Less Speech, More Debate Less Speech, More Debate New Bar President Whitney Cunningham
BY TIM EIGO
PHOTO BY JOHN HALL
Risk and reward.
Like sometimes-fractious siblings, this pair occupies the
working hours of every trial lawyer. Accurate assessment of
strengths, weaknesses and threats is a distinguishing feature of
those who are routinely successful in the courtroom. Its opposite quality would recommend another occupation.
Bar governance is no jury trial, yet courtroom skills inform
the strategic approach of incoming State Bar President Whitney
Cunningham. He says he loves trials, but points out that
analysis and preparation—not just performance—are vital parts
of the equation. Not unlike guiding a nonprofit board.
Aptitude at pleadings, arguments and persuasive board motions is all well and good. Flair
at those tasks is even better. But competence
and talent are born somewhere. For the 46-
year-old Cunningham, speech and debate
lecterns were his earliest proving ground.
That began in high school.
“I went out for the football team,” says a
smiling Cunningham. “And my recollection
of trying out was that it really, really hurt. But
I went to my first debate tournament and
they gave me a trophy, and I thought, this is
an altogether better experience.”
After graduation from Mesa’s Mountain
View High School, he enrolled at Arizona
State University, where he joined the debate
team. Cunningham recalls that he “was never
highly motivated to be at ASU.” When best
friend and fellow ASU debater Mark Woolsey
announced he was transferring to Northern
Arizona University, Cunningham decided to
join him at the Flagstaff school.
“I gave it just about as much thought as
I’m talking to you right now.”
Seeming impulsiveness often marks the
highly prepared litigator and debater.
Whichever characteristic was in operation—
spontaneity or forethought—his move north
“That turned out to be one of my least
thought-out but better decisions,” says
That is an understatement from someone
who has mastered the skill. Cunningham and
his colleagues all marvel at the close connec-
tion between the man and his adopted town.
“It was a natural fit.”
Another fit came via his first-semester
Property class led by a professor who was
“one of these kooky nerdy guys, and he starts
talking about the Rule in Shelley’s Case and
all of these ancient common law concepts. It
was like second nature to me. I just ate it up
and loved it.”
Today, Cunningham does real estate busi-
“I’m pretty confident that I was set on
that course in that first semester of law
Blind luck? Maybe, but the interaction
between impulse and preparation arises
“I’ve always had a healthy sense that
things have a way of working out. I do
believe that you make your own luck.”
For Cunningham, preparation is only a
part of the process.
“I have always had to love what I was
doing or I would quickly lose the time and
energy to continue to do it. I have to do what
I’m passionate about and, just by doing that,
it’s taken me good places.”
After a clerkship with the U.S. District
Court in DC, the next place on his life’s jour-
ney was a return trip to Arizona, where a
friend’s wedding gave him the opportunity
to interview at a Flagstaff law firm.
Georgetown Law School is one of the largest
law schools in the country, and one of the
most prestigious. The man from Mesa knew
he had his work cut out for him.
“I was from a small town, and I didn’t
know whether I fit in or not.”
Success in a moot court competition—
assessed by judges of the D.C. District
Court—let him “realize I could stand shoul-
der-to-shoulder with those folks.”
He was subsequently admitted onto the
Georgetown Law Journal. In his third year, his
peers elected him Editor-in-Chief.
“For whatever reason, people had a lapse
in judgment that day and put me in charge.”
Cunningham recalls the role allowed him
to do what he was “completely used to doing:
not attending class, spending all my time in
the library, and helping to prepare the next
issue of the Journal.”
Aspey, Watkins & Diesel had two distinctive
qualities that appealed to the recent law
school graduate. It was, as near as he could
tell, one of the only two law firms in Flagstaff.
And, most important, it was the only one
that agreed to interview him.