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President's Page: What does it mean to be a lawyer?

Vol. 77, No. 3 / May - June 2021

John Gunn, 2020-2021 President of The Missouri BarJohn Gunn

John Gunn practices with Gunn Law Firm PC in St. Louis. This message was adapted from his address to members of the 2021 graduating class at Saint Louis University School of Law.



What does it mean to be a lawyer? Since starting law school, most of us have spent our careers myopically focused on this query with differing levels of intensity.

Most of us who have been lawyers for any length of time (20 years for me; 50 for my dad; about two for our associates) would agree this focus doesn’t — and perhaps shouldn’t — subside. Every lawyer with whom we have interacted — whether in an office, a courtroom, or a classroom — is still working out what it means to be a lawyer. We research, watch, read, talk, listen, and travel all while searching for the elusive solution.

The imposter syndrome felt by lawyers, in this ivory tower of a profession with icons residing at the top, never goes away. It may subside, but the truth is I’m not sure it should. We are lousy with examples of how to act in challenging circumstances, how to deal with difficult adversaries, or how to navigate complex and piercingly important topics. There is also no scarcity of observable behaviors that present a contrast to who we aspire to be as lawyers and as people. Learning is a lifelong process. Cliché? Yes, but for a reason. As a profession, we simply do not stop learning. There is no “set it and forget it” in the law. Each set of facts is unique. The law and its application are constantly in flux. So are we. 

So, what does it mean to be a lawyer? 

There is no objective answer to this question. It doesn’t exist. Conscientious and competent representation of clients, civic engagement, general leadership, and mentoring are all completely legitimate considerations in searching for the conclusion, and they are attributes I hope we can agree should be included in the process. But no one in the profession can dictate to you the part those factors play in the final analysis. 

What does it mean to be a lawyer?

I submit the base material for the amalgam that is the answer is … you. Your experiences, your observations, your decisions, and, ultimately, your humanity. We spend our careers hearing about the responsibility that comes with being a lawyer and the import that our profession plays in society. We even join groups of lawyers whose purpose is to just be lawyers and do what lawyers do. But the concept of what we do is such a small part of the story. How we do it is perhaps of far greater consequence. 

Our clients’ goals are isolated as something to which our duties are bound, but the humanity available to us in determining the best way to reach them is abundant. We don’t need to be difficult in litigation. We don’t need to chastise someone who gets the law wrong in a contract negotiation. If a colleague asks a question to which we believe he or she should know the answer, it doesn’t help to castigate that person. 

Empathy and humanity are not something to which much time is dedicated during the legal education process. This is not an indictment on any institution of legal learning. Law school taught us to be of tough mind, focused, and resourceful in arguably stilted ways. We have been taught how to think like lawyers. That training serves a purpose, to be sure. But do any of us really want to live permanently in that state of mind? Our existence as emotional beings simply cannot be set aside. Compartmentalization of humanity is impossible. The sooner we surrender that notion, the sooner we can proceed toward expressions of empathy that can heal not just us, but those in our orbit. And, yes, that healing can occur in even the most difficult disagreements. It exists in the simplest expressions of kindness — understanding that a human we are opposing in the legal system is worthy of not just acknowledgement, but true consideration. It is not easy sometimes, and we’ll never be perfect at seeing everyone all the time. But like with what it means to be a lawyer, we learn, we progress, and we can control the direction in which we evolve.    

We all have innumerable opportunities to hone our humanity, as well as what it means to be a lawyer. I submit those concepts are inextricable from one another. When we work on one, we are working on the other. Consider the common use of the word “counselor.” That is what we are, and we ought to embrace that title in all its meanings because we will embody it to just about everyone we encounter.