Maureen Cunningham was a colleague of mine at the University of Notre Dame. She is a woman of towering intellect, but not of towering stature. She is very much vertically challenged. Maureen and I got along just fine. Whenever I got her in the library, I would help her get books off of the top shelves. If I wasn’t around, she would have to climb up on the bottom shelves to reach the book she needed. I believe this shows that Maureen is possessed both of innovation and determination.
She demonstrated both qualities in abundance in getting her law degree from Notre Dame. Her first year, she flunked out. The dean told her she seemed to have a problem with formal logic, so she went to Loyola and took classes in formal logic. She then returned and took her first year for the second time. It took her five years, but she got her law degree from Notre Dame and I admire her dedication so much.
Relatively early in her legal career, Maureen assisted in the defense of a 19-year-old fellow who, she noted, was almost as diminutive as she. The charge against him was no laughing matter: first-degree murder. She went to visit her client at Cook County Jail and went through four different locked doors. She thought that it reminded her of the opening of the Don Adams comedy Get Smart. She was sitting on one of the upper floors at a bench that reminded her of a picnic table when her conversation with her client got a rude interruption. The loudest alarm bells she had ever heard in her life went off and she saw several corrections officers running around at top speed. It went through her mind: there is a full-scale riot going on and I’m going to die today in Cook County Jail. Ordinarily, lawyers give advice to clients. At that moment, her client gave her some advice: “Stand in the corner.” Which she immediately did.
Her client then made a gesture which she has never forgotten. Her client stood directly between her and any possible harm.
I’m happy to report that Maureen made it out of Cook County Jail in one piece that day and she and her co-counsel eventually got her client acquitted of all charges. The funny thing about legal work is that, in real life, you don’t get to look at your report card. Only her client knows the truth about what happened in that case. For what it’s worth, he never got in trouble with the law again. Fourteen years later, Maureen attended that man’s funeral. Considering some of the interactions I’ve had with some of my clients, I was deeply moved that Maureen inspired such devotion in a client.