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.”