What first brought you to TLC?
I first came to TLC as a student in 2002. I had applied that year at the instigation of Eddie Schmidt, who was a 1998 alum. He stayed on me every year after ’98, insisting that I should apply. I was busy, trying to make a living, and I had it in the back of my mind that some day I would apply. I didn’t know much about Gerry Spence. I was concentrating on trying to do things my way, and what that really meant at the time was that I was trying to imitate people I had seen who I perceived to be successful. Through the years after ’98 I had my own firm, and I had trial after trial and jury after jury, and frankly, I was having real limited success. When I would win, I would find that my civil award would be reduced by allocations of comparative fault and other things, and so it was clear to me I was doing something wrong. I just didn’t know what it was, so I just continued to think I was inferior, insufficient, or dumb, or not as bright as anybody else.
Then I lost a big electrocution burn case in 2000. The jury came back while Mr. Gore and Mr. Bush were wrestling on Election Day. While they were wrestling for the presidency of the United States, I was waiting on the jury to come back in Beaumont, Texas. The jury came back and awarded a little over 7 million dollars to my client, but apportioned the default so that it was not legally collectable. I appealed that all through 2001 and lost on appeal. By the end of 2001, with that defeat, even with that great award, I was at a point in my life when I was seriously thinking that I should start a landscaping business, or something else entirely different from law. I felt like I’d given my best and clearly, I wasn’t very good. I was basically at the end of my rope and broke. That’s when my friend Eddie Schmidt called me again and said, “Now’s the time for you to go to the Trial Lawyers College.” and I said, “Man, I can’t even afford to go.” Eddie told me, “They’ll make some arrangements for you.” So I applied and I was accepted and I went there thinking, “Oh great! I’m going to sit around at this fancy-pants ranch up at Wyoming with a bunch of successful people who are coming to this college and who are going to be all better than me and I’m going to have to try and fit in. Maybe I’ll learn something.” I went there cowed, with my tail between my legs, and absolutely beaten down because my best had been repetitively demonstrated as not good enough. It all started from there.
What happened in that first experience as you came out of the college?
My experience was that I had this dawning, evolving, growing awareness within me that I had never ever in my life had the courage to explore and embrace the true personhood that existed within me. The power of my own unique personhood had always been hidden, never explored. I always thought that nobody would be interested in knowing anything about the real me. So I began to realize that what I’d done all my life was act like people who I wanted to be like, rather than finding out who I was. But when you’re up there on the ranch, for a month, around your classmates, that doesn’t work. You have to either leave or find out who you are and then be that person. What I discovered from my classmates was… and I began to have a glimmer of a belief in this, not much at first… my friends and classmates told me the person they knew me to be was far more worthwhile than anybody I pretended to be. If I would only have faith in that, I would see, perhaps, a change in my success in the courtroom. People I loved and respected told me that they loved and respected me. The real person, the person I hid. I began, very tentatively at first, to continue the exploration that started at the ranch about who I really was and speaking in my own, true, authentic voice. Instead of President Clinton’s voice, or my grandfather’s voice, or my dad’s voice, or some athletic star or some great trial lawyer, just mine, whatever I was. I started to do that, gradually. Scary, to do that. However what I saw was when I did that, people recognize the truth when they hear it, and it’s very powerful. The more I was able to reveal, the more I was able to connect. The more I was able to connect, the more I was willing to reveal, because it worked. I found that as a result, my ability to communicate improved, not just in the courtroom, although that was the tangible effect of it, but in life in general.
Do you get value coming back to the seminars every year?
Yeah. I was asked to join the faculty in ’04. Once I joined, of course, I thought they were nuts. What did I possibly have to share as a teaching model with people? When I walked into any room I was absolutely certain that everybody in the room was more talented than me, smarter than me, luckier than me, on and on. I mean, what the hell can I bring to this room of superior people? My limited talents, you know. I was able to learn by virtue of my presence there. Keeping the attitude of what I’ve always had with the Trial Lawyers College, which is, I want to be a cheerful servant. By coming there with a servant’s mentality, what I’ve learned is that I have been served far more than I have served others. I have learned so much at TLC, immersed in that evolving trial skill dynamic, and the Trial Lawyers College methods which are all based upon authenticity. If you’re not truly present with authenticity, once you leave the ranch and return to your life, the worldly clamor will beat the authenticity out of you. It will beat courage out of you. It demands conformity. It demands that you become part of a herd. If you live in that worldly clamor long enough, if you’re not very, very careful, you will begin to listen to the herd mentality clamor, and your authenticity will corrupted, hidden. It will be insulated and invisible. The world will transform you into the powerless, as opposed to the powerful which comes from speaking your truth, and speaking from your unique position of authenticity. So you must go back, regularly. If you do not, the world will change you. I don’t want to be changed into what the world wants me to be. I want to have the faith and courage to be what I know I need to be.
What we’re teaching at the Trial Lawyers College is the ability to look another human being in the eye, and have the courage to reveal your inner truth about who you are. You must be able to do that because if you are not conversant with the truth that exists within you, you cannot ever be conversant with the powerful truth that exists within your client’s case. If you stand up there and pretend to be somebody else, and impart to a jury your client’s truth, the truth of the client’s story will never be heard because it’s obstructed by the lying persona that you are presenting in your own personhood. In other words, these jurors have these invisible feelers which are running up and down you. If you’re not being truthful about who you are and authentic and real, the jurors process that as, “I don’t know. There’s just something about him. Yeah, the client has some truthful story and he’s trying to tell it but there’s just something about the narrator that’s disingenuous. That he’s trying to sell us soap, like the commercials on TV.” So you get in your own way.
What I’ve learned time and again at the College is that to unleash the power of your client’s case, you have to be willing and courageous enough, and have the fortitude, to release yourself to tell your truth. You have to impart the truth about yourself first or you’ll never know the truth that exists within the hearts of the jurors with whom you are interacting. You hide, they hide. You come out into the light, and they will come out into the light. The process of doing that with each other forms a sort of a group bond, which is amazing. It’s hard to explain, but buddy, you know it when it happens. You have to do it in order to see it happen.
About JR Clary:
James R. Clary has been a trial lawyer for over thirty years. Representing clients in courtrooms all across the country is the only thing that he has ever wanted to do in his professional life. After securing both his B.A. in Journalism (1980) and his Law Degree (1983) from Louisiana State University, he was selected to attend and graduated from Gerry Spences Trial Lawyers College (TLC) in DuBois, Wyoming, Class of 2002. He is honored to currently serve as a member of the Board of Directors for TLC, as well as part of the teaching staff for the college, an institution wholly devoted to obtaining justice for the injured, the accused and the least powerful among us. He is a native of Baton Rouge and was educated in the public school system. Although he has traveled extensively, he has never wanted to leave the city. He opened his own law firm in February of 1993 and has always represented ordinary folks and small businesses – usually against the bigger guys. For over thirty years, his practice has focused upon plaintiff personal injury matters, commercial litigation, criminal defense and representing lawyers, doctors, nurses and other professionals in matters involving hearings with their governing boards. During this period of time, he has also been pleased to assist his clients in family courts and in moving through the legal situations that often face ordinary people. This work has been the honor and privilege of his life.
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