying for position to see which will be the One who takes the master’s place. Not long, I’ll wager.
    Posted on May 8, 2020 at 12:21 pm by Deborah Wolfe
  • Gerry Spence's Trial Lawyer's College
    Norm, thank you for your candor. I'm glad I was not involved in this mess. I can understand both sides, and especially your insights. I have to remember the Golden Rule. He who has the gold makes the rules. Instead of a Library and Learning Center built in his honor, the "lesser thans" have given The Great One a goat tied to a tether. If ever there was a need for sociodrama, the time is now. They made a huge mistake when they gave the board members more than one or two years to serve. To stay vibrant, every organization needs a constant change in board participation. TLC has needed new blood for too long. For some, the time to let go has come and gone. We shall see what survives.
    Posted on May 14, 2020 at 3:51 am by Louis George Fazzi
  • Gerry Spence
    Here we go again, we are lawyers so lets just sue each other. I was thinking about APPLE and how one man built a business only to lose control and have so many yahoos run the business in the ground. They than bad mouth the good guy as that's what they are good at. If you really knew what you are doing you would of and should of built your own business. Loyalty and integrity is a big part of one character. You either have it or you do not! Gerry has good character and for most of his life has proven this. Gerry has spent his time building his business and giving back to the public, have you. Gerry started and built the collage to teach others to do good. To expand a new building is what he would like to see done then do it. If you are afraid of being evicted then you must know you are not doing something right. It sounds like your the small guy looking for power and control. Five million is lunch money, my point is if you need money go out and earn it,take on a case or write a book. I know where you can take a class and better your education from a great mentor if needed. My point is do not become a bigger jerk as it looks to me that you are the cancer within. Help Gerry build a better college or leave, do not continue being a jerk because that is the only thing you have nailed. You have bigger issues and need to rethink your actions.
    This is what happens when you put the wrong people you trust on your board. Jobs had to rebuild his business. What kind of person are you? a builder of great ideas or the cancer with in that breaks down. Look in to the mirror and you will see.
    Posted on June 9, 2020 at 3:59 am by Thomas Cooper
  • tlc
    At the urging of a co-worker, I attended TLC in '99. I agreed to go primarily because I was trying to decipher the coldness of my co-worker and thought this would help break through. The first thing I noticed was that everyone seemed to revolve around Gerry, like acolytes. As if they were waiting for a pat on the head for doing good. I think many needed a father figure. As all the others have mentioned, I made friends that will be with me until the end. I watched several friends belittled and taken advantage of, both sexually and psychologically during that time. It turned into blaming the victim in at least one case. Despite that, I came back as faculty for several years. I felt I was doing good and helping other lawyers. Gerry is incredibly smart and thinks about what he says before he says it. In this supposed atmosphere of equalness, brothers and sisters, etc. imagine my surprise when the faculty met one evening and in front of everyone, Spence said, 'Well, you still have really big tits.' This was the end of any shred of respect I had for him or his ideas. Just ick.
    Posted on July 28, 2020 at 9:00 pm by t. rae van dyk
  • TLC
    First off, I am not a lawyer but read with great interest. Narcissism is alive & well, combined with lust for power and money. Keep the faith for an acceptable conclusion to this dark chain of events.
    Posted on August 19, 2020 at 9:05 am by Grayle tompkins
  • Thunderhead Ranch
    The history of the Thunderhead Ranch as I recall - 1970's Owned by 2 Bothers from Chicago - absentee mostly. The ranch was managed by local Wyoming folks who handled the work and cattle operations. During a branding event - using a propane bottle to heat the "irons" the bottle exploded and burned some of the workers and their children who were nearby. A settlement was reached and Spence ends up with the Ranch. The Thunderhead also hid Ed Cantrell -Rock Springs police chief. during his indictment for murder - (Spence Client)
    Posted on October 27, 2020 at 1:27 pm by Flaco
  • Shame
    It really is all about the money - wherever you go. I don't suspect that the attendees of the college were forced into anything. They went there looking to enhance skills and I imagine they were satisfied in that regard. Give him the money, take what you have learned, and use that for the betterment of others. You worshipped the master then, you worship the almighty dollar now. Shame.
    Posted on February 11, 2021 at 10:44 am by William Scott Campbell

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