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

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.]

0 responses to “Why is the Trial Lawyers College Afraid of these Three Women? [Updated]”

  1. It has been a couple of years since I was last at the college and I miss being able to attend and see the people with whom I have become very close friends with. I think I was the last class to have Mama Bear (Joane) as the ED and Fredi was actually in my core group so I can speak personally of how phenomenal both of them were.

    I can’t speak of the coming and goings of TLC but you are right that the college is going through a transition phase and when you change course there are bumps and bruises. No one can blame Joane for going out and starting her own program, she dedicated her a large portion of her life to running TLC, so no one should blame her for earning a living.

    My biggest concern with the transition is that there needs to be a voice for the small/solo practitioner and Public Defenders at the college. Fredi used to that voice because of her position at the FPD office which was instrumental to getting information out to people who focus on “poor people” law/

    I have voiced these concerns and have been happy with the effort to keep little guys like me involved in the college. Everyone keeps trying to paint a picture of a conspiracy and monopoly taking place at the college. I don’t agree with that picture. There have been changes in vision for the college, (what I don’t know because I don’t run in those circles) but the college is a business.

    The Old Man has retired and now Jude is running the show. New boss, new direction. I have met him a few times and well and I will be honest I didn’t get a good feeling. Maybe its because I was afraid of change… Or maybe I just don’t like the guy… I haven’t put a final stamp on that one, but stealing a line from Boiler Room,”You’re on my team. You understand that? I am not on yours.” He is the New captain of the ship and we can help him try to make it better or sit back and talk shit.

    So people are all butt hurt because Joane went off and started a program for women… Did we really expect her to fade away into nothingness??? She has to eat too!!! But I don’t know if I can co-sign shifting all the blame on TLC either. In tough economic times people only have so much money and time that they are willing to shell out to go attend a training. (Unless your the mega millionaire lawyers who only continue to practice because they need to keep their jets fueled and mega ranches running.

    I do not have either of those luxuries so I will continue to attend local bar CLE’s and if I have some extra cash and can coordinate with some of my TLC friends to meet up at a regional then I will do that to.

    But for now I am but a paycheck to paycheck lawyer who doesn’t have time to worry about what is happening in Dubois or Palm Springs…


    • Everyone keeps trying to paint a picture of a conspiracy and monopoly taking place at the college. I don’t agree with that picture. There have been changes in vision for the college, (what I don’t know because I don’t run in those circles) but the college is a business.

      Quite right. Not a family, not a tribe.

      A business.

  2. Mark:

    I’d lost track of doings at Thunderhead. Thanks for the update. I miss the place and what it once was. I wish Jo and company’s event was open to males. I could use a tune up.


  3. Amen Remy!
    I am terribly hurt and pissed and sad and let down and betrayed and happy and relieved and excited. It all seems a bit surreal as I sit here, a check to check $olo practicioner who only gets to practice the type of law propounded by TLC because my family supports me so (a move I would not have had the guts to make if not for Joane and TLC, Thank you!!!!). TLC will be very different without so many of the people that used to populate its seminars, they will be deeply missed. I don’t envy Jude and Laurie, nor the 3 Sisters, nor the rest of the alums. This situation is painful and sucks. At the same time the “journey” is at the heart of what we all do and sometimes the “journey” needs us to hurt and cry so we can appreciate the blessings we have all gotten (and I have gotten more than my fair share).
    My longest lasting concern, as I believe with both of you, is the survivability of what had been an important part of my life, while encouraging the growth and development of my dear friends who look to be moving in amazing directions. Specifically, my concern is not for the “long term survival of the college,” as it will “live on,” but more the heart rendering loss of irreplaceable value, specifically, that Fredi brought to the program. Joane and Mary are great people, don’t get me wrong (hell, Joane practically saved my life), but Fredi was “one of us” that had worked for the govt protecting the weakest ones in society. She is one of the most powerful and creative teachers I have ever encountered and I look forward for my next opportunity to be in the same zip code as her, let alone a classroom. I will miss her terribly and want to finally get that sex change operation so I can hit up the 3 sisters camp.
    But I will be back at TLC. Why, because there are still so many amazing people that have so much to teach and share with me. I will not be intimidated by the staff at TLC, nor at any other group, to pledge allegiance (not that it has been suggested) and I will freely associate with whomever I want. It will take the new(er) team at TLC a little while to get back in the saddle and I eagerly await the new developments. I hope to be out there at some point this year, paycheck willing.
    Only time will show what lies ahead, I just hope that we can all grow and change and travel in a manner that hurts few and rewards many, and I think we can All agree on that.

  4. Hi, Mark- My recent online views on the direction of TLC, Inc., are here http://katzjustice.com/underdog/permalink/Trial-Lawyers-College-at-the-Crossroads.html and here http://katzjustice.com/underdog/permalink/Recommending-the-Three-Sisters-Trial-Boot-Camp,-May-13-16..html.

    On the one hand, TLC, Inc., is free to run its organization as it wants, but no TLC alums need to accept actions of TLC, Inc. On the other hand, alienation will be felt by many — particularly the longer that the TLC, Inc., leadership stays silent on the staffing matter, for instance — after the recent staff termination/Saturday Night Massacre that followed the board of directors Saturday Night Massacre last fall.

    Either the TLC, Inc., leadership has determined it is willing to risk the alienation in the hopes of moving forward with the less alienated; is too occupied with their private law practices (which does not explain the silence, which takes only a few minutes to break, for starters); or has internal dissent on the matter (I have heard of none, and doubt this is involved with the silence).

    I do not wish to bring down the Trial Lawyers College. However, I will not be disingenuous when people ask me whether I recommend attending a TLC program.


  5. I know Jude. I know he wants what is best for the college.
    I know Joane, and I know she wants what is best for the college.
    I know Gerry, and I’ know he wants what is best for the college.
    When people differ in opinions as to what is “best for the college”,sometimes people get pissed,and feelings get hurt. That is just reality. There is no rule that says we all have to agree on what is the best course of action to insure the future of TLC.
    Frankly, in my view, Spence started it, and has every right to say, “Its my college. I started it. Ive devoted my time, energy, and money, and If you dont like how it is run, then kiss my ass, dont come.” He hasnt done that.
    Then again, Joane has every right to say, “I dont like it. I’m leaving.I’ll start my own fuckin college and run it my way.”
    We are all free to feel what we feel. What we dont like, we are free to work to change.That said, I”m not feeling particularly “betrayed” by anyone. I’m not picking a side in a war that cant be won. I doubt if anyone knows all the facts or the why’s and why-nots.Life is gray. We all are imperfect people that will make an endless amount of mistakes along the way. I’m probably making one right now.
    Just remember, “Anyone can slay a dragon.It takes a real hero to wake up every morning, and love the world all over again.”
    I learned that at TLC.

    • Kurt! Good to see you, you big fucking pussy!

      I think your view—”it’s Spence’s college, and he can do with it what he wants”—is entirely reasonable.

      Not a tribe.

      Not a family.

      Spence’s college. A business; a brand.

      Institutionalization ensures the survival of the brand. TLC will survive like Abercrombie & Fitch survives—that brand once outfitted expeditions to darkest Africa; now it sells softcore porn to gay teens.

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