From the Vault: Gerry Spence

In 2010 Mountain States Super Lawyers, we featured the legendary trial lawyer Gerry Spence, of The Spence Law Firm and founder of The Trial Lawyers College in Wyoming, in a Q&A. Spence spent time in his career as an attorney for insurance companies, but switched to the other side and has never looked back. In this excerpt, he explains why he made the change:

When I first went into the law, if you were an important lawyer you represented an insurance company. That was proof that you had made it. I can remember how proud I was when I went rushing home to tell my wife that I'd been hired by an insurance company.

Then, as I matured, I began to see what was really going on in the legal system. I saw the power of money, and the power of insurance companies, and poor people that couldn't get representation; and poor people who, if they could get representation, were represented by lawyers who couldn't afford to take the case and deal with it in a correct fashion. And if you are sensitive to and become educated from your experience, there comes a time when either you respond to that or you become calloused against it. And it just so happens that I grew up with poor people so I recognized the helplessness of ordinary people against the power structure. And there came a time when I couldn't represent the power structure anymore. Came in a specific case.

What case?

I was defending a woman for an insurance company. And of course when you defend for an insurance company the court lies to the jury-never tells the jury that the little old lady sitting there, in her floppy hat, and looking very poor herself and very upset, has $5 million worth of insurance.

She had run into a man with her car. He had worked all of his life in a refinery in Casper, and was about to retire. He hoped to spend his retirement with his grandchildren, do some fishing and enjoy the retirement that he'd earned. And he was hurt by this woman with her floppy hat with all of the insurance. She was totally at fault. And I walked in there on behalf of the insurance company and did things to that poor man on the stand that undercut his credibility. They were the skills of a defense attorney, and the plaintiff's attorney couldn't combat it. And the jury returned a verdict against him. He got nothing.

That evening I was at the Safeway store, gathering up food for a celebration, and in the checkout line here was this old man, the plaintiff, ahead of me. And he turned around. That was as close as I'd ever been to him. I could see his painful eyes-pain was on his face-and I said to him, "I'm sorry that this all turned out this way for you." And he said, "Oh, that's all right, Mr. Spence. You were just doing your job."

And I thought, "Just doing my job?"

I helped him out with his groceries to his car. That evening I'm in bed with my wife, telling her this story, and I said, "Is that my job? To cheat old men out of justice?" She didn't answer. Didn't say a word. The next morning I got up and contacted my partner, Robert R. Rose Jr., who became chief judge of the Wyoming Supreme Court. And I said, "You know, we're not going to do this anymore," and he said, "No, we're not." I wrote nearly a score of letters to as many insurance companies that said you're going to have to get somebody else to do this. And we've never, never represented an insurance company or large corporation or the government to this day.

Read the entire interview here.