The voice of silence

This morning I am at the Thunderhead Ranch east of Dubois Wyoming where–along with a volunteer staff of brilliant and talented trial lawyers–we conduct the Trial Lawyers College each summer. It is early. The sun is still in hiding.

The exercise for the day is silence—blessed silence. We met in the loft of the big barn at five o’clock. Once we entered the barn all was silent except for the instructions I gave. We should meet with Mother Nature. Every part of us came from her, and will one day return to her. We should go in silence and listen to her and see what, if anything she has to say to us.

Are we not harassed by noise? Are we not attacked by its pollution? In the cities we cannot escape it, the sound of gasoline engines belching and growling, the vibrations above of airplanes roaring and whining, the incessant chatter of the radio and television that seems to be a requirement for life without which we are lost and lonely. Even in the house the incessant sounds abound, the whir of the refrigerator, the tromping of the family’s feet, the babble of children and the louder babble of their parents—the noise of life. There is no way to escape it.

“I instruct the lawyers, we call them warriors, for these warriors fight for the rights of people against the daunting power of corporations and government…”

I instruct the lawyers, we call them warriors, for these warriors fight for the rights of people against the daunting power of corporations and government—I instruct the warriors to go into the hills that surround the ranch. Find a place that is yours, where you can see no other person—perhaps by one of the huge old rocks discarded by retreating glaciers, or down by the stream. Nothing here will harm you. The wild animals, the deer, the antelope, the coyotes, the moose—they are all friendly. Even the mountain lion is shy and will slip away to avoid the noise of your feet.

When they find their place they should lie down on the earth and listen. Perhaps there will be a message. Perhaps the warrior has something to say to Mother Earth. Perhaps the warrior will ask questions like: What is the history of my life? Who am I? Where have I been all of these years? What roads have I traveled? And, having heard the answers to those questions, perhaps he or she will have a better idea of the road ahead.

Then these lawyers will come in and have a silent breakfast. Not a word will be exchanged among them. And after breakfast they will meet again in the big barn where they will paint. Paint? Lawyers painting? They will be asked to paint who they are, to paint a portrait of their soul. They will find in that exercise something of themselves that most have never encountered. And they will paint in complete silence.

After that we will have a silent lunch and at two in the afternoon we will again meet in the big barn and break the silence. We will share with one another what we have learned. What we have experienced. What it has been like to see the sun come up, to break the darkness. What our conversations with Mother Earth have been. What was revealed to us in our painting.

Already, every morning we meet in the big barn and first off we give time to the warriors to read their poetry to us. Most have never written a poem. Each warrior is required to sing a solo. The warrior mounts an old picnic table and looks down on his fellow warriors. It is frightening—to sing a song like that in public. But we must learn to use the voice, to acquire a comfort in speaking to juries. We must learn the rhythms of poetry in our arguments to the jury. We need to learn the composition of our speech that is found in song and verse. We should better understand who we are in order that we can better know our clients and the judge and jurors, yes, and even our opponents.

We have already been in other exercises that are calculated to help us to become acquainted with the self. We are teaching and learning together. It is a program that lets the warriors experience successful ways to choose their juries, to present the evidence and to make their arguments. It is a new kind of education that lawyers never get in law school—how to be a human being. We believe that if we are to successfully argue to other human beings in a courtroom—to jurors—we must first learn to be human beings ourselves.

I am writing this while the warriors are about their silent tasks I have assigned them. I am thinking about how much courage it takes to participate in those tasks. I am also listening to the stream outside my window. The sun has burst out in its perfect glory. The day is upon us. And silence, as my mother used to tell me, is golden. I have learned much from it.


12 responses to “The voice of silence

  1. Gerry,

    Sorry to break the silence, maybe it’s okay following lunch –

    Looks like the US Attorney has a pattern of on going political prosecution of high profile donors.

    Plaintiffs’ attorney (Author, Poet) Pierce O’Donnell is in the cross hairs. The L.A. Times is reporting that trial lawyer Pierce O’Donnell, who has been called “the new Perry Mason in Hollywood,” is set to be indicted on criminal campaign finance charges. The LAT reports that a federal grand jury has been probing whether O’Donnell violated federal campaign laws by asking employees of his law firm to contribute to the 2004 presidential campaign of John Edwards and then reimbursing those who did.

    The U.S. Attorney doesn’t have better things to do then this – the same types of charges, same type of prosecution.

    – – – {O’Donnell’s career, in addition to clients like Lockheed, NBC and MGM (among several other studios), has entailed cases representing Faye Dunaway in a wrongful termination suit against Andrew Lloyd Webber, and columnist Art Buchwald in his suit against Paramount in the “Coming to America” case, in which Buchwald claimed that a screenplay treatment he wrote with a producer and sold to Paramount was the source material for the movie.

    This representation was the basis for a 1992 book O’Donnell co-authored called “Fatal Subtraction: The Inside Story of Buchwald v. Paramount.” O’Donnell also co-authored the screenplay for the Steve Guttenberg movie “Home Team.” And there’s more: His first book of poems was “Dawn’s Early Light,” and most recently he published “In Time of War: Hitler’s Terrorist Attack on America.”}

  2. Hi Gerry-

    Your trial lawyers college experience seems like a life-giving / life altering possibility. I wonder if I can be worthy of attending such a thing. I wonder if somehow I cannot because I help those who have been sued – as well as those who sue. I find myself wondering if it is somehow unworthy to help those who have been sued. It doesn’t feel that way. I counsel them on how to handle the experience of being in the courtroom, facing hostile examination, relating authentically to the jury. Am I on the wrong side of the iron curtain?

  3. Mark – to your point…

    I left the insurance defense side of things in February. While I have always intended to flip sides and represent the injured, I did not expect to do so so soon. I am saying this because I can hear it in your voice, just like the occasional plaintiff’s attorney who would see through me and smile, as if knowing what I would become.

    I found myself becoming more and more soul-less each day. Maybe your practice is different, but in my practice 90% of the Insureds I represented hurt someone. The challenge on the defense side (which occurs naturally and organically on the side of the injured) is to find the emotional connection to the case. It sounds like you are using your empathy with your clients, which is good. Too many times I saw defense lawyers attempt to get this emotional “traction” by despising the plaintiff or their attorney and by conjuring up all kinds of cynical motivations. You do not have to look any further than the rampant use of the malingering defense. It used to be attorneys dared to use such a defense. Now it is present in every case.

    By even raising this question I know you will see the light. My moment came when I was watching a movie with my wife. A character in the movie had just fallen into a meat processing machine and broke his back. The next scene was in an ER waiting room where a representative from the meat packing plant and an attorney walk over to the grieving wife. After announcing their sympathy, the lawyer says “well you know he did have some pre-existing back injuries so we aren’t to blame.” My wife let out this deep gasp as she lay judgment on what that character had just done. I turned to my wife and said, “You know I am that guy. That’s what I do for a living.” That was the beginning of the end for me and the defense side.

    Plaintiff lawyers have a tremendous opportunity to comport their profession with their values. How powerful is this? To be able to work the long hours we do and know in your heart what you are doing is the Right Thing. See you on the other side.

  4. Jo-Hanna Read


    Having recently been in rural Georgia, far from a city, I was struck not by the silence but rather by the wealth of sound. Not sound made by machines, as in a city, but instead the intensity of sounds of nature. It’s a bit quieter in your neck of the woods, but not silent. It feels so good to hear those sounds.

    I am most grateful for the rediscovery of poetry and song I experienced at the ranch when I was there. It re-opened a part of me that I really needed. We all need it. Thank you.

    Much love,

  5. The day of silence was a turning point in my life. It was seven years ago. It was so difficult for me to keep still and be alone, yet so necessary. Each day I take my dog out for some time like this. Some days we just stop and lay down in the grass and find stillness. She seems to know exactly what to do.
    All the chatter of the mind eventually slows down and the birds and chicadas magically work together to make music that no conductor could ever create. These are the greatest moments of my life, where joy is present without having to “do” or “be” anything.
    Gerry, I cannot thank you or the staff enough for this enormous gift. With much love and respect

  6. Our late mutual friend John Johnson wrote about this and I have unfortunately lost my copy of his thoughts. I would be very grateful if you would post a copy. It’s hard to believe he’s been gone for so long. Thanks.

  7. Beth: Here is a copy of John Johnson thoughts you asked for. They are worth reading.


    The life of lawyering is filled with noise and turmoil.
    Peace is hard to find – even in seeking after justice.
    Modern mankind runs amok in anxious pursuit of an elusive
    technological happiness.

    But we are sons and daughters of mother earth. She
    gives us abundant house, made bright and glorious by
    sun, moon and stars and nurtured by the waters. She
    gives the wind upon which seeds blow and birds fly to us
    with their songs.

    Our mother earth speaks to us of peace and fulfillment
    and love. But we must listen to hear those gifts our mother
    holds for us. To hear we must let our souls be quiet; we
    must learn how to be still so that our mother earth can
    touch us with her wisdom and show us the way to peace.

    It is among us already. It is in the earth and sky and
    the water fo all of us to share.

    Let us be still and quiet together and ask our mother
    to help us receive her gifts.

    When we find peace we can have power and
    courage and wisdom. We can go forth as true warriors in
    seeking after justice.

    John C. Johnson, OFW
    Trial Lawyers College
    August 1994

  8. Dear Gerry:

    My painting is on the wall above my desk. I had no idea that I could paint such feelings and colors and memories that day of silence. I have wild blue seas, countless waves, raging winds, a headland of protection, a forest of trees, rocky cliffs of many colors, bathed in sunlight, a quiet green meadow. I wonder, is this my happy place? Is this my life of struggle and safety? Is it my vision of freedom in nature? It could be all.
    That day of silence and listening was an amazing day for me, where I got a tiny glimpse of freedom and peace. I have had to work hard on that glimpse.
    But the learning continues. When we work to change ourselves, to see that which is lovable in ourselves, and then to see that which is lovable in others, then we start little ripples of change. We can start to see our clients think about their lives and work on making better choices.
    The world does not make it easy for us to attract the money that allows us to fight for the individual in criminal court: court-appointed cases don’t even cover overhead. Sometimes this way of proceeding does not attract those with the money to pay for the value of our services.
    But we keep at it. We believe that doing the right thing and doing good will bring us to doing well. It should be that way. Speaking truth to power will gain listeners or will resonate sometime.
    And the magnificent fellowship of warriors, brothers and sisters we did not know before TLC and its listserve, who toil in the same battles across the country, keep us strong when we want to give up.
    When we fight for justice, we touch not only our clients, but the jury, the people in the courtroom, the judges, and definitely ourselves. Will we see the fruits of our labors? Maybe, if we are very lucky, we see our sturdy and self-sufficient children go out to fight battles in their own arenas, and in their own ways so different from ours. Maybe we add flowers to the world where there were none. Maybe we add a smile or two. Maybe we empower a person here or there to get up and stand up. And maybe all of this will make big change eventually. Maybe we will be able to save our Mother Earth who has been so harmed by us and our desires, sold to us by the cold corporations that are the epitome of greed. Let us hope and keep on, pushed by the waves, faced with the tall cliffs, loving the occasional peace we find.
    Thank you for encouraging our visions and our baby steps.

  9. Gerry, this is a wonderful exercise, and although I am not a lawyer nor have I attended TLC, it one that I do on a regular basis.

  10. The voice of silence is great experience for me. Your trial lawyer’s college experience seems like a life-giving possibility. Thanks for your wisdom view.
    Addiction Recovery Wyoming

  11. Hello Gerry.

    Thank you for the great start to my day. It sometimes seems like that wonderful August 1997
    was just yesterday, and sometimes it feels like a lifetime ago. I so miss the serenity of Thunderhead, but it is always with me, sustaining, supporting and inspiring me.

    Love, Peace & Respect,

    Jim Moriarty MaineFrame TLC 1997

  12. Pingback: What Makes Us Think That Exceptional People Are Exceptional Teachers? | Popehat

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