What happens when you fill a competitive graduate program with ambitious high-achievers and teach them materials that hinge on policy, ambiguity, and interpretation? You get a few students that go overboard by prioritizing their own experience over others’ and get called “gunners”. Gunners are not exclusive to legal education (medical school uses it too and the term is even in Urban Dictionary) and gunner-like behavior can be found at all ages in all environments, even collaborative ones.
There is no set recipe for what one must do to be a gunner in law school. Similar to titles like “try-hard” or “teacher’s pet”, someone is usually called a gunner in a derogatory fashion or at least with a negative connotation. Broadly speaking, gunners usually annoy – and not uncommonly harm – the law school experience for others. However, having a gunner around can occasionally be a necessary evil or lifesaver. There are a few archetypal behaviors of gunners in law school that you might want to familiarize yourself with.
Gunners in the classroom
The classroom is where gunners are the most obvious and in their natural habitat. Class time is paid for by expensive tuition, and any attention garnered by the gunner can come at the cost of others—delaying the curriculum or being just plain annoying.
1. Correcting the professor is classic gunner behavior. Of course a professor can be corrected if he or she misstated the syllabus or case name. Of course you can push back on a legal theory or judicial reasoning with genuine curiosity, confusion, or inquiry. A gunner, however, will be obvious when they correct the professor because they are trying to reverse the roles and teach the professor about the law. Sure, law professors are not infallible, but 99% of the times a gunner tries this, they fail, and eyes roll all around the classroom.
2. Excessive hypotheticals (“hypos”) are another standard gunner move. Law schools use the case method, which means that students read fact patterns and legal opinions on those fact patterns. The case is then discussed in class with the Socratic Method. Bringing your own hypo (a fact pattern through which the law can be applied) to class can be an excellent exercise in trying to expand and comprehend the law, especially near the outer boundaries of certain interpretation. However, a gunner will ask too many hypos or unhelpful ones. If the hypo is unusually specific, unrealistic, or seeking an answer to a personal situation (i.e. seeking legal advice), it might be a gunner hypo.
3. Answering other people’s cold calls is bad classroom etiquette. Cold calls in their various forms are commonplace in the law school classroom and are used to facilitate productive discussion in order to learn the law. Usually, the professor gives everyone a turn whether they like it or not. Raising your hand during someone else’s turn will come off as intrusive and attention-seeking. If a classmate needs help, he or she can ask for it and the professor can open the question to the rest of the class. Above the Law uses the term“reluctant gunner” for those who volunteer themselves as a last resort, but I don’t consider these students as gunners as long as they are not intentionally taking up other people’s opportunities to participate.
Related reading: how to survive cold calls
There are other things that might hint that a student is a gunner in the classroom: when they always sit in the very front (not even a bad thing on its own) or constantly asking questions after class to the point where other students have no chance to ask their questions. Even if the gunner does not pose a hypo, questions that should be reserved for office hours or generally waste class time can be very annoying, especially if it comes from the same person day after day.
Gunners outside of the classroom
Law school is on average a very neurotic, time-intensive, and social experience. The grading curve and competitive employment scene may lead to a sense that law school is a zero-sum game: in order for you to win, someone else must lose. Not only is success hard to come by and difficult to share, but the only people that truly understand your situation are those you compete with!
One would hope that each can find their own success while supporting and encouraging the success of others, but gunners outside of the classroom can behave in a winner-takes-all fashion or be plain annoying to spend time with.
1. Being excessively competitive is also not a bad thing in and of itself. Good grades are earned by not only working harder, but also working smarter than your peers. Wanting the best for yourself does not make you a gunner. However, horror stories about gunners not sharing notes or outlines, or even making fake ones to set others behind are definitely out there. Over-competitive students may shy away from joining study groups or even making friends to avoid any possibility of helping others. Some may consider staying in the library very late as gunning, but simply putting in more work than others is not a bad kind of competitiveness.
2. 1Ls that have it all figured out give off a scammer-like energy. If your fellow first year student, just a few weeks into the semester, assumes to know the “right” way to prepare for classes or knows exactly how to outline, he or she is (1) overconfident, and (2) probably wrong. There is no “right” way to prepare for class, as each student needs to find what works for them to get good law school grades. Oftentimes, outlining too early will lead to an ineffective outline because the student won’t have the big picture of the course yet. Instead, be cautious and diligent about your strategies as a 1L. Try new tactics early on so that you can find what works for you and stick with it as your law school exams approach.
3. Stealing resources from others is adjacent to excessive competitiveness. Unfortunately, literal theft is not unimaginable to the most despicable of gunners. Leaving your casebook in a public setting and having a classmate steal it is possible. One common overuse of resources is office hours. If the professor has limited appointment slots for office hours and the same student is unreasonably taking slots over and over, those are opportunities taken away from other students to connect with the professor and receive additional help with the course material.
4. Social gunning is when a person just makes you roll your eyes just from talking to them. Examples include but are not limited to: the general know-it-alls, the inflated egos from prior work experience (e.g. former paralegals or prior work in politics), students who make a big deal about being younger or older, bragging (e.g. GPA, law review, law firms, clerkships, LSAT score), simply complaining all the time about workload, and whining about how they hate or can’t stand law school or law students. Social gunning goes beyond personality quirks and can be found in all shapes and sizes.
Horror stories about gunners from Reddit
Despite having explained what gunners are and the various common categories of gunning, the best of gunning comes from anecdotes. The best types of gunners are the ones that surprise you despite your already realistic expectations. Reddit, and in particular r/LawSchool often asks for stories about gunners, and here are a few synopses you might enjoy:
· A “correcting the professor” type of gunner trying to argue the opposite conclusion of an assigned 1L memo. “Complained about it too, nobody had the heart to tell him how moronic it was to write the opposite. And to make clear, there was literally no way to go the other way with the cases you had. It was designed to teach you how to write a straightforward memo before you started the big research memo.”
· “During OCI screeners, Gunner somehow found out when the interviewers had a time slot open due to cancellation/ break. He then walked in and tried to interview with firms who DIDN’T GIVE HIM AN INTERVIEW.”
· “… he told our Property professor that he had, at one point, owned an extremely expensive special French baguette oven which had been a fixture in his Paris apartment. It came out later that the Property prof. actually took him aside after class one day and told him to limit himself to 3 comments per class.”
· The general know-it-all, but literally! “My section’s ‘favorite’ gunner had a really fun habit last semester of purporting to know literally everything. In reality, he was just really quick on the Google, but he would pass all of this off as his own knowledge.”
· For Zoom School of Law… “There is a gunner in my class that will unmute themselves on zoom to laugh at the professor’s jokes.”
Do you have a gunner story to share? Drop it in the comments below.
Joseph Kim is a 3L at Notre Dame Law School. Joseph grew up in California where he developed an interest in working with music, powerlifting, and bowling. He's been a member of the FIRE community since before law school and plans to pursue FatFIRE following graduation.