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Maggie McGaharan: Why law school?

As a junior in college and my school’s chapter president of the Phi Alpha Delta law fraternity, I’m fascinated by those who have succeeded in the legal profession.

When my uncle, an attorney, suggested I read Gunning for Justice by Gerry Spence, I went to the bookstore the next day to pick up a copy.

After reading this memoir about some of Spence’s biggest courtroom victories, I was left feeling inspired and thrilled for what’s to come as a soon-to-be law student and future lawyer myself.

The title alone — Gunning for Justice — is a teaching anecdote. Spence says,

When I walk into a courtroom I am only another hunter, in that dark arena where men are the game and the hunter is also the hunted. I stalk the witness on the witness stand, struggle with my adversary, and at some critical moment it becomes a fight to the death.

What a great way to describe the courtroom and what goes on there. Those words make me really excited to one day be a “hunter” in the courtroom and experience the intense action Spence talks about.

Gunning for Justice isn’t only a lesson on how courtrooms work. It’s also about the personal traits that lead to success.

Spence’s father taught him outdoor skills — patience, persistence, attention to detail, dogged pursuit. After becoming a lawyer, Spence said he used those same skills to win trials that others thought were sure losers.

(Spence never lost a trial as a prosecutor, an insurance defense counsel, and later and most famously as a criminal lawyer and top civil plaintiff’s lawyer.)

Gunning for Justice inspired me most when Spence talked about representing outcasts due to their social or economic status, physical or mental disabilities, or even their political views, who otherwise probably wouldn’t have gotten a fair trial or enjoyed true justice.

To hear the law described as more than a technical challenge, more than a way to make money, was truly inspiring. Spence used the law to fight David v. Goliath battles. He won. That’s really the great promise of the law and of a legal career.

I strongly suggest people who are in my position — aspiring lawyers and law students — read Gunning for Justice, maybe even a few times. It’s a book that has made me want to put in more work and effort into becoming a law student. And it makes my desire for a career in law that much more intense.

*     *     *

As a postscript, Gunning for Justice was first published in 1982. Fortunately it’s still availble from Amazon and some bookstores in hardcover. But I hope Gerry Spence and his publisher will consider making the book available in Kindle and other e-readers so that it might reach a new and wider audience.


Maggie McGaharan is a junior at Flagler College double majoring in political science and economics and minoring in pre-law. She’s the president of Flagler College’s pre-law chapter of Phi Alpha Delta, the largest co-ed professional law fraternity in the United States.

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  1. Maggie: Thanks for your journal entry, which I think states a common sense of inspiration and excitement among prospective law students. That was certainly my state of mind 38 years ago as I prepared to enter law school. But please think a little further about that perspective on the legal profession. Now, having practiced law for 35 years, I cringe when I read hyperbole like "When I walk into a courtroom I am only another hunter, in that dark arena where men are the game and the hunter is also the hunted. I stalk the witness on the witness stand, struggle with my adversary, and at some critical moment it becomes a fight to the death." I've dealt with plenty of attorneys like Spence. There is a role for them in the legal profession but they are not universal role models, and Spence's stated view in particular is repulsive. Human beings are never "game," and litigation is not a "fight to the death." and if anyone thinks otherwise then they ought not to be a lawyer. My experience is that real justice is achieved through long, slogging, intense negotiations for settlements and win-win contracts. Those are the areas where lawyers best serve society, as peacemakers (as Lincoln described his own role as an attorney), mediators, and as advocates who are strong for their clients but always remember of humanity of those on both sides. Please consider reading "Lawyers as Peacemakers: Practicing Holistic, Problem-solving Law" by J. Kim Wright as an antidote to Spence's scorched-earth approach.

  2. While not a lawyer myself, I recently finished "Breakdown" "The inside story of the rise and fall of Heenan Blaikie" by Norm Bacal. Heenan Blaikie was one of Canada's Premier law firms. I suspect the Senior partner/author had his own reasons for wanting to present his view of the facts,I enjoyed reading between the lines. I sensed that no matter how dedicated,how passionate and hard working a lawyer may be, his or her career will be greatly impacted by things beyond their control at the upper levels of the firm they belong to. Followers of the FCPA Blog will recognize the names of a few of the client firms of Heenan Blaikie. These were SNC Lavalin and Teva Pharmaceuticals.

  3. I agree with Mr. Helminski.

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