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).


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).


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!


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.


The group is preoccupied with making money.


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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