Host Sean Harris talks with plaintiff attorney Eric Penn from Texas about Gerry Spence’s Trial Lawyers College. Eric is a graduate of the college and shares how using psychodrama techniques has helped in his practice, his cases, and even in his personal life.
Sean: Hello and welcome to Civilly Speaking, OAJ’s monthly podcast on practical and timely legal issues. I am your host Sean Harris. Our guest today is Eric Penn. My good friend from Jacksonville, TX. Eric is a plaintiffs lawyer and his practice focuses on trucking cases and products liability cases. Relevant to our discussion here today, Eric is a graduate of Gerry Spence’s Trial Lawyer College in Wyoming. Eric Penn, it is our pleasure and thanks for being here today.
Eric: Great to be here.
Sean: I know there is a lot of mystique when you hear the name Gerry Spence and when you hear trial lawyers college. How did you hear about it, how did you get into it, why did you decide to go?
Eric: Well, as far as how did I hear about it, I heard about it long before I went. I think that probably all of us that do the work that we do have at some point heard of Spence and the Trial Lawyers College (TLC). I went to my first event in early 2010. I was strongly encouraged to go by my good friend John Sloane, in Longview Texas, who is the current CLT President. He was highly involved on the board even back then, but he encouraged me to go and I went. Trial Lawyers College has these regionals that they do which are usually a Thursday through Sunday event. I think they do probably four a year regionally across the country. One happen to be in Texas, so I went to that. I had no real intention of ever doing this but was so intrigued and struct by the experience. I immediately put in my application for the three week college and got accepted and went in the summer of 2010. That is how I heard of it and got involved with Trial Lawyers College.
Sean: I will tell you that when I went I had this perception of what it would be, what I was supposed to be. Talk to us about who are good candidates to go. For example, do you have to be a thirty year litigator to go and get anything out of it?
Eric: No, but back to the first premise of your question, I went into my first Trial Lawyers College event pretty free of perceptions. I had of course heard of Gerry and College but I didn’t know a whole lot about it and it was a last second thing for me. I didn’t have a hugely developed sense of what to expect. As to whole the perfect candidate is, you absolutely do not have to be a thirty year lawyer; I was a ten year lawyer when I went. I don’t remember how many jury trials I had under my belt at that time, probably a dozen or so. There were people in my class who were five or six year lawyers at the time. We certainly had the other end of the spectrum where there were thirty and forty year lawyers there too. I’m sure if John Sloane or some of the others were talking to you they could give you some examples of the youngest trial lawyers who attended. For me personally, I think a lawyer probably needs three to five years under his belt and tried a few jury trials to have some frame of reference. But after that, anyone who calls themselves a trial lawyer and represents real people, whether it be personal injury lawyers or criminal defense lawyers, are the perfect candidate.
Sean: I will tell you that was one of the myths in my mind that was kind of dispelled that, as you say, if you are interested in becoming a better lawyer, if you are interested in becoming a better person, you don’t have to have had fifty, sixty, one hundred jury trials to benefit from the experience.
Eric: Agree completely.
Sean: Before we get into some of the specifics, can you talk about the general philosophy or generalize approach to how TLC helps you in your practice and what their approach is?
Eric: I certainly can and I want to have the caveat upfront just so that everyone knows that I am far from the perfect TLC spokesman.
Sean: We can disagree about that but go ahead.
Eric: There are many others who are on staff and greatly involved much more than I am, but I am who you have today so I’ll do the best to answer your questions. The general concept is that everything that we do, and did at TLC, is founded in and based upon using psychodrama and psychodramatic techniques. Of course going in I had no idea what that meant. Now I have a much more profound understanding of that. TLC uses trained, licensed, experienced psychodramatists to come in and facilitate what we are doing. I used to tell people it is a month long, but it’s actually about 23 days broken into three week periods. The first four days or so of the first week you are broken up into four groups of about 15 students and staff. It’s what they call “small group intensive psychodrama.” Sean, you and I experienced this on a smaller scale in terms of days at the TLC even that we were at. Actually, we were in the group with Don Clarkson who was my psychodramatist at the big college too. I am biased because of that but I think Don is the absolute best at what he does and what they do. The point of doing that upfront is to work on us as people so that we can understand ourselves better, that we can understand our stories better, that we can see whatever the individual components of somebody else’s story that they may have even though we might not have anywhere near the same exact experience. We have all experienced the same of similar emotions in our lives. So that was a critical part of it. Then, even in the grand scheme of things, bigger than that the techniques that we use in those psychodramas are teaching us how to use the psychodramatic techniques which we then kind of use the foundation of everything else that we learn at TLC. So, when you learn specific techniques to do a direct of a witness that is a bit different than you’ve always done, you are using the psychodramatic techniques that we all learned in our personal psychodrama groups. Back to the big picture, everything that TLC does in one way or the other uses the psychodramas and those techniques as a foundation for what that then Gerry has taught us to uniquely apply it to our practice.
Sean: You’ve been talking about it, and I want to make sure because it is a mouthful, when you say psychodrama what are you talking about?
Eric: Well, that is a question that I am not sure I am qualified to answer. In layman’s terms, my interpretation of what in the world is a psychodrama is it’s where a psychodramatist comes in and explores with a protagonist, the person who is subject of the psychodrama, in a group setting something about their past or something that they have experienced or lived through that’s influenced who they are as a person. Again, I am not qualified to answer that question but that is the best description I can give you from a layman’s perspective.
Sean: Now, I must have been absent the day in law school when they taught psychodramas. What does that have to do with being a lawyer and representing your client.
Eric: Yeah, I was out that day too or that week. What does it have to do with being a lawyer? First thing it does is it helps you be a better person. I heard people say that before I went and it sounded a bit cheesy to me. I didn’t really understand what it meant. After going and experiencing it for myself I have a much more profound understanding of what it means. The term they use there is that “you have to work on the horse first” meaning yourself. It truly does help you understand what your strengths and weaknesses are, what your unique experiences are and how they’ve affected you as a person. The best example I can give you as far as the affects it’s had on me as a person is my wife. So, you can imagine everyone who signs up to go to this thing, it’s close to a month obligation, we have three kids now but when I went we had two, they were two-and-a-half and six months old. It was quite the ordeal on my wife for me to be gone for that period of time with two young kids at the house. I am lucky she supported it and I went. After I got back, she noticed a change in me. Now, what happens is… I have been back to the ranch two or three times since I went to the college and every now and then when I do something I am not supposed to or get into an argument my wife will spontaneously bust out with a “you need to get back to the ranch.” What she means is that she recognizes that I personally get a benefit and it spills over into everybody that I interact with, certainly her included. She reminds me that I get that benefit and maybe it’s time to go back and recharge a bit.
Sean: One of my impressions or my understanding of part of the teaching is what I think you have been saying. In order to represent your client and to know your client, first you have to know who you are. Is that accurate?
Eric: That is absolutely accurate. You have to have an understanding of the type of person you are. Again, what are your strengths, what are you weaknesses, what makes you tick, what is in your background that may have been an obstacles that may continue to be an obstacle. You have to understand that and be aware of that to work around it and to improve the situation. All of those issues I think are extremely important to have as best an understanding as you can so that you can then understand your client. At the end of the day, obviously we are all storytellers and we are our clients storytellers. To be able to accurately tell our client’s story we have to understand their story. TLC will tell you, and I agree, to understand your client’s story fully you have to first understand yours. That is one of the foundational concepts.
Sean: Now, we talked a little bit about lawyers who go going through a personal psychodrama and then the application to our cases is the idea of reversing roles of standing in the shoes of another person to really understand what they have been through and what they continue to go through.
Eric: Definitely. Gerry, I remember at one point probably towards the end of our college, made the statement that look we weren’t going to lie here, everyone is going to take a little bit different of a piece home with them, but from my standpoint, if you could only take one thing away from this experience I want you to be able to reverse roles in your life. Gerry uses it in every aspect whether it be reversing roles with a clerk at the gas station to understand what her perspective must be like, when it comes to our practice reversing roles with your staff and understanding their perspective, reversing roles with the judge in the case or reversing roles with the other lawyer in the case, reversing roles with witness for your client or an opposing witness, etc. He felt that strongly that if you could only take one skill away that’s the one he would want you to take. Again, it’s one of the foundational things that you work with at TLC.
Sean: We talked generally about philosophy and the application. How do you use these things day to day in your practice?
Eric: Well, like I said, if you ask 10 other TLC grads that same question you are going to get ten different variations of that answer because we all take different pieces that we relate to and that we are able to use. But to your question for me, I would say that there is a list of three or four things and at the very top the stuff that I use from TLC in almost every case is preparing client for their testimony. We all know generally what the statistics are, that generally means a deposition. Ever single case that we have, our clients are deposed. The smaller minority that we then go to trial with, we use this same stuff for our trial testimony. The concept of going through and having the client go through work with the psychodramatist and person psychodramas is so important to me and now my practice; it was not there before I went to TLC. That is easy for me to answer as the single most important component that I’ve used and continue to utilize in my practice since I went to the ranch.
Sean: Tell us more about that. When you sit down to prepare a client for usually a deposition, how does that go?
Eric: Well, let’s take what we all wish all of our cases were all of the time and that’s the big case. In a big case, you have more leeway with your budget and how much you can spend on expenses so in those cases, at least so far, I bring in one of the trained psychodramatists to work with my client to prepare them for their deposition or trial testimony. We will have at least one full day or sometimes more if the case clients require it set aside where we bring in the psychodramatist to kind of run the show and they go through the exercise with the clients. Of course, we are in there as lawyers. We try to have a group of at least 10, probably 15 max, to work. I get my staff to participate or I have other friends and colleagues who are familiar with TLC and we voluntarily help each other out and spend time working each others cases. Then undoubtedly we have other people who we ask to come participate who have never done it before and I have even started having in the right case with the right experts having the experts come in and participate in those sessions which I think is a really unique twist that is going to be helpful to them and us ultimately. We go through and have a psychodramatist lead a psychodramatic session with the clients. The benefits are enormous, but you kind of break it down into two categories in my mind at least. One, to be able to tell our client’s story to twelve strangers we have to intimately know it ourselves. After my client has gone through a full day or more of this psychodrama I can promise you that I am in a much much greater position to understand my client’s story and then convey it to the twelve strangers in the box. I don’t care how many times you have the interview sessions across the desk or on the couches in the conference room or whatever setting, once you do the psychodrama you will learn things that you did not know before, every single time. That has been my experience. It is greatly helpful to us as the lawyers to have the benefit of going through that process just so that we understand our client’s story. From the client’s perspective, it gets them in the absolute best possible position to then accurately answer questions either in their deposition or trial testimony about the things that we know they are going to be asked about. From my perspective, the easiest calls on which cases do we do the full blown psychodrama on are absolutely ones that have any kind of liability question in the facts because if there are liability issues then we all know it is going to be critical that the client’s get as accurate as the can the facts that happened. In my experience, they are going to be in the absolute best position to give those liability facts because one of the components that we work into the psychodrama is a reenactment of the event. This is usually happening a day or two before their deposition. They have literally just gone back and relived this event that may have happened a year or more before. After the psychodrama they are in such a better position to supply those detailed answers in response to the questions that you know are coming then if you hadn’t have done that. They also get the emotional benefit and release of going through and talking about all of the tragic damages that either them or their loved one has suffered. I’ll tell you this, as an interesting observation from my standpoint, whether it be us as TLC grads or clients, I literally think I am batting a thousand with the people who were the subject of the psychodramas after they go through it they tell me they got the best night of sleep in their life the night after it happened. I am not qualified to fully analyze what the psychological benefit is that they get from this, but I can tell you that they get a benefit from it in addition to all of the things that we just talked about that help us with the case specifics.
Sean: For no other reason, what better way to refresh their recollection than to have them relive it.
Eric: There is no better way, that’s right. That’s exactly why I am a firm believer. It is so critical to do it. Again, I did it in all cases, but certainly in cases that have liability issues that are important. Unfortunately, I have seen this and I’ve vowed to never let it happen to me, I’ve seen cases where lawyers do the full work up in trial prep wether it be doing a TLC workup or whatever else they use and the client all of a sudden has a better understanding or remembrance of how the incident happened but unfortunately they didn’t go through that same full work up before their deposition. Now you have to have them prepped to fend off the inevitable questions of “well hang on, when I took your deposition a year ago you didn’t tell me all of these details that you are telling us now in response to your lawyer’s questions. Can you explain to the jury why that is?” I don’t ever want to have that happen to me. That is just one of the many reasons that I am such a big believer that the workup needs to happen before the depo and trial testimony, not just before trial.
Sean: This is interesting. Obviously you have talked about the larger cases where it’s going to warrant bringing in a specialist to help out. Are there ways where you can use these same strategies in a case that is not so large?
Eric: Well there are and it’s a different scale. The short answer is that I do those myself. The thought process is that I am certainly no trained psychodramatists and never will be, but I am better than nothing. On the smaller cases that economically don’t justify bringing in the real guys then I feel competent enough to do a smaller workup myself. I usually have a member of my staff or two who will participate and we don’t go as long. If the client has a spouse then usually, depending on the relationship, it’s helpful to have the spouse participate too. Just spending two or three hours working through stuff and usually going back and including what we would call “present tense reenactment of the event” serves a lot of the same purposes. Again, smaller scale but the case is on a smaller scale. That is my personal solution to hopefully trying to get some of the benefit without having to incur the expense on a case that can’t afford it of bringing in the big guys.
Sean: I would imagine too that not only is it helping the memory of the client so that they are accurate during their testimony but for the lawyer who is observing or participating you’re probably learning a heck of a lot about your client.
Eric: 100% of the time that is my experience. That is so accurate. Again, whether we take the greatest intake in the world or five more after the initial one you just do not get the same level of understanding in a setting where you are sitting across the desk or across the table and asking questions and the person is just answering. It’s above my pay grade to explain the psychology behind it but I can simply say that there are some barriers to traditional question and answer sessions that you just can’t get through or around like you can using psychodramas and some of these psychodramatic techniques. The premise of your question is just 100% accurate in my experience that I always learn things that I didn’t know and would not have been made aware of if we hadn’t of done the psychodrama.
Sean: Well Eric Penn, it has been a lot of fun. Thank you for joining us here on Civilly Speaking, we really appreciate it very much.
Eric: I enjoyed it very much Sean. Thanks for having me.