America’s Most Successful Trial Lawyer on the
Power of Being Real
Blending courtroom experiences with everyday situations, Spence’s timeless insight is essential for both business and life. The book taught me what it takes to communicate on behalf of your beliefs, to use fear to your advantage and stand firmly in your power. I highly recommend it for women entrepreneurs, as so many of us have learned to remain silent rather than ask for what we need or express how we feel. And the reality is that if we want to have impact in the world and get to the next level in our lives, we have to learn to speak up.
So during an editorial meeting for this issue, when Sam asked me, “Who can we talk to in Wyoming?” I immediately thought—Gerry Spence! He was born, raised and educated in the state, and lives there to this day with his wife of forty years.
Spence’s courtroom career is legendary. Known for upholding his deep convictions and delivering powerful presentations, in over 60 years of trying cases he has never lost a criminal case, and since 1969 he has not lost a civil case either. After graduating from the University of Wyoming Law School in 1952, he dedicated his life to defending those who needed it most—the poor, the injured, and the underdogs standing up against big corporations or the government. He has tried and won many high-profile cases and authored 16 nationally-published books.
It was an honor to be able to catch up with Mr. Spence for an interview, and I am so excited to share some of his wisdom with you here. Read our Q&A below to get a peak at his stance on justice and what it takes to deliver a convincing argument—and don’t forget to pick up one of his books or two!
As a lawyer you are widely recognized for never losing a criminal case. What does it take to make a successful argument in court?
GERRY: I have a trial lawyer’s college where I try to teach that, and the first thing we have to do in the trial of cases is to become a human being ourselves. Most of us by the time we get out of law school, we don’t know anything about who we are. And if I don’t know who I am as a human being, I can’t understand who my client is, and if I can’t understand my client, I can’t expect a jury to either. A jury is almost always composed of ordinary human beings—people who fight for their existence, work hard, and have had a lot of pain, and loss and misery like all of us real human beings—and unless we can become a real human being, there isn’t any way that we can talk to them with any credibility.
How do you teach that in your program?
GERRY: We begin our teaching with three days of psychodrama—people get in these groups with psychodramatic trainers and have a chance to go deeply into their own life. The idea is to move aside all of the phony stuff that we put over who we are to protect ourselves, and become raw, real human beings. If you can take that person into the courtroom, they don’t have to be hugely articulate. It’s much more important to be hugely real—that is the most powerful attorney in the court room.
So delivering a convincing argument goes a bit deeper than people might think…
GERRY: Yes, an argument is about solving an issue, and the resolution needs to be hung on the truth. The question is: who do you believe? So there’s a tremendous power in openness, being vulnerable, and being real to the point where—if I don’t know the answer, I simply say I don’t know. If they say, “How do you feel?” I may say, “I’m afraid.” Let me give you an example of that. We live here in Wyoming in the mountains, and it’s very easy to get lost in the mountains. Let’s say I want to go down through the forrest and over the snow-packed tops to the other side of the mountain, to a particular destination, and I have two guides to choose from. One says, “I’m the best mountaineer in the world, I know how to get there, I’ll get you there safely, don’t worry about it.” And you say to him, have you ever been through there? And he says “Oh no but I’ve been through all kinds like that, don’t worry about it at all.” Then the other one says, “I really care about seeing that we make a safe trip. I’ve never been through those mountains, and I am afraid, I am fearful. It is a treacherous journey but I think that if we work together and care about each other, take our time and use our best resources, together we can get through and find our way to the other side. And I’ll be with you all the way.” Which one do you want?
You’re known for defending people charged with crimes, often who are already considered guilty by popular opinion. When people come to you with their cases, how do you know whether you think they’re innocent?
GERRY: Innocent is a very tricky word. The law is one thing, justice is another. Sometimes the law and justice don’t match up. Sometimes we commit acts in violation of the law which indeed are just. So I don’t make my judgement in cases based on whether the individual has violated the law, I make it based on how I feel about that person, and how they have been treated by the law. In actual application the law today is not an instrument for freedom—nor is it an instrument for the benefit of the poor or for minorities. Once we see a citizen charged with a crime, that citizen is in serious trouble. The statistic is that 98% of people charged are convicted. That means that we are convicting innocent people, that they are not having fair trials, and that they are not represented by well-trained lawyers. Once they’re charged, they will be given a public defender who maybe has 200 or 300 cases on their docket. (Whereas on mine, I’d have never more than 7 in a year.) Those cases have to be prepared, experts have to be found, detailed preparation has to be made for every single witness. It is gruesome, long serious hard work to prepare a case and these poor kids with all that work, sometimes don’t even see their client until the morning of the trial. So they talk their clients into pleading guilty and getting off with 7 or 8 years instead of going to trial, losing, and going to the death house even. In our penitentiaries we have thousands of innocent people that are serving out time for crimes they didn’t commit.
Many of us get riled up when we hear about systemic injustice. What calls you to do something about it?
GERRY: I am required by who I am not only to defend people who are charged with crimes, but to expose the criminals in the justice system who call themselves police, misconduct themselves, and violate the law themselves against ordinary citizens. Over the course of my life in defending people charged with crimes, I have yet to be in a case in which the police or the prosecutors or both haven’t misconducted themselves, or even criminally violated the law—not once in over 60 years in an entire career. I was giving a talk to over 200 criminal defense attorneys once, and I said, if you have ever tried a case where the police or the prosecutors violated the law in some way, please stand up. All but 4 people in the room did. That was a pretty frightening experience for me, and along the way I began to realize that this phenomenon is absolutely astounding. One of the things I decided to do was to write a book about it—it’s my latest book called, Police State: How America’s Cops Get Away With Murder. The cases where justice is being smeared are the ones that invite my attention.