FAYETTEVILLE—“I really hate practicing law,” says the attorney, “but I really enjoy doing this.”
To the uneducated, however, this doesn’t quite seem to be any different from a lawyer’s natural habitat: a courtroom coated with variations of mahogany, a judge in black, a bailiff in beige, and a crowd wearing a collective expression of sullen distress. Until, a couple of hours later, a TV crew begins to enliven the third floor’s courtroom of the Washington County Courthouse into a makeshift television set by adding cameras, microphones, lighting fixtures, and a random person yelling “The show is about to start, people,” when it is not.
Yes, this is a TV show, and everyone in the courtroom recognizes they are soon to take part of the Last Shot with Judge Gunn—a reality court show, or an “educational docu-series” to its makers, whose participants attempt to recover from drug abuse by presenting their cases for assessment on whether they are qualified for the show’s subsidized rehab program. But when it comes to its behind the scenes operations, no one takes it as seriously as Christian Gunn, the daughter of Judge Mary Ann Gunn, and the Arkansas producer of the show (or as she is known around the set, “the show-runner.”)
Four months ago, Gunn would have never expected to partially abandon the career she strived for when she was working as an associate attorney in a local trademark firm. But when the distributors of Occasio LLC in California approached her for the purpose of syndicating her mother’s show for national television, everything changed, “for good,” according to Gunn.
A Fayettevillian born in November 12, 1977, Gunn was always certain about two things going on in her life: that she was uncertain on what she’s going to do in her life, and that her mother worked in the law business.
“I was never that girl—the one who knows what she wants to do in her life,” says Gunn. “I was always the fly-by-the-seat-of-my-pants kind of person.”
Nonetheless, being indecisive ultimately turned out to be a “good character trait” for Gunn when she became a lawyer because, in accordance to her work ethics, “the law is not black and white, so you do have to be open to both sides.”
But even at the age of 34 and working as a show producer, law has never left Gunn’s side. “My mother was a lawyer, my step-father was a lawyer, and all I knew was the law,” she says.
Indeed, law has always been an intrusive aspect in Gunn’s life. As a young daughter, Gunn recalls her the days when her single mother used to receive phone calls from her clients in the middle of the night, which, due to her mother’s unwillingness to leave her only daughter home alone, Gunn had to accompany her mother in her late night trips to jail houses and night courts.
“I got really used to the courtroom,” Gunn says. “I used to sit with her and watch her working . . . and sometimes I used to draw pictures [of rainbows and horses] for the deputies of the jail.”
Still, according to Gunn, such an uncommon experience didn’t result in significant setbacks in their relationship as daughter and mother. “We used to have Friday nights dates,” she says, “We watched Incredible Hulk and ate pizza. And Saturday is just a whole day for us to be together . . . to do whatever we want.”
Also, thanks to Judy, the housekeeper, who was more of Gunn’s “second mother,” and her mother’s natural inquisitiveness to know “every single detail” of her day, Gunn never felt neglected. “I respect my mother so much,” she says. “She’s the world best single mom . . . with a TM [trademark] at the end.”
Before she became a circuit judge in 1999, Mary Ann Gunn was a lawyer in a private domestic relations firm for 17 years. In 2004, ever since she presided over Washington County Drug Court, her courtroom started getting televised on local cable along the way.
The Law Years
After graduating from Fayetteville High School, Gunn enrolled at the University of Arkansas in 1996 majoring in marketing management. During her college years, nothing gave her the incentive to pursue a career in law. Though there were some hints.
The earliest calling was when Gunn assumed a role of the President of the Kappa Kappa Gamma sorority in 2000. While nothing she did at the house had directly correlated to law, Gunn discovered that she possessed the natural skills of a disciplinarian. “When you are in this type of role, you have to be a people’s person and a good listener,” she says. “You have to be able to understand people . . . and able to look at each person’s story and ask the right questions to get the answers that you really want without intimidation.”
The second calling, however, was relatively clearer. It occurred during one of Gunn’s criminal courtroom excursions in 2000 since she preferred attending them over her mother’s domestic courts. The incident involved a man mutilating the hands and body of a young girl with a turkey deboner. Regardless of the visceral nature of the case, however, it was the prosecuting attorney, Terry Jones, and his tenacity to win the case in favor of the girl that ultimately introduced Gunn to law as a career possibility. “It was the most powerful closing argument I have ever heard in my life,” Gunn says. “It was then that I understood the importance of law.”
And so, after graduating from UA at 2000, Gunn decided to apply for law school at UA. “Are you absolutely, sure?” her parents asked her when she approached them with the news. According to Gunn, her parents’ initial concern was that “they wanted to make sure that I’m not doing it because of them.” (Gunn’s stepfather, Michael Mashburn, 61, was a corporate lawyer.)
With a law degree in hand after graduating in 2003, Gunn secured a job at Keisling & Pieper PLC—a local firm that focuses its law services on intellectual property matters, which ranges from acquisition to trademark litigation. For six years, she worked as an associate attorney under the guidance of “a partner of the firm” and, to her surprise, she found her job emotionally satisfying.
“For the most part, your clients are happy when they are coming to you,” Gunn says, in reference to her work in trademarks, “because they have a new business . . . new idea . . . new logo to protect, and they are coming to you because they are excited for what they are doing in life—not for being sued.”
Still, during those six years, Gunn couldn’t help but confirm a certain reservation she always had within herself, that “nothing about law did motivate me to say, ‘This is what I want to do for the rest of my life.’”
Until August 2011, when Hollywood rang.
A Show-runner Is Born
By May 2011, and over strict media scrutiny, judge Gunn announced her resignation from the judicial bench to bring her drug court to a national television audience. Last Shot With Judge Gunn premiered on the afternoon of September 26 on different channels across different counties, like FOX, CW, and NBC. Since the judge was occupied with her busy work schedule, most of the information was obtained through her online website and local listing.
“The drug court is her baby,” says Gunn. “I was behind her 100 percent because I wanted her to be happy; because she wanted to take the program to a national audience after seeing how good the program did to many people.”
And though Gunn “felt zero side effects” from all the media scrutiny focused on her mother, she immediately rejected the offer of joining her mother’s show when the executives of Occasio, LLC approached her with a contract to work as its Arkansas producer—according to the executives, she seemed the most natural choice due to her knowledge of the court, the legal system, and her close relativity to her mother. “I couldn’t work with or for my mother because we are too close,” says Gunn.
Still, after a brief hiatus at resort in Seaside, Fla., where she contemplated her decision by consulting her friends, and then her family and relatives when she came back, Gunn felt she was up to the job. But most importantly, before she agreed on doing anything, she had to have a heart-to-heart conversation with her mother.
“There are times you are going to get mad at me,” her mother told her. “They are times I’m going to get mad at you. There are going to be things that you do that I’m not going to agree with, and things that I do you aren’t going to agree with, so we are going to have to learn to work together.”
But ultimately, to her mother, it has always boiled down to this: “I think our biggest problem is the fact that we are too much alike.”
By September 2011, once Last Shot with Judge Gunn began to air across the nation, Gunn’s name can now be seen accredited as the show’s Arkansas producer.
A New Lease in Life
Working in a small conference room at Gunn’s Firm, a private non-specialty law firm partially owned by her mother, Gunn’s primary job now centers on interviewing the participants in order to acquire the content (i.e. storyline) of the show, along with preparing the show’s agenda and staffing.
On filming days, however, which usually occurs on Saturday afternoon in the historic Washington County Courthouse, and which the show leases it for a $1000 per day, Gunn divides her behind the scenes responsibilities by interviewing the participants and their family after they presented their case during taping, getting their photos, getting the agenda of the show, making sure everybody is on time, preparing food and transportation for the participants, communicating with the executives in Los Angeles, and “manning” the door to the courtroom.
“This is my breather—this small moment when they say ‘All, rise,’” says Gunn, standing outside the courtroom in the hall and phone-texting some members of the crew who are watching the show inside.
But this “breather” soon ends when the participants, one by one, start to exit the courtroom after they finish meeting with Judge Gunn and receiving the verdict on whether they are admitted to the recovery program. It is then when the participants approach Gunn with the news, most of the time emotionally stricken, as the latter greet them with congratulatory encouragement.
“We really changed a lot of lives,” says Michael McHenry, 29, the parole office who works in the show and whose principle job is to conduct “a series of background investigations . . . and figure out if the person is viewed as priority in the program.”
“There are a lot of good moments in drug court, says Lisa Deniss, the prosecutor of the show, “because there are a lot of success stories in the show—like a child reuniting with his parents after a period of grief . . . or a prodigal son coming back around.” Indeed, even against her realistic and cynical perspective as a prosecutor, or “the person who everybody loves to hate,” according to Gunn, Deniss admits that witnessing these heartfelt reunions is what makes it special, and in which a “typical, prosecuting attorney rarely experience in her job.”
And so does McHenry, who used to work as a regular parole officer for the state of Arkansas. “They offer me a position to change people’s life,” he says. “Basically an opportunity to become a family to their family.”
But to Gunn, who, after hugging a participant with kind words of encouragement, nothing seems more satisfying at the moment than to be a part of “something positive in someone’s life.”
Even though Gunn still serves as “Of Counsel” for the Gunn Law Firm and takes her law career and clients very seriously and passionately, her job as a producer remains the primary focus in her life fulfilling career.
“I really love my job,” she says. “I don’t think I’d have been able to say this if I were [strictly] a lawyer.”