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My Story of Self Discovery at Gerry Spence’s Trial Lawyer College

It feels like about ninety degrees when I get off the plane in Jackson Hole, Wyoming on the afternoon of Friday, July 9th. I drive 2 hours in a rental car when I arrive in Dubois which is a town about 3 blocks long that looks as if it came out of a spaghetti western movie. I drive another 10 miles and almost miss seeing a small sign for a dirt road which I take for another 10 miles. Suddenly the narrow road opens up onto a beautiful valley with mountains on either side. A few minutes later I come across a large sign that reads “Thunderhead Ranch” next to a much smaller sign: “Trial Lawyers College”. I turn right and go over a bridge into an expanse of land with green pastures, horses, donkeys, a few cows and a large rust-colored two story barn with a one story white (dormitory style) building attached to it. I walk around and notice a smaller barn, a few cabins, a structure (the “cookhouse”) and an old, dusty log cabin with a white sheet of paper taped to the door which contains two names, one of which is mine. I open the door and meet my roommate, Daniel, who is an attorney in Bozeman, Montana. Fifty of us, divided into groups of 10-12, work 21 consecutive days, from 9:00 a.m. to 9:00 p.m. with breaks for lunch and dinner, of course. 

Trial Lawyers College (TLC), founded by prominent trial attorney and author Gerry Spence is an intensive trial advocacy course taught at his 34,000 acre Thunderhead Ranch which is located on the East Fork of the Wind River in Wyoming. TLC is a non-profit organization and all instructors including Gerry Spence volunteer their time and work without pay. TLC is dedicated to training lawyers and judges who are committed to the jury system, to be winning advocates for people, to represent and obtain justice for individuals who are generally ill-served by the justice system, the poor, the injured, the forgotten, the voiceless, the defenseless, and the damned. This program is unique and unlike any other currently in existence. Approximately 50 lawyers are selected each year from hundreds of applicants to stay at the ranch for 21days. Enrollment is limited only to plaintiff’s civil lawyers and criminal defense attorneys who have tried at least 3 cases to a jury. 

Spence, the author of 14 books, expresses it best in his 1998 book, Give Me Liberty: “At our Trial Lawyer’s College, both attendees and faculty have the opportunity to become human again … to rediscover themselves. They are put through days of psychodrama by experienced psychologists … They learn how to crawl into the hides of their clients, to experience their pain, to understand the witness on the witness stand, even to understand and care for their opponent. In the course of their training, they become the judge, and even feel how it is to be the juror … By the end of their experience at TLC we have witnessed a miracle. Nearly every attendee has entered into the most sacred realm of human experience – that place I call personhood. They have learned to tell the truth, not only about their case but about themselves. They have learned the power of credibility”. 

The trial of a case is the telling of a story. To be good trial lawyers we must be good storytellers. The problem is that we were hampered by an inadequate and counter-productive legal education that not only failed to teach us how to tell stories but dictated that we dismiss emotion and empathy in favor of cold legal analysis. To become good storytellers and effective trial lawyers we must accept what we once rejected, to take up the human drama, how the experience was lived and felt by the people involved. 

We can only tell what we know. Our discovery of the story may begin with the facts, but the real story is in the way those facts were experienced by our client and the witnesses. Trial Lawyers College is a secure and nurturing environment where we begin by exploring ourselves so that we can communicate effectively. We cannot tell what we do not know. As lawyers charged with the responsibility of telling our client’s story, if we can somehow experience our client’s stories, we would understand on an emotional level how the facts were experienced and could then communicate that experience to the jury. 

Psychodrama, which is a method of psychotherapy, is a tool that permits us to access the experience of others – to see things as they saw them and to feel it as they felt it – in other words to truly empathize. Psychodrama has uses that are not limited to therapy but can be used for promoting personal growth and creativity. Psychodrama allows us to access our own experience and to better understand our experiences, hence our understanding of ourselves. Describing what psychodrama is would be like writing a manual on how to swim-only when you are in the water do you fully begin to appreciate the concept. It requires action in that the subjects dramatize certain events as a spontaneous play on a “stage” in a group setting. In enacting the relevant events in their lives, a play is created spontaneously with the exploration of unspoken thoughts, encounters with those not present, portrayals of fantasies of what others might be feeling and thinking, envisioning future possibilities and many other aspects of the phenomenology of human experience. 

The goal of psychodrama is to discover the emotional truth of the protagonist, allowing the protagonist to gain insight, self-awareness, enlightenment and illumination – in essence a deeper and richer understanding. Aspects of the protagonist’s life will be explored during the psychodrama session; the protagonist will be the principal actor in the drama. The protagonist must experience the meaning of their feelings in the present. Dr. J.L. Moreno (1889-1974), the creator of psychodrama, developed the model by observing the way children play and interact. He was impressed by the richness of their fantasy life, their spontaneity and creativity in acting out stories and making their fantasies real. Moreno combined the spontaneity and creativity of children, the inherent value of group dynamics and the insight of dramatic role playing to create a completely different approach from Freudian psychoanalysis that was action-oriented, public and rooted in immediate reality. When Gerry Spence decided to begin his training program for lawyers using psychodrama he used trained psychodramatists who are also trained therapists and psychotherapists. The method is used to help lawyers find the true story by discovering how the facts of the case were actually experienced. One psychodrama tool which can be used to accomplish this task is the ” reenactment” which is recreating an event the way it is remembered by a witness. Another tool that can be used is “role reversal” which is where a particular witness or lawyer is asked to assume the role of a client or other witness or even the defense attorney. In reversing roles, the person does not simply try to act as the other person would act but to feel how the other person would feel – to take on their passions, prejudices, life experience, age, gender, ethnicities and experience the depicted scene as the other person would experience it. We can then present our case to the jury in a way that reveals not only what happened but also how it was experienced – the inner motive forces involved. In doing so we bridge the gap between the reason to act and the action itself. The jury can then understand and relate to our client and the witnesses on an emotional level, recognizing the experience as parallel to their own or similar to emotions they have experienced. After the jury has been given sufficient input they truly empathize with the characters involved and accept the story as true. The story as lived, felt and experienced is not only engaging – it is ultimately believable. 

After attending the TLC, and exploring myself and who I am, I believe I have become a better person and better lawyer. TLC reignited my human side and taught me new skills which allow me to relate to people in a more caring and sincere way. TLC taught me how to pull from my own heart what we want our jury to do in our client’s case and empower them to a just result. The college was not just about being a great lawyer, but being a complete person, letting go of one’s own fear and acting with passion on behalf of our clients. 

I encourage all attorneys to attend a Trial Lawyers College program-my experience is that what I learned at TLC really works! 

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Richard J. Baskin

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For more than thirty years, the Law Offices of Richard J. Baskin has successfully obtained outstanding settlements, judgments and verdicts on behalf of his clients.