“I don’t think…I mean…I’m not someone it would be fair to call a gunner…do you think?” My client asked, a quiver of trepidation in her voice.
“Of course not,” her therapist reassured her. Because that’s what I’m paid for.
No, that’s not why I reassured her. I did so because my client is a nice person and gunners are loathsome pariahs, denizens of the fens and low places, nothing like her at all. There might not be much that everyone in this country agrees on at the moment but we all (especially lawyers) know one truth to be self-evident, which is that everyone hates gunners and no one wants to be one.
So it’s worth posing another salient query: What is a gunner?
Part of the answer, at a law firm, is obvious – a gunner is someone who wants to make partner. That’s the whole point of “gunning” at a law firm. If you are already a partner, you’re busy doing your partner thing. But if you’re an associate, the goal is to make partner. That’s what a gunner is gunning for.
The term “gunning” further suggests, however, that you’re pointing your gun at someone else (or several someone elses) and (as is normally the case when one points a gun at someone) therefore mean them no good.
And that’s another part of the answer – and what we all hate about “gunners” – not merely that they’re gunning for (i.e., want to make) partner (we all want to make partner (mmmm…money good!)) It’s that, on the way to that goal of making partner, they’re gunning (i.e., want to eradicate) you (or anyone else standing in their way.)
That definition sounds straightforward – and loathsome – enough. But how does one actually know for a fact that someone’s a gunner, that he would nonchalantly pop some caps into a colleague’s back, then prance jauntily over said individual’s bleeding corpse in pursuit of partner-hood…as opposed to simply a hard-working, ambitious, talented lawyer on his way to success in his chosen field? Sometimes the distinction is not as obvious as it sounds.
In my client’s case, for instance, she stood accused of gunner-hood, but felt the charge was unjust. Even if I weren’t on her payroll, I’d be inclined to argue she has a point. Judge for yourself:
My client arrived at her firm (a not quite tippy-top biglaw firm located in a fairly large American city and best known for long hours and un-glamorous work) straight out of law school. Her top priority, not surprisingly, was to pay back massive school loans, which are still (three years later) sufficiently massive to remain a priority.
To her surprise, she turned out to be pretty good at law – or at least, she seemed to be, based on her reviews. She was mostly just trying to survive, doing whatever she was told, figuring complicated stuff out on her own as best she could. Then some deal closed and she got pulled into another one, which (by sheer coincidence) also happened to be a deal that a friend of hers from her home town was working on. That should have been a good thing (they’d always gotten along well.) But, in fact, that turned out to be the juncture at which things turned weird.
To no one’s surprise, my client was initially assigned something boring and junior and low-priority, but while she was logging long hours doing that boring, junior, low-priority assignment, she spotted something intriguing in a document, and brought it to the attention of a senior associate. He also thought it was intriguing, but probably not worth bringing to the partner. Ignoring him, she hunted down more documents relevant to the deal, found still more intriguing stuff – and finally convinced the senior she was onto something that could alter their entire deal structure. The partner, it turned out, agreed with her, and he was delighted she’d stuck by her guns. He started giving her more senior work to do, supervising her directly, and even including her in some high-level strategy meetings. He also praised her to the skies, in front of all the lawyers working on the case, for “taking initiative.”
That’s when everything went to hell in a handbasket – i.e., when she won the sobriquet gunner. It came from an unexpected place…her old friend from home, who, it turned out, was furious at all the attention she was getting. The old friend started avoiding her, referring to her as the gunner to the other juniors and some of the senior associates on the deal, and whispered about how she had “stolen his deal” and was “kissing up to the partner” and “inventing work to make herself look good,” i.e., generally spreading the word that she was the very worst kind of gunner and hence a truly, truly terrible person.
My client was stunned. The weirdest part was that she and this old friend had known each other since they were kids – and he was the one who had always been the over-achiever. He was the one who got into an Ivy League school, and wound up at a fancy law school, while she went to a state school, then a local second tier law school where she’d killed herself to make it onto law review. Where he’d walked right into his job at their firm, she’d barely gotten an interview. And now she was the one being called a gunner.
“In my opinion,” she confided to me, sotto voce, “the problem is that he’s not very good and the partner knows it, and so he doesn’t get any work, and his reviews are mediocre. It’s his own damn fault – nothing to do with me at all.”
I tend to agree. She’s the one who took initiative, did a great job, and is succeeding – and yes, has caught the partner’s eye. How is it her fault if another junior isn’t doing as well? She never did anything to hurt his chances – she never “gunned” for him. She simply did her job, and happened to be good at it.
Okay, so maybe you’re seeing the problem. If we are going to label everyone who is doing well at a law firm a gunner and thereby ostracize them to loathsome pariah-hood, the result will be a world in which only really bad lawyers are good – in fact, a world where the worse you do at your firm, the greater the esteem and affection in which you’re held by your peers.
And in a way, that makes sense – they say “the nice ones always leave” at law firms, and there are certainly numerous sociopaths among the ranks of biglaw partners.
But viewed from another angle, the whole construct is bonkers. It means we’ve declared open season on every single person who ever seeks to become – or, at least, finds some success towards becoming – a partner at a law firm. Essentially, we become the gunners, gunning for them.
So what we need is a better way to sort out the gunners from the non-gunners. The key indicator of a true gunner – a truly evil gunner – is that he assassinates the careers of his colleagues (or tries to.) There must be a sniper-attack – or drive-by – or some act of vicious, unbridled ambition (I’m doing my best to work the “gunning” metaphor into my imagery.) Otherwise, you’re just a lucky jerk who happens to be good at law.
And there’s a bigger problem here, with the entire gunner construct – it’s a knee-jerk response to something subtle and complicated, and it winds up serving as a catch-all term of derision with little legitimate application or meaning in the real world.
People go to law firms from all sorts of schools and backgrounds, all meticulously sorted into tiers of money and prestige. And once they get into a law firm, they go through yet another meticulous sorting process. Some drop out immediately – the ol’ crash and burn. Others last a year or two, doing mostly junior work, until they hit a wall (i.e., asked to go do something more complicated and senior-sounding, and they realize they really aren’t cut out for this job and drop out )(for reference, that was me.) Still others make it until fourth year or so, with various levels of success, then quit or transfer or get on with their lives in one way or another. And finally, there are those who go for the long haul and maybe even stick around to be made of counsel or senior attorney or non-equity partner or whatever they call it at your firm…or (gulp) even ascend Mount Olympus and reach (cue angelic choir) the immaculate consummation that is partnership.
The cliché seems to be that gunners are folks who treat everyone around them like something in their way as they greedily claw past everyone else to the top. By extension of that logic, if they fail in this exercise in clawing, and don’t make partner, it is fair game for other, more worthy, non-gunner individuals (like us) to savor a bit of schadenfreude at their expense – after all, they were gunners, the lowest of the low.
The problem is that, in real life, making partner – succeeding at biglaw – resembles far less the bloody in tooth and claw world of the jungle than it does a mysterious process of self-discovery. If you ask me how to make partner in biglaw, I’ll give you my standard reply, which is that partners aren’t “made” through some species of vicious mortal combat; they’re “born,” as in, something within a person sort of percolates up to the surface, more often than not surprising them as much or more than anyone else.
You don’t “make” partner by working hard, or cultivating the right people or any of that obvious stuff. Most people I’ve worked with who were elevated to partner status simply got there by being themselves – doing what they do (which yes, at a law firm, usually entails hard work) – and discovered, mostly to their bewilderment, that the people they authentically were when they did their thing happened to be the sort of people who made partner.
Spotting a future partner on the floor of a law firm isn’t that hard, and it doesn’t amount to spotting gunners who mistreat their peers. It’s more like spotting people who already are partners. Future partners look a lot of partners. That makes sense, since once the magic fairy dust is sprinkled on them, the transformation is complete and they instantly and irrevocably assume the shape of…well, a partner. They had to learn how to do it somewhere, right?
The folks I’ve worked with who made partner were generally getting a lot of work because the partners liked the work they did, and so did the clients. These folks also got along well with the partners and clients, which wasn’t about ass-kissing or flattery or acting like a sycophant – it just felt natural, like they, you know, fit in. Most of the time, the person who makes partner gets used a lot because he does good work (the old pie-eating paradox) and so word gets out and eventually he becomes indispensable to a senior partner who has a ton of work and needs someone good he can trust to handle it for him. It’s that simple – the rainmaker has no choice except to make that person partner, if he wants to keep a good person around whom he relies on to run his business. They get along, trust one another, and work well together and the whole elevation thing happens naturally, less a violent revolution than a gradual, inevitable, evolution.
Apparently I’m not the only person upon whom this epiphany has dawned. Another client of mine, a mid-level associate, confessed to me his recent realization that the gunners at his office probably weren’t really gunners:
“I know I always call them that, but it’s probably not fair. I mean, sure, as a group they’re pretty ambitious, and the reality is, I’m not – I just want to pay off my loans and get out of there. So compared to me, yes, I guess they look like gunners.” He hesitated, then spit it out: “But the fact is, gunner isn’t a useful term. It’s more like I need to get out of there, but that’s my issue, and I can’t hate all of them just for wanting to stick around and do well and maybe make partner.”
“So why have you tossed around that term, gunner, for some of those guys?” I asked him.
“I just hate some of them, to be honest,” he answered. “Mostly it’s this one guy, who talks shit about black people and makes fun of gays and voted for Trump. But when I stop and think about it – he’s not really a gunner at all. He’s just an asshole.”
My sentiments precisely.
This piece is part of a series of columns presented by The People’s Therapist in cooperation with AboveTheLaw.com. My thanks to ATL for their help with the creation of this series.
Please check out The People’s Therapist’s legendary best-seller about the sad state of the legal profession: Way Worse Than Being a Dentist: The Lawyer’s Quest for Meaning
And now there’s a new Sequel: Still Way Worse Than Being a Dentist: (The Sequel)
My first book is an unusual (and useful) introduction to the concepts underlying psychotherapy:Life is a Brief Opportunity for Joy
I’ve also written a comic novel about a psychotherapist who falls
in love with a blue alien from outer space. I guarantee pure reading pleasure: Bad Therapist: A Romance