The trial lawyers’ summer school founded by celebrated Wyoming attorney Gerry Spence on his Thunderhead Ranch outside Dubois is the focus of a legal fight over its management, leaving its future in limbo, at least in its Wyoming home base.
Spence says the Trial Lawyers College he started with his wife, Lanelle “Imaging” Spence in 1994, has veered from its mission “to obtain justice for individuals, the poor, the injured, the forgotten, the voiceless, the defenseless and the damned.”
The last phrase is lifted from muckraking journalist Lincoln Steffens’ description of famed American lawyer Clarence Darrow as “attorney for the damned.”
Board members on the other side of the dispute, including Texas lawyer and Trial Lawyers College president John Sloan and University of Akron law professor Dana K. Cole, contend that the real issue is a dispute over the financing of a proposed new $6 million Gerry Spence Education Center on the campus’ site near Dubois.
“It’s really all about a building,” said Cole, who considers Spence a “mentor and father figure” and who says he is heartbroken by the bitter divide. “I am overwhelmed with profound sadness,” Cole said, “it’s led to lots of sleepless nights.”
But Sloan and Cole say they and the majority of board members are ready to move ahead with the college with or without Spence.
“There’s been an outpouring of support from alumni towards us and the difficult position we’ve taken,” said Sloan. “It’s just been incredible.”
On April 13, Spence sent a letter via his lawyer stepson, Christopher Hawks, to Sloan asking that the school “cease and desist from using the names ‘Gerry Spence’, ‘Spence’ and ‘Thunderhead Ranch’ in connection with its operations.” Hawks also announced that the Spence Foundation, which owns the property along the East Fork of the Wind River where the Trial Lawyers College is situated, was revoking its lease.
Sloan said the college intends to comply with the lease termination and move off the Thunderhead Ranch before the May 13 deadline set out in the letter. A new site has not been selected, he said. Almost all references to Spence have been purged from the Trial Lawyers College website.
On April 28, Spence and four other members of the Trial Lawyers College board filed a lawsuit in Cheyenne District Court asking for the “judicial dissolution” of the nonprofit corporation and that an audit be ordered for its operations.
It asks that the assets of the non-profit be distributed to “another nonprofit that will carry on the purpose of the corporation” or that the court “remove all directors other than the plaintiffs.”
The lawsuit describes the 10-member board governing the school as “deadlocked” over key issues, including its philosophical mission “to train trial lawyers to become greater champions for ordinary people, to stand up on their behalf against the massive power of big business, insurance companies, corporations and the government.”
According to California attorney R. Rex Parris, a longstanding Trial Lawyers College board member and Spence ally, the dispute has divided longtime friends into rival camps led by Spence on one side and Sloan on the other.
“Listen,” said Parris, who also serves as mayor of Lancaster, California, “I am shocked by this. Totally, unequivocally, shocked by this.”
Older Americans remember Gerry Spence — clothed in his trademark fringed buckskin jacket — for his folksy television commentary during the 1995 O.J. Simpson murder trial and for his dramatic appearances in dozens of other high-profile trials, including the 1979 Karen Silkwood family lawsuit against Kerr-McGee Corporation and his successful murder trial defense of former Rock Springs police chief Ed Cantrell the same year.
Spence remains fiercely protective of his image and legacy, in which the Trial Lawyers College plays an important role. In a 2016 TED talk he delivered in Jackson, Spence said proudly: “I established this Trial Lawyers College. I did it as a pro bono, tax-free institution that makes no profit… We represent people. We don’t represent corporations. We don’t represent big money. We don’t represent anybody except ordinary people. Just people. And I’m still fighting and expect to continue to fight for the rest of my days.”
Now 91 years old, Spence shuttles between his estates in Montecito, California, and “Singing Trees” in Jackson Hole, a $20 million, 11,815-square-foot home on 35 acres with its own trout pond.
The rustic lawyers’ college, located on 185 acres of what was the 35,000-acre Thunderhead Ranch, consists of seven mock courtrooms, a large conference room, double-occupancy dorm rooms for 55 students, bedrooms for 15 staff and dining facilities. The Spences sold the working ranch to the state of Wyoming in 1992 on the condition that it not be commercially developed. It is now managed as the Spence & Moriarity Wildlife Habitat Management Area by the Wyoming Game and Fish Department
Since it was founded in 1994 the college has hosted annual three-week summer courses for working or aspiring trial lawyers. Because of the ongoing COVID-19 crisis, this year’s summer course has been pushed back until September although its venue, because of the lease dispute, is uncertain. Until recently the courses featured regular appearances by Spence, self-described “visionary and creator” of the college. Spence’s unconventional lectures featured treatises on love and encouraged students to express themselves in free-hand art projects.
In his lawsuit, Spence contends he “began to see a pattern of institutionalization with rigid and overly structured teaching methods, with certain board members claiming there is a set-in-stone method of teaching students at Trial Lawyers College, methods that have done exactly what he feared most, to kill the spirit and life of TLC’s former spontaneity.”
Although lacking specifics, the Spence lawsuit also expressed his concern that the college “would be taken over by individuals who would not only institutionalize the college but would take control of it for promoting themselves or their firm, and for their own gain.”
The most recent 2017 non-profit filing with the Internal Revenue Service lists the Trial Lawyers College assets at $7,997,967 and salaries and compensation for staff at $611,164. Income from tuition was $343,000. In his lawsuit, Spence estimated the college’s current assets at about $5 million.
According to Parris, the key issue dividing the board is the request by him and other board members for an independent audit of the college as well as an accounting of business generated by board members based on their affiliation with the college.
“I think the dispute really lies in the audit, and it has to be an independent audit,” said Parris, “I think that whenever you have a situation where people are dancing like they are walking on hot coals when you mention the word ‘audit’ you should really be concerned.”
Representing the other side, Sloan and Cole contend the division stems from an effort by Spence and his allies to use all of the college’s assets to build a new $6 million Gerry Spence Education Building on the property, partly as a monument to the founder. The majority of the board voted against using the college reserves to build a new building. An effort to raise funds for the building through contributions fell far short of its goal, according to the defendants.
“I don’t say this to minimize him at all, because I hold him in the highest regard,” said Sloan, “but like all of us as we get older, there are fewer and fewer people who know who Gerry Spence is. We have a large number of teachers that are going to continue with the Trial Lawyers’ College. Time will tell but I think it will continue to be wildly successful.”
For his part, Spence is hopeful the college can be revived and return to its original mission. In a short video he released after the lawsuit was filed in Cheyenne, an emotional Spence said:
“Some people think that the Trial Lawyers College is over. Well, I’d like you to know a marvelous secret… Trial Lawyers College is going to continue with marvelous new leadership. We’re going to continue forwarding the message of our great institution, that we are an organization dedicated to teaching our trial lawyers how to fight the good battle for ordinary people who need our support and our help.”
But Spence concluded, “We need your help. We need your help.”