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I. HATE. HER. She’s the physical manifestation of my deepest frustration, annoyance, and disgust in humanity. She blames those around her for the problems in her life. She’s a liar. She’s entitled. She’s fake—wearing a cloak of victimhood to hide Her true motivation. And worst of all, She’s got police and prosecutors eating out of the palm of Her hand. She’s the accuser in my rape case and I have the honor of defending my client against Her false accusations and my sword is cross examination.

There was a time when I’d line up all the inconsistencies, the biases, the character attacks on Her vain and vapid existence. And I’d bring the receipts. Prior statements. Timestamped video and audio recordings. Every scrap of evidence needed to gut her credibility like a fish.

At Gerry Spence’s Trial Laywer’s College, there’s an arch spanning the road in and out of Thunderhead Ranch. On the way in, the sign hanging from the arch announces the name of the place you’re arriving: Trial Lawyer’s College. On the back side of that sign is a reminder of the insight you gain at the ranch: “It all begins with you.”

Trial Lawyer’s College is not a tear em down to build em up program. It’s a mirror. I use a mirror every day. When I stand in front of a mirror, it’s most often for a superficial purpose: trimming my beard, combing my hair, straightening my tie. I struggle standing in front of that mirror and seeing into the person looking back at me. Not looking at the reflection; contemplating what that person’s purpose, ethic, strengths, and weaknesses are. When you’re stuck on a ranch in the backcountry of Wyoming for three weeks with no cell service, no wi-fi, and no television, it’s hard to avoid soul-searching.

Every human has issues. Even lawyers. Self-doubt. Excessive ego. Prejudice. Despite the outward projection that we, as trial lawyers, set those issues aside when we analyze a case, we don’t. Our issues are not a necklace that can be put into a jewelry box when the occasion calls for subtlety. Our issues are lenses through which every interaction, every thought, every statement is filtered. Ignoring the issues doesn’t make them go away. It only leads to projection, misunderstanding, and distrust. The mirror of Trial Lawyer’s College stands ready to allow each attorney who attends and participates the opportunity to peer into the him or herself, look back into history, identify issues honestly, and, sometimes, heal from the harm that spawned the issues in the first place. It all begins with you.

Trial Lawyer’s College sends a packet of required readings to all attendees and instructions to bring a case to the ranch. The instructions tell attendees to bring a case they feel confident will go to trial, to have discovery and investigation largely complete, and to understand the case to a level the trial preparation can occur during the three weeks on the ranch.

I took Wes’s case to the ranch. Wes was accused of rape, kidnapping, and felonious assault. I didn’t know exactly what to expect at the ranch, but I felt I could use the three weeks to prepare the case even if the methods weren’t applicable. The case work involved each phase of trial from voir dire to closing arguments. The days we worked on cross examination; I knew which witness I would work on: Her.

I ran my cross examination. The attorney playing her did well. I had prepared the attorney with her behavior, her written statements, background information about the case. I sliced and diced her with her prior inconsistent statements. I did everything but get her to admit she lied outright. When it was over, I turned triumphantly to the jury and instructor, grinning like a sloth in a tree. Over the next fifteen minutes I learned that I came off excessively aggressive, my jury didn’t like me, that I made Her seem even more the victim. More concerning, I learned that Her story seemed believable even though the jurors knew she was lying about each point I had impeached Her on. They sympathized with Her even though they fully believed my allegations of fabrication and bias.

My instructor for this session, Bill, was a retired marine. He did not tolerate fooling around and had no time for attorney-students who didn’t want to work the system.1 Bill took me aside and gave the class a break. As I stood there, staring at the floor, I don’t know what I expected. No one had berated me at the ranch. Criticism had always been given constructively, with clear example, and with reason to support the proposed modification. I know my jury was genuine. No one was giving me a hard time to cut me down, ostracize me, or push a hidden agenda, so I knew the criticism from the jury needed to be accepted and changes made. With a hand on my shoulder, Bill, the most stoic person I’d seen at the ranch for certain and possibly the most stoic man I’ve never met, willed me to meet his gaze. He reached into my soul and brought out pain and fear that I hadn’t known for decades. He knew I had been attacked and victimized by a woman similar to Her. He knew I relished the opportunity to exact justice from Her for the pain I’d been caused so long ago. And he knew all this without me ever saying a word.

So we worked through that. That’s the real foundation and gift of Trial Lawyer’s College. Because “It All Begins With You” isn’t a slogan, it’s the life of a TLC trained lawyer. When I came out the other side of that adventure, I had a perspective on the witness I never would have known without “doing the work”. “Do the work” is a slogan, a mantra, at the ranch. “The Work” isn’t reading transcripts and witness statements. It’s not going to the scene and writing motions. “The Work” is taking each witness, each moment, each story of your case, and accepting it, accepting your personal biases, fears, and issues with it, and coming to understand the universal human emotions that lay under the surface of each piece of the puzzle that is the trial.

When I crossed her in that classroom again, I was kind. I was empathetic. I told her I understood why she felt my client betrayed her in the end of their relationship. I told her I understood how embarrassed she felt when, like The Prodigal Son, she slunk back to her parents when their relationship ended for shelter and support. I told her I understood the guilt and shame she felt in that moment. And how I understood why she’d accuse Wes of something he didn’t do because the reality, that she went back to him after all the pain he had caused her, was too much to bear.

By the time we met at trial, she had already been told by the prosecutor that I was tenacious. In her preparation, she had been told I’d attack Her on Her inconsistencies, I’d shred her on her biases, I’d grandstand and revel in her ruination. As I rose to meet her in the courtroom, she glared at me. She was ready for battle. She was ready to beat me. As I started asking about the pain Wes had caused her; the confused look she gave me was second only the confused looks she shot at the prosecutor’s table. As I empathized with her about having overbearing parents, she agreed with me that they were difficult, that they had always been difficult, that they had always hated Wes for a myriad of reasons, and that, when she got caught spending time with him after their separation, she felt guilty. For nearly an hour, each reason she had to lie about the rape was connected to something I could understand, empathize with, and ultimately accept. My voice was never raised. My tone never accusatory, only understanding. The jury understood why she lied. They understood that she felt like she had no choice. Her embarrassment of going back to Wes after all their turmoil was too much to bear. The lie too easy. The consequences of that lie too remote. They freed my client two days later.

The lessons I learned at the Ranch reach farther than the courtroom. I use my TLC training in my practice every day with prosecutors, judges, clients, and accusers. More importantly, I use it with my parents, my wife, and my children. Attending the Three Week College made me a better person. I’m happier than I have ever been in my life. I accept and understand those at which I would, historically, rage. I teach the lessons I learned at the Ranch to my children through example and explicit discussion and I believe they are better people for it.

As defense lawyers, we are better as a community. We are stronger when we support one another. The work we do is hard, and we put our emotions, our strength, and our health on the line for our clients. We are not alone in this work. It’s hard to make friends as an adult. It’s even harder to make deep connections with other adults. There are people from my class that I call my best friends. There are people from my class who I can call at any time knowing they will pick up the phone, listen, and be the mirror I need in that moment. I am most grateful when I am able to be that mirror for one of my classmates.

1 To be clear, Trial Lawyer’s College teaches the McCarthy-style cross.
I am partial to the Posner-Dodd method. Regardless, a one fact at a time, yes-focused questioning style is employed. The “system” here is using emotion as the focal point of a story rich with detail.