Why is the Trial Lawyers College Afraid of these Three Women? [Updated]

 Posted on March 15, 2010 in Uncategorized

Three really smart creative empathetic lawyers-Joane Garcia-Colson, Mary Peckham, and Fredilyn Sison-are directing a four-day Trial Boot Camp in Palm Springs, California from May 13 to May 16, 2010. Tuition is $750. I know these women well from the Trial Lawyers College and psychodrama workshops, and I recommend their boot camp highly to women trial lawyers. (I would attend, but I am short on X chromosomes.)

Joane, Mary, and Fredi are great teachers. They are, as Trial Lawyers College ("TLC Inc.") President Jude Basile admits, "splendid people and magnificent warriors."

Most importantly, until the beginning of February, Mary and Fredi were part of the Trial Lawyers College staff (Norm Pattis, former staff himself, describes the way things work). Then Mary was simply not invited back to staff training. Fredi was explicitly told by Jude that she was being removed from staff because of her association with Joane and the Trial Boot Camp, which TLC Inc. saw as "competition" for TLC.

What greater praise for a lawyer training program than that Gerry Spence's Trial Lawyer's College is trying to suppress it?It is mildly ironic that, when she was the Executive Director of the Trial Lawyers College, Joane herself was the enforcer of brand purity for Gerry Spence (himself the past president of TLC Inc.); greater ironies, however, abound. For example, TLC talks a good anti-institution (antigovernment, anticorporate) game, but it is run by a corporation. Norm again:

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 Chrysler as TLC.

If you ask an alumna of the Trial Lawyers College whether TLC staff should be free to associate with each other without being ostracized by organizations to which they belong, she will undoubtedly vociferously approve the proposition. Ask her if she would belong to an organization that only permitted members who associated with the "right" people, and you'll get an indignant "no." Treating human beings well and allowing them to associate with whom they want are core values of the TLC community. Teaching others how to be better lawyers is also a core value, as is fighting institutional power. (Before I went to TLC in '99 I hadn't given much thought to how corporations are so like governments.)

But point out to TLC alumni that TLC Inc. is violating TLC's core values-that TLC Inc. is exercising its institutional power punishing people for their association with other TLC alumni and for teaching others to be better lawyers-and most of them remain curiously silent.

Suggest, where TLC alumni gather, that this not only is true but also should be wholly unsurprising-that TLC Inc. is an institution, and institutional goals override all else-and you might as well be the insolent child suggesting that the emperor is buck naked when everybody knows he dresses splendidly.

There is a TLC alumni organization: the F Warriors (another corporation). There are some 800+ graduates of the Trial Lawyers College's three-to-five week program at Thunderhead Ranch in Dubois, Wyoming and the new "Seven-Step" program. These are represented, nominally, by the F Warriors Board. (I say "nominally" because, historically, the F Warriors Board's overriding institutional goal has been promotion of TLC Inc.)

In this instance, the F Warriors Board took the drastic step (for it) of asking TLC Inc. seven simple questions:

  1. Were Mary, Fredi, or Carl Bettinger removed from staff because of their association with Joane?

  2. Were any of them removed from staff because of non-TLC training programs they are organizing?

  3. In October the President of TLC told the alumni in Dallas that "off the board" did not mean "out as staff." What changed between October and January with regard to those three teachers?

  4. Does the TLC Board have a policy with regard to the freedom of TLC staff to associate?

  5. What is that policy?

  6. Does the TLC Board have a policy with regard to TLC staff organizing and teaching other programs for trial lawyers?

  7. What is that policy?

The alumni (through the F Warriors Board) got no response from TLC Inc.

That silence may be the clearest answer we could get: "you people aren't worthy of a response." Did this answer affect the F Warriors Board? Not at all. The leaders of the alumni organization (hand-picked by the College for years, but now elected by the alumni) are okay with the way TLC Inc. treats TLC alumni. They wish we could all just get along, and the burden is on the alumni to make that happen.

The F Warriors Board rationalizes its meek acceptance of TLC Inc.'s treatment of our fellow alumni with a little bit of Brutus-"All of the people involved here are honorable"-and a whole lot of battered wife-"TLC has given us many wonderful gifts." (Yes, and I'm sure TLC Inc. didn't mean to mistreat Mary, Fredi, and Carl, is sorry, loves you very much, and won't do it again.)

It's striking how many TLC alumni-"warriors" who earn their keep speaking publicly for unpopular causes-are discontent but unwilling to say anything against TLC Inc. publicly or even among other TLC alumni. Fortunately for the future of TLC (for it can't exist without dissent) TLC alumni are prominent in the blawgosphere: Joane, Norm, Jon Katz, David Tarrell, Paul Smith (writing here about TLC without naming it), Chuck Peterson, Remy Orozco, Bobby Frederick, F Warriors Board member J.R. Clary, Jr.; most haven't commented adversely on TLC Inc., but some have, and the commenters who agree (as here and here) are conspicuous in their anonymity. One suspects that, despite their disenchantment with what they once believed to be Camelot, they are unwilling to risk losing whatever love they get from their association with TLC.

Others might suggest-indeed, others have said-that TLC graduates' unwillingness to criticize the College is symptomatic of the institution's status as a cult. I don't think that TLC is a cult. Naturally, having dedicated some time and energy to TLC, I don't want to think of TLC as a cult-but as I often tell my clients, what we want to believe doesn't affect what's true.

I would say that only 10 of the 15 "cult characteristics" here even arguably apply to TLC's relationship with a select few TLC graduates. Maybe 10 out of 15 would be enough to make TLC a cult, with regard to those few graduates. Really, though, it doesn't matter: an organization of trial lawyers who are afraid to speak the truth, even if it is not a cult, is too sick to survive.

TLC is at a crossroads, trying to find a way to survive after Gerry Spence dies. It could choose the path of institutionalization, or it could choose the open-source path. The firing of the Fredi, Mary, and Carl, and the attempted suppression of the Trial Boot Camp, is emblematic of the direction TLC has chosen: institutional control over individual creativity.

I have tried in private-on the TLC listserv, among a few who vocally agree with me, many who silently agree with me, and many more for whom TLC Inc. can do no wrong-to try to make a difference to the direction the College takes. But I am just one guy, and my vision is not broadly shared.

I learned a great deal at TLC, and I use daily what I learned there and what I built upon what I learned there. But I have no confidence in the institution. Either TLC was always hypocritical about its principles, or TLC has changed since I attended. Either way, what is being sold is not what was once advertised.

[Update: In Joane's open forum, more anonymous TLC dissenters are heard from. (Shhhh! Before he gets back!)

Norm Pattis publishes Fredi Sison's letter to the TLC Inc. Board after she was let go.]

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