The Trial Lawyers College is Not a Cult

Lawyers who look at Gerry Spence’s Trial Lawyers College often see it as a cult.

This is wrong. TLC is not a cult.

Here’s Janja Lalich and Michael Langone’s checklist of cult characteristics, with my thoughts on whether they apply to the Trial Lawyers College:

The group displays excessively zealous and unquestioning commitment to its leader and (whether he is alive or dead) regards his belief system, ideology, and practices as the Truth, as law.

Yes. Many alumni mistake the TLC way, which is one way of trying cases, for The Way, and as a result reject (don’t make room in their minds for) the possibility that there are other technologies that might be more useful, for any given lawyer on any given case, than the TLC way.

Questioning, doubt, and dissent are discouraged or even punished.

Yep. Suggestions that TLC alumni might attend a class not endorsed by TLC, or might communicate more freely through media not controlled by the college, are met with rants like this one:

I don’t know of any organization non-profit or otherwise which actively promotes (in the name of free speech) the undermining of itself and the promotion of its competitors.  Just as you don’t shout fire in a crowded theatre, membership in TLC or any organization doesn’t allow you to shout “this organization is worthless and bad; come join this other one”. To me that is pure BS. The intent behind your “discussion” is tainted and harmful, not virtuous in the name of progress.  It is an expression of anger for perceived wrongs nothing more.  Freedom of speech leaves off, in my book, where malice and intent to harm begin.  I know constructive criticism when I see it and this ain’t it.

Mind-altering practices (such as meditation, chanting, speaking in tongues, denunciation sessions, and debilitating work routines) are used in excess and serve to suppress doubts about the group and its leader(s).

Arguable. Psychodrama is a mind-altering practice, but is it used in excess? My personal belief is that, as with improv, one can’t have enough psychodrama.

The leadership dictates, sometimes in great detail, how members should think, act, and feel (for example, members must get permission to date, change jobs, marry—or leaders prescribe what types of clothes to wear, where to live, whether or not to have children, how to discipline children, and so forth).

Nope. TLC orthodoxy is pretty well limited to thinking about trial lawyering.

The group is elitist, claiming a special, exalted status for itself, its leader(s) and members (for example, the leader is considered the Messiah, a special being, an avatar—or the group and/or the leader is on a special mission to save humanity).

Arguable.

The group has a polarized us-versus-them mentality, which may cause conflict with the wider society.

If so, only a little bit.

The leader is not accountable to any authorities (unlike, for example, teachers, military commanders or ministers, priests, monks, and rabbis of mainstream religious denominations).

Yes. In TLC, what Gerry says goes.

The group teaches or implies that its supposedly exalted ends justify whatever means it deems necessary. This may result in members’ participating in behaviors or activities they would have considered reprehensible or unethical before joining the group (for example, lying to family or friends, or collecting money for bogus charities).

Nope.

The leadership induces feelings of shame and/or guilt iin order to influence and/or control members. Often, this is done through peer pressure and subtle forms of persuasion.

Ever been to a TLC fundraising session? Hoo boy!

Yep.

Subservience to the leader or group requires members to cut ties with family and friends, and radically alter the personal goals and activities they had before joining the group.

No….not, that is, unless the “personal goals and activities they had before joining the group” included learning or teaching other ways of trying a lawsuit.

The group is preoccupied with bringing in new members.

Certainly.

The group is preoccupied with making money.

Unquestionably.

Members are expected to devote inordinate amounts of time to the group and group-related activities.

I’m not sure, but I think not. I haven’t been watching the TLC listserv lately, though.

Members are encouraged or required to live and/or socialize only with other group members.

Nope… well, yep, but only while they are attending the college.

The most loyal members (the “true believers”) feel there can be no life outside the context of the group. They believe there is no other way to be, and often fear reprisals to themselves or others if they leave (or even consider leaving) the group.

Yep. Try encouraging TLC alumni to attend non-TLC seminars, and they see it as an attack on TLC. (See my comments on discouraging dissent.)


While the Trial Lawyers College unfortunately shares a few characteristics with cults, it is clearly distinguishable from a cult, most especially in that its alumni are allowed to live their personal lives as they want and freely associate with non-alumni.

But those characteristics that TLC does share with cults make it something other than an educational institution. The rigid orthodoxy, its attempts to control members’  thoughts, and its focus on increasing membership and fundraising call to mind an organized religion. That, I think, is much closer to the truth than “a cult.”

About Mark Bennett

Mark Bennett got his letter of marque from the Supreme Court of Texas in May 1995. He is famous for having no sense of humor when it comes to totalitarianism.
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20 Responses to The Trial Lawyers College is Not a Cult

  1. Paul J. Smith says:

    Mark;

    I can’t say that TLC is a cult any more than TCDLA, NCDA, ABA, SBOT, TTLA, or any other group that promotes the commonality of their existence.

    All of the above support or encourage lawyers to join,, arguably, each one is dedicated to their specific purpose and arguably each one is made up of members who are zealous in their beliefs about their own “group” practicing law.

    I do know this,, the more groups with lawyers I belong to, the more I realize that every lawyer group believes that their are being attacked, persecuted or singled out.

    I wonder if the Catholic church ever though that way?

  2. Alex Bunin says:

    Of the 15 cult characteristics, you only gave two unqualified “No” answers regarding TLC. Should I be worried my staff needs to be reprogrammed?

  3. Noting that you are from Texas as well, I feel safe in saying that there are probably several District Attorney offices in Texas with charismatic leaders that are more cult-like than TLC (not overtly of course, lol!). I haven’t been to TLC but have attended the Western Trial Advocacy Institute, another of Gerry’s projects. Never felt culty to me, but could just be because Gerry’s aura was diluted by the other fantastic attorneys teaching. Although I do recall them plugging TLC…

  4. Rob McKinney says:

    Since I am a TLC graduate , I felt compeled to answer. The time at the ranch builds an intense bond on that class. While not a cult it does teach a different way to prepare your case , discover the story , and try your case . If it is a cult , I would rather be a member than be a DA.

  5. Jim Shadduck says:

    TLC is a definite cult. I can speak from first hand knowledge as I was tossed out after two weeks this past September. They are a manipulative group of attorneys preying on idiot attorneys without the insight to understand they suck as attorneys. What hole exists in the psyche that makes some people, some lawyers, feel the need to make someone their leader, and them his follower? Whatever it is, whether the cool-aid, the fear, the lack of self-esteem, it’s flowing freely at Gerry Spence’s Trial Lawyer College.

    • Alex Bunin says:

      “Cool-aid” huh? That is scary.

    • Jim, I’m sorry to hear that you had a bad experience at TLC. Being a “manipulative group of attorneys preying on idiot attorneys without the insight to understand they suck as attorneys” could describe most any bar association or—if “idiot attorneys’ includes idiot future attorneys—law school. That doesn’t make it a cult.

      • Jim Shadduck says:

        When the personality worship of Spence is the primary focus of TLC and his devotees, yes it is a cult. I’ve lived it firsthand,with the mystic, mindless art, the psycho drama that allows the staff to leverage your mind, the unspeakable manner in which Spence could care less about the people there unless to amuse himself, the rampant philandering, his racist remarks, and the strict devotion required-all for economic gain and that’s just the surface. I worked to help prosecute a cult in 1986 at the USA in Oregon, and trust me buddy, TLC is a shadowy cult in my opinion. I feel sorry for all the misguided idiots and the purging of those who displayed any shred of independent thought. If you don’t get in line they mind F you, and if that doesn’t work, they tell the local law enforcement to remove you from the premises, as I was, because I was suicidal, which came as a surprise to me, as apparently I was the last to know. I am fine and well adjusted and let it roll off my back but the lemmings are still coming. It is warped and wrapped up in a tidy 501C3. Very bad people run this place.

  6. Jim Shadduck says:

    Mark you must be a F Warrior or you speak frOm a position of ignorance

  7. Jim Shadduck says:

    Mark I did read. I know from helping prosecute a dangerous cult for conspiring to murder a US Attorney and my direct experience at TLC, it’s a cult. It didn’t start out that way as many respected attorneys volunteered their time and it was genuine. None of those attorneys are welcome, nefarious charcuterie have enabled Gerry to indulge his need for worship while the attorneys set up a shadow network fleecing idiots, who are too stupid to realize they were ensnared, my late partner David Stewart being one. Your post missed the direct issue.

  8. Jim Shadduck says:

    By the way check out the music recorded specifically for Spence’s cult. Sex, drugs and the old man are prevalent themes along with money and power. Unfortunately most of the idiots don’t have the insight that they are rubes being played. I got kicked out for being suicidal. Really now. You mean I challenged Joy Low and his band of assholes. Yah, anyone who challenges these folks are dealt with. They are flat our liars and charlatans. You are an idiot for attending. They were amusing to say the least.

  9. Mitch says:

    Your exchange seems to raise serious questions with Mr Shadduck
    In several, replies he implies he was in a role as a prosecuting attorney in Oregon on some cult matters, (See his exchange with you).
    Was he in truth ever in such role in fact, as an Official in Oregon(See above)
    He leverages such refrains to proclaim to tell you his experience as a prosecuting official led him to decree TLC is a cult.(based in Wyo, not Oregon)
    Can he confirm, when, where, who(boss) in that capacity, (as a prosecutor in Oregon), if not his entire exchange with you is a giant charade on his part, if not worst.
    By, the way, I have never been on any TLC ranch, not weighing in on that, I suggest you get your B S meter out to determine if that Shadduck is on the up and up.
    Can he demonstrate that, rather than conflating some official position with no basis, which
    raises serious questions.
    In the military situation, any jerk can decree he has a load of medals as a Viet Nam vet, and can lie through his teeth, and get a pass. But, if a person has a law license, one can’t proclaim some official status, if not fully true, and not raise very very serious issues.

    • Mark Bennett says:

      Who cares what Shadduck thinks? He’s got enough knowledge of TLC that I suspect he’s been there, but he missed the point of the post (which is not necessarily what the title suggests) and wants to pick a fight.

  10. Mitch says:

    So, was he ever in a role of prosecuting cults in Oregon,(U S Atty office, or D A office) before he claims he came to TLC(WYO ranch), and claims he got kicked off ?
    Why are you pumping on “enough knowledge” on TLC, as to this Oregon Shadduck, when you,
    lend your blog to give him credence, regardless of you claim of who cares, what Shadduck thinks.
    Does that work 2 ways, as to who cares what you, or any, or some think, if this SHADDUCK thing can be kissed off ?
    This cult thing started in New York, from you cyber Scott, Simple-J, was pumped up by Pattis, the big BLOG HORN, then echoed, by this Shadduck, is he all some’s straw man -
    the planted so called prosecutor of cults in Oregon, or or is that a giant lark in the fabric of it all ?
    Maybe the Oregon BAR will care, John Gleason the Ethics ZAR, since this charade took flight from Oregon.
    This is not to say, any bought a GERRY-T Shirt, or got a signed copy of Justice for None,(or NOBODY @), but
    for you to say that nobody cares, was that a leap too far ?
    Isn’t caring at the heart of the U S Justice system.
    I am not fan of Imelda Marcos, did you even read about the massive contempt ruling on the MARCOS cabal ? Mucho dinero !
    It was a giant human rights case.
    Yes, this is not about Gerry’s big retainer from the MARCOS, this is about
    the notion that somehow those who go to some remote ranch in Wyo, are the only ones who care about justice, REAL JUSTICE FOR PEOPLE.
    Lots of people in Houston care about justice. You must care. Really, you must !
    See the piece on the vast miscarriage of justice at a military base in the State of Washington
    on Leon Jaworksi, the so called leading light of the Houston bar.
    See on Rush to Judgement, a major piece shining a light on miscarriage of justice that took many years to sort out.
    Respectfully, your fight with this Shadduck raised profound issues.
    They are not caped at some narrow issues as some might like them to be so put under the rug.
    Thank you for considering this post up. By the way, what is with the 5th Circuit saving BP billions on its latest ruling, AKA the OIL Spill on the well from hell(GULF), as that matter is still brewing in the Courts. Again, I believe this Shadduck opened a big PANDORA’s BOX, he did it right on you BLOG.
    RECALL Vets day, 2013, Best Regards.
    Oh, what is it with EX FBI Director, Louis F, and the alleged possible conflicts of interest on the GULF spill matters, as he was appointed to be put on some gravy train in the GULF OIL spill matter, by some Judge, down in the GULF area ?
    There is so much injustice in the world, one hardly can ignore just a few items to
    keep people from dropping to their knees in apathy.

  11. Mitch says:

    As to DAs, and Mr MicKinney, (see above), it is ironic, he says he would rather be in a cult than be a DA, the essence of his remarks. Was he deep in Fremont Count at TLC, a BIG CHEESE Warrior ?
    Again, this raises the issues even more, as if Shadduck was a planted so called DA, or prosecutor, of cults, (in Oregon), if he was not in all that means in matters(OREGON)
    Also, this notion that somehow, people who come to the ranch(TLC), are hardly human, and only at the ranch can one learn to be truly human, because law schools defrauded most law grads, is really out there. Wooooha, that is really far out, new age, snakey. Is this like the drama of the conflict between the UBER German, and the Good German ?
    Sure, who at one time was not bored out of their gord by some law school, class, if
    they went to the U of Conn, or U of Texas, or Yale, or … U of OKLA..
    OSU does not have a law school(Stillwater), BTW.
    Ironic, Professor Tribe lost a major case arising out of Wyo ranches.(THE HIGH ISLAND RANCH matter in WYO.)
    He was so pissed, he then starting raving in some law journal piece from Harvard.
    Sour grapes would be an understatement.

  12. Mitch says:

    Just to illustrate matters on WYOMING and Harvard,
    see:
    HLS: Bulletin: Vox Populi
    (or google Tribe, High Island Ranch, Harvard)

    Tribe(professor Larry TRIBE) was using an Army of his students at HARVARD law, to smear Government workers in WYO, seeking to protect federal land.
    Tribe’s client was a rubber baron(from Alabama who had trophy ranches in WYO).
    The P R spin out of Harvard was so over the top, as Tribe and clique tried to P R matters, and
    it back-fired on him. But, see how Tribe was manipulating matters on his WWW, spin, as if he forget the matter was being tried in a Court, and he was using his Harvard Professorship to
    run a giant spin job, using the WWW. That dog just did not hunt, at the end of the day.

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