Every lawyer needs a mentor. In fact lawyers need many mentors.
My relationship with Gerry Spence, arguably the greatest lawyer who ever lived started like something out of a movie.
I was about to try my first case. A complicated jury trial in Orlando against Walt Disney World. I had never seen a personal injury trial, picked a jury or cross examined a witness. And I am sure Disney’s lawyers figured that out well before the first day of trial.
My dearest friend and mentor Ken Bush and his then partner Arno Kutner told me about a lawyer named Gerry Spence who had a series of how to video on jury selection and opening statement. I had never heard of him.
I watched the videos over and over. I felt an immediate connection to the clear, kind blue eyes of the man in the fringe jacket. I took notes and plagiarized his voir dire almost verbatim.
I do remember calling Arno late at night before the closing argument panicked that I did not know what to do. At that time, Spence had not yet issued a closing argument video. Arno spent several hours on the phone walking me through it.
Fortunately for me, and more so for my clients, the Orlando jury returned a verdict in their favor. The verdict remains, outside of the birth of my children, one of the greatest moments of my life.
I wrote Gerry Spence a letter, and attached a copy of the verdict. I told him how much I appreciated the videos and said that the verdict was as much mine as his. I never expected a reply, but a week later, a hand written note arrived from him, saying how proud he was of me and that he hopes one day we could meet.
I wrote back. This predates e-mail. And Spence wrote back to me, saying he would be in Florida speaking at a law school and I should stop by. Months passed and I became increasingly excited about meeting him. In the meantime, I read a few of his books and learned that he had started a program to teach lawyers called the Trial Lawyers College.
When I finally met him, I had trouble not crying. We spoke about my desire to represent people, the trial against Disney and how I had no formal training or teacher on how to be a trial lawyer. A week later, an application arrived for the Trial Lawyers College.
I completed it in a few hours and mailed it back to Wyoming. Then waited. Months passed until I finally got a letter from Spence with the good news. I had been accepted. Fifty lawyers from around the country who were either civil plaintiff’s lawyers or criminal defense lawyers were invited to spend a month at Spence’s ranch and learn from some of the greatest lawyers in America to be effective advocates for people. If you represented businesses, insurance companies or the government, you need not apply.
I had only been married a year, when I boarded the plane for Jackson, Wyoming. I had packed suits and ties and loafers with little tassels. Yes, I was raised in Wichita, Kansas, but Jackson, Wyoming or more precisely Dubois, where Gerry’s ranch is, makes Wichita seem like Paris by comparison.
Gerry’s ranch is a four hour bus ride from the Jackson airport. When I got off the bus, I was taken to a large barn, where Gerry and his family had turned the horse stalls into dorm rooms and the top floor where hay was kept into a courtroom/class room.
I shared a small dorm room with a huge guy named Charlie Aburesk. Charlie had a long pony tail and a soft voice. He is Lebanese, but has lived amongst the Lakota, Indians most of his life. Over the next thirty days, the fifty lawyers spent 15 hours a day, tearing us inside out through a process called psychodrama. It is
Gerry’s use of this therapeutic process to make lawyers “real”. Most lawyers become shellacked and devoid of authentic feelings by years of the process of being lawyers. It starts for most in law school and continues to get worse. We start calling cars vehicles, the word before becomes prior, after becomes subsequent, and so on. What’s worse is we make it difficult to form meaningful connections with our clients and jurors. Spence’s process is meant to allow lawyers the permission to feel and be real.
For some it works. Others find it too touchy feely. I loved it. And every morning, I would join Spence on a 2 hour hike up a mountain to talk about everything. A real friendship was created. We laughed and we cried.
Near the end of the month, Spence told me he was about to embark on a 45 day nationwide book tour to promote his book on the OJ Simpson case. He asked me to join him as he went city to city in his small plane. At the time, I had been away from my wife, house, dog and law practice already nearly a month. The thought of being gone another 45 days seemed rough, but the opportunity to see the country with Spence was too valuable to pass by.
We met a few weeks later in New York and I watched and learned how he lectured, gave media interviews and interacted with people. It was a very valuable experience. Some towns were more exciting than others, but by the time we reached Seattle 40 days later I was ready to come home.
I later joined Spence on another book tour and hope that he will join me on the tour of this book. My time with Spence has in many ways made me not just the lawyer I am, but the person I am. I lecture often to lawyers and law students. Every speech is inspired by Spence’s teaching. The writing of this book is inspired by Spence’s teaching. Every time, I speak with a client or jury or judge, it’s based in some part by what Spence has taught me. I love the man.
I also returned several times to the Trial Lawyers College as part of his faculty. It has been a few years since I have been there, but I urge anyone reading this, who wants to learn how to be a real advocate for the people, to attend one of the Trial Lawyers College seminars. And leave those tasseled loafers at home.