A Historical Perspective on Law School “Gunners”

From a 1942 book of essays by Edward “Bull” Warren, a legendary Socratic professor at Harvard Law School who taught from 1904 to 1945:

When I joined the Harvard Law Faculty, my thought, often expressed, was that any student might ask any question at any time. I was (and am) strong for the ideal of freedom of thought and speech, and to give all students such unlimited opportunities seemed to me to be the right way to implement that ideal, as applied to classroom discussions.

But experience has convinced me that that just does not work. I deeply regret that, but ’tis so. The trouble is that an aggressive few speak again and again. There are many loquacious students who are really not much good. They thoroughly enjoy taking the floor, but the other students get bored — the class goes dead. Nothing is so deadly to as class as a lot of cat-talk. Moreover, the very fact that some men do thus bore their mates by loose and excessive talking has a strong tendency to make talking unfashionable. The result is that many good men hesitate to speak lest they be classified as among the mouth-organs. The loquacious are usually (not always) weak; the strong are usually (not always) silent.

This is serious.

For what it’s worth, I tend to think that the problem of law school gunners is really a professor’s problem more than that of students. A professor needs to exercise some judgment in not overcalling on certain regular volunteers. Professors also need to be willing to cut off a student who is going on for too long. And how long is “too long” also requires some judgment: a student who is making a great point should get more freedom to share it, while a student who is not should get less. A bit of carefully-applied professorial pressure should take care of the problem. With that said, my sense is that a lot of students are hyperaware of who is or is not a gunner, so I thought this historical perspective might be interesting.