Diversifying Hero Worship

Gerry Spence

Worshipped, by some. Image by misternaxal via Flickr

Earlier in life I thought of lawyers as critical thinkers and folks who can separate the wheat from the chaff. However, as I continue in this profession, that perception continues to be severely eroded.

What makes me think of this? In two words: hero worship. I always thought of hero worship as something that developed in childhood and abated in early adulthood. I’m wrong, repeatedly and systematically.

Today, Scott Greenfield analyzes Gerry Spence’s blog, and I found it interesting since I rarely see criticism (or at least semi-critical commentary) of Gerry. He is a living legend, with a cult following that rivals crowds waiting to see “The Rocky Horror Picture Show.” According to some, he has never lost a case (please do not get me started on this again). To some, he achieves god status. For this reason, please do not stand too close to Scott for the next day or so–especially if dark clouds are in the sky.

Over an extended period, Spence has offered posts that simultaneously paint him as the poor, despised, undeserving outsider, while embracing his victimhood as the catapult to his making him the advocate for the downtrodden that he is today.

“So, poor me, I was rejected as a kid when I wanted so desperately to belong to a fraternity.  I was rejected from the legal fraternity when I failed the bar.  How about when I ran for Congress, and after that, when I tried to get a job as a law professor, and later, when I wanted to become a judge and was rejected for both of these positions by the structure in power?”

“I have never thought about this in this way before – but all of these were, in fact, clubs:  the fraternity, a club to be sure, the congressional and academic brotherhoods, and the political club that governs the judiciary.  You did not belong to the club, Mr. Spence.  You were an outsider.  You were not to be trusted, because you did not belong and we will not have you.”

I almost cried as I read this, until I remembered that he’s got an awfully nice ranch in Wyoming for someone who has suffered so.  It might have had something to do with the number of shoes that poor, downtrodden Imelda Marcos had in her closet.  I bet Geoffrey Fieger didn’t have as many shoes.


Gerry is particularly noted for his book How to Argue and Win Every Time. What a great concept. I want to “win” every time. Although, this puzzles me. Suppose I’m in court defending a client–any client. Across the courtroom is a prosecutor, seeking a conviction and harsh punishment. Suppose both of us read the book, and we each masterfully execute its tenets to perfection. Then what happens? Doesn’t one person “lose?” Won’t one side depart from the proceedings wanting? Isn’t this impossible, given the title of the book? I’ve always wondered that.

Now, I know there is a lot a person (especially me) could learn from Gerry. At the same time, I think there is a lot to learn from any experienced attorney who gives a crap and is willing to share with others. It doesn’t require that we assign hero status, build statues, and declare ourselves as disciples. A chat over morning coffee with an “old timer” can be just as illuminating, and just as meaningful.

I’ve called certain individuals heroes before, and I carelessly chose the word. When I look back at my heroes, I realize that they are mentors. They are those whose thoughts, acts, and ideas shaped my growth (and continue to do so) in a positive way. They are those who I listen to–really listen to. Some are alive, some are dead, some are almost dead, and some merely act like they are dead. Some, I’ve met. Others, not so. Some are not attorneys with names like Twain, Frank, Vonnegut, and Heller. Some are attorneys with names like Scott, Brian, Mark, Cully, Tom, and Steve. All of them (admittedly or otherwise) have faults. They are heroes in the sense that they learned some lessons, gained wisdom, and are willing to share it–without expectation of personal gain, enrichment, or deification. This is not to minimize who they are or what they have done, but let’s be realistic in our reverence and admiration.

Yet, there are those in our profession who want a hero–that true Superman type. They want someone to emulate, imitate, and someday be. They are perfectly willing to step from the path that they’ve created and follow the one that someone else created (or paid to have created) and labeled as the way to go. They put their entire life-savings in one stock offering, because, to them, it is the best. In our professional development, as with our portfolios, diversification is always the best course, and it is never good to fall completely in love with that one miracle stock.

Later in his post about Gerry, Scott continues stirring the coals and inviting a lightning strike from the top of Mt. Olympus.

There is a lesson to be learned from Spence’s posts, mostly about the use of story telling to manipulate those who think with their heart instead of their mind.  It’s a pretty good lesson, and it comes from one of the masters, even if this wasn’t one of his best stories.  But you will only learn the lesson if you look through the story and realize what Spence is doing, tugging on heart strings with a line of pap that would make Imelda Marcos blush.

If you can’t tell the difference between a nonsense story and an emotional conclusion that requires a leap across the logical gap, then you won’t likely need to seek out rejection as your greatest gift.  Rejection will find you no matter what you do.

Perhaps someday I’ll have coffee with Scott, and he can riff on his time in the law. That would be great, but I do have one request. It needs to be a clear day, without a single cloud in the sky.

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