Laura Shamp is a recent 2018 September Graduate of the Trial Lawyers College. She is a plaintiff trial lawyer at her firm Shamp Jordan Woodward in Atlanta, Georgia. Laura has tried cases before the United States Supreme Court and the Supreme Court of the State of Georgia, as well as all other trial and appellate courts in the State of Georgia.
After Laura graduated from the Trial Lawyers College, she left feeling different about her practice and life. “My three weeks at the Ranch changed the way I practice. It changed the way I think, and it changed the way I live. Gerry Spence says that to be a better lawyer, you must first be a better person. I think he is right.” She wanted to share her experience with other Georgia Trial Lawyers, so she worked with The Verdict, a quarterly publication by The Georgia Trial Lawyers Associations in writing a featured article in their “Technology Issue” released on March 12, 2019.
TLC got word of this article by a TLC Faculty Member that also lives in Georgia, Nelson Tyrone, and decided it would be a great article to share on the TLC Blog.
Like most plaintiff’s lawyers, I had heard about the three weeks intense Trial Lawyers College in Wyoming for years and had always wanted to go. I had read Gerry Spence’s books and listened to his tapes (back when there was such a thing as tapes), but with cases and kids and life, I could never justify taking the three weeks away from my practice. Then, I had a devastating trial loss in 2017. The kind that punches you in the gut and leaves you reeling. I couldn’t understand, and couldn’t let go of, why my client’s story had not resonated with the jury. Shortly after that loss, I had lunch with a good friend who had just gotten back from the Trial Lawyers College in Wyoming. She said, “Laura, it will change your life.” I certainly thought my life could use a little ‘change,’ so I applied and was accepted for the September class of 2018.
I would spend three weeks with no internet, no cell service, no computers and no television in truly one of the most beautiful places on earth, and I was more than a little nervous.
The Trial Lawyers College began in 1994 when Gerry Spence and some of his friends envisioned a different kind of training for lawyers who represented the injured and the accused. He donated a portion of his spectacular ranch near Dubois, Wyoming, and the Trial Lawyers College was born. Since then, thousands have been trained in the TLC method which aims at teaching trial lawyers to discover their clients’ stories by diving deep into their own and reaching for the connection that makes every story a universal one.
The Trial Lawyers College mission statement is on the wall in the cook house at the Ranch:
The Trial Lawyers College is dedicated to training and educating lawyers and judges who are committed to the jury system and to representing and obtaining justice for individuals; the poor, the injured, the forgotten, the voiceless, the defenseless and the damned, and to protecting the rights of such people from corporate and government oppression.
A lofty goal.
I arrived at the Ranch in my rental car at sundown and met the 50 trial lawyers I would spend just about every waking moment with for the next three weeks. I unpacked my stuff in my tiny dorm room with my roommate, made my twin bed and deposited my toothbrush in the bathroom we all shared down the hall. Then we began the work.
One of the guiding principles of the Trial Lawyers College is that you must take the lawyer out of his or her natural habitat so that she can learn a new way. The Ranch is isolated by design. The College requires that you be present, and by the end of day one, I understood why. Gerry Spence believes that telling our clients’ stories begins and ends with understanding our own. Our initial work at the Ranch was in small groups of about 14, and together we began that exploration. We explored how we got here, why we chose this path and what we planned to do with the rest of our careers and our lives. Pain, hurt, joy, fear – we were opened to our core. The barriers came down, and we laid bare.
During our three weeks, we worked on voir dire, openings, direct exams, cross, and closings. We shone a harsh light on our clients’ motivations and those of the defendants. I became characters in my clients’ stories and asked my classmates to do the same. We sometimes became the door that should have been locked, the rule book that wasn’t read, the child that fell. I spent hours working on the ‘why’ something happened in one of my cases; I spent even longer helping my classmates do the same.
My classmates came from every corner of the country, from 25 years old to 68. Trial lawyers with multi-million dollar verdicts and those yet to try their first case. In my class were criminal defense lawyers who have watched their clients sentenced to death and those who just lost their first DUI trial. At the Ranch, you live together, eat together, laugh together and cry together. It gets real, fast, and no one is going anywhere. The lawyers, who are also people, are present and undistracted. I had meaningful lengthy conversations. There are no buzzing iPhones, no breaking news alerts, no emails, no texts, no constant crises management. There was painting, singing, poetry . . . time and connection.
I know I cannot adequately describe what those three weeks were like, so I won’t try. I worked on my cases, a lot, but more than that I worked on myself. We started every day at 9am and stopped, exhausted, at 9pm — every day. We confronted injury, pain, suffering, and death in learning to find our clients’ stories, and then, painfully, we learned to tell them. I thought a lot about universal truth. We talked a lot about trust and betrayal.
New faculty came in each week – giving voluntarily of their time. They pay their own way to Wyoming and stay a week. Many of them volunteering for multiple weeks each year. These are some of the best trial lawyers in the country. You know it, but they don’t mention it. At night we sat by the fire and went even deeper.
My three weeks at the Ranch changed the way I practice. It changed the way I think, and it changed the way I live. Gerry says that to be a better lawyer, you must first be a better person. I think he is right.
Now I look at that loss in 2017 differently. I understand that my client’s story didn’t resonate with the jury, because it didn’t resonate first, with me. At the Ranch, I learned to look inside my client’s story and see my own. I learned that all our stories are the same, fundamentally. We are all damaged. We have all been wounded by unfairness and injustice, and it is that universal story that our clients are counting on us to tell. Telling that story requires more than skilled oratory and a dazzling command of the facts; it requires humility, empathy and a willingness to confront your own demons.
At the Ranch, I learned that being a trial lawyer, “representing and obtaining justice for the poor, the injured, the forgotten, the voiceless, and protecting the rights of such people from corporate and government oppression” is not just my job, it is my calling. And those whose calling it is are my tribe.
The Ranch isn’t for everyone. It requires a commitment of mind, body and soul, and a willingness to shed your armor and surrender to the process. Almost every morning I was at the Ranch, I hiked with some of my classmates to the top of Spence mountain to watch the sunrise – four miles round trip. On my last day at the Ranch, I sat in the dark for a long time until the sun finally exploded over the horizon.
Interested in joining Laura as a graduate of the Trial Lawyers College? TLC is still accepting applications for our 2019 September 3-Week College. Application deadline is May 18, 2019. If you can’t attend the 3-Week College, TLC also offers regionals across the nation. Our October Regional, Discover the Story of Your Case, is located in Leavenworth, Washington with a limited number of seats available.