Guest post by Ivan Merrow.

A few law school gunners have come under fire lately for sending obnoxious emails to law professors and classmates. One guy emails his entire class 1600 words of unsolicited advice on job interviews, and another explains that he left his professor’s class early because the pace was too slow.

Gunner-bashing ensues.

The term “gunner” usually describes the tendency of an overly enthusiastic law student’s hand to shoot up at every question in the classroom. Using email as ammo is new, but gunners aren’t a recent phenomenon. The problem was documented as early as 1942 by a Harvard Professor, complaining about “an aggressive few” wasting class time with useless commentary. In my introductory lecture at law school, a visiting judge who graduated in the 80’s referred to them as classholes.

Most people can rattle off a few reasons why gunners suck. Overconfident. Hand always up. Mouth never shuts. Obnoxious. Intimidating. Too many highlighters. Trying too hard.

I found a video and an article that describe different types of gunners. However, each gunner profile has the same underlying idea: they voice opinions in class that are unhelpful to others.

If you hate gunners, I have to ask: what if it isn’t the gunner that has the problem?  What if you’re actually the one who sucks?  Here are three reasons why I might be right, and what we can do about it.

(Picture me raising my hand to the ceiling before I blurt out the following three points.)

1. Gunners add value, you don’t

The most frustrating thing about gunners is their ability to monopolize class time. You paid your tuition and avoid answering questions unless absolutely necessary. The rest of the time you deserve to hear your professors explain the law.

Wrong.

Law school isn’t about copying down what the professor says in class to fill in what you missed in the cases. It isn’t even about substantive law, because the laws you learn will become irrelevant soon after you graduate. Law school should be about thinking like a lawyer: critical analysis, legal argument, and advocacy.

Whether law schools actually accomplish that mission is up for debate, but let’s talk about what happens when gunners get silenced.

Finally the online flaming, glares, and eye-rolling get noticed. The gunner shuts down. My experience has been that afterwards, nobody speaks. Passive learners have won.

After witnessing the social stigma take hold, people who MIGHT have spoken up choose not to. They’re afraid to be labelled a gunner. Better to appear apathetic and keep the code of silence. Even if it is an area of law they care deeply about.

Silencing gunners destroys an opportunity to develop advocacy skills in class. Sure, in the middle of a critical explanation on fiduciary duty you don’t want to be interrupted with a personal life story. But that shouldn’t come at the expense of open and frank classroom discussion. Sparks of enthusiasm are rare as it is in law school. They shouldn’t be snuffed out.

Opinions need to be aired and challenged to be useful. Gunners don’t just like to hear the sound of their own voices. They want to get challenged and shot down. Most of the time they are trying to contribute value. If it is irrelevant, obnoxious, or off topic, it’s an opportunity for you to speak up and shut them down. That brings me to the second reason you suck.

2. Gunners have the guts to speak up, you don’t

In classrooms where gunners rule, the classmate response I’ve witnessed ranges from a passive zone-out on laptops, to more passive-aggressive sighs, murmurs, and gossip outside of class. Annoying comments in class have inspired YouTube videos on the problem, and even encouraged one guy to campaign for law school leadership on an anti-gunner platform.

Here’s the problem: I’ve never seen a law student actually confront a gunner.

Why don’t you say anything?  Okay, it’s the professor’s job to maintain control of the classroom. That doesn’t mean you can’t take charge. As a lawyer one day you may have to ask a colleague, client, or opposing counsel to shut up. You’ll have to do so politely and respectfully, maybe with a touch of humour to impress a judge. What a great opportunity to practice.

Bring the person aside after class and express your concern. Send an empathic personal message. Lobby the professor. Or launch a witty assault on the gunner’s ridiculousness out loud in class.   Not everyone can be a bossy loudmouth in class, but there is more than one way to get your way. If you truly believe gunners should be silenced, but never do anything about it, you deserve to have your time wasted in class.

3. Gunners are the symptom, your passivity is the disease

Have you ever wondered why most teachers indulge gunners?  It’s because there is usually nobody else to call on. Every law professor likes the idea that they are part of the Socratic teaching tradition that emphasizes active learning over passive instruction.

With the goal of “student engagement” in mind, it becomes difficult to ignore the enthusiasm of one student, even if makes the rest of the class cringe. If there is anyone else to call on, the professor will. The rest of the class’s refusal to participate effectively creates the gunner.

That’s right. A gunner’s entire existence depends on others’ silence.

The more the class shuts down, the more awkward and painful the gunner’s soliloquies become. In a class that refuses to discuss important issues, the gunner gets tired of letting the professor’s questions hang in open air, and then answers. The cycle perpetuates itself.

Maybe mass consumption of information online has grown our appetites for sitting back and listening to professors drone on without interruption. Maybe it’s utter apathy. Some law professors fear that passive learning has taken hold of law classrooms and are wondering what to do about it. I don’t know why it’s happening, but I do know that when social acceptance in law school—a place for advocacy and critical thinking—is contingent on never saying anything in class, something is broken.

How we can all suck less

I think that law classrooms have the potential to be vibrant, challenging, and enriching places where everyone’s perspective is expanded beyond the casebook. I don’t think that’s idealism. Our clients are going to depend one day on our ability to acknowledge, grasp, and defeat the full spectrum of arguments against them. We can’t wait until we get into the courtroom to build the courage to speak up. It has to start in law school.

If you’re a “sniper”—one of the secret gunners in class who really cares, knows all the answers, but never speaks out—try speaking your mind. Challenge that annoying gunner. Your confidence in your ideas can only grow. Your clients will be glad for it one day.

On the other hand, if you don’t understand the material, and you’re getting frustrated by people hijacking class time with tangential issues, get the class back on track. Put up your hand and drag the conversation back into the realm of relevance. Giving up doesn’t help anyone.

Be honest with your gunner classmates if they are getting on your nerves. Appreciate that they may have a different learning style, and that they probably don’t realize how unhelpful and unwanted their comments are.

As for the gunners I mentioned at the beginning, who got ripped apart for sending obnoxious sounding emails—what if we ignore the pretentious language and focus on the intent?  One gunner was trying to help his classmates get jobs, and another was trying to tell the professor to make class more interesting.

Sure, there’s a way be helpful without sounding like a petulant snob. Maybe those two haven’t figured it out yet. But let’s remember that most of us would choose to do nothing. If that’s the reason law school continues to suck, maybe gunners aren’t so bad.

Ivan Merrow is a law student at Queen’s University in Ontario Canada. He founded Law Students for Technology and Innovation (LFTI) to help law students and lawyers survive the Great Recession. You can follow him on Twitter @CanadianLawGuy.

(image: http://www.flickr.com/photos/tavallai/4700776367/)