Christian Lawyers Discuss Their Work (Video)
In this video, New Testament scholar Sean McDonough argues that the work modern lawyers do has its roots in the Bible, specifically Luke 10:25-29. Starting at minute 9:06 professional lawyers share how the Christian faith changes their approach to their work. This video is part of Jesus And Your Job, a video series on how Christians in different industries view their work. To find out more about this series and how you can use it as a small group study, go to the Jesus And Your Job homepage.
A biblical Basis for Lawyers
I’m going to go to a fairly familiar passage before we invite our panelists up – at least a familiar introduction to an even more familiar passage, the parable of the Good Samaritan. The introduction to the story takes quite a few verses in its own right and is really of independent interest:
Just then a lawyer stood up to test Jesus. “Teacher,” he said, “what must I do to inherit eternal life?” He said to him, “What is written in the law? What do you read there?” He answered, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind; and your neighbor as yourself.” And he said to him, “You have given the right answer; do this, and you will live.”
But wanting to justify himself, he asked Jesus, “And who is my neighbor?”
First as a textual note: the word translated lawyer is translated somewhat unfairly, because we don’t want you to think when you think of that word of our beloved servants who you’ll see momentarily. This lawyer is really an expert in the mosaic law.
There is a very common interpretation of this passage which I think is not only very unlikely but very unhelpful. It goes something like this: the lawyer comes up to put Jesus to the test saying, “What shall I do to inherit eternal life?” Jesus says, “What’s written in the law?” and of course we know that the law’s bad and old and useless so that couldn’t be really what Jesus is after. The chap answers with the Great Commandment, not necessarily because he’s a good guy and a discerning scholar of the Bible, but because he knows that’s what Jesus thinks so he’s just going to parrot it back. Jesus says, “You’ve answered correctly, do this and you’ll live.” But we know that you can’t earn God’s favor – we know that the law does not bring about the righteous state that God desires, as Romans teaches us (Romans 3:20). We think: Jesus couldn’t really mean “do this and you will live.” What he really means, so goes this interpretation, is that this fellow should go out and try to love his neighbor, and then when he realizes he can’t he’ll have his come to Jesus moment and say he’s sorry, as hard as he tried to love his neighbor he could never do it and he needs God’s forgiveness. “I said do this and live, only to show you that you couldn’t do this and live.”
I find this interpretation unlikely and in tension with Luke’s usual way of doing business. It’s true that that we can’t earn God’s favor, that we’re hopeless sinners in need of Jesus’ death on our behalf in order to be in the right with God, and that the only thing that saves us is the grace of God. Luke believes all those things. But the way the gospel works itself out is not: what we do is inconsequential and we just kind of lay around and wait for God to save us. It is a much more dynamic process involved in the gospel.
Jesus wants the guy to do the law in the sense of loving God and loving his neighbor. This guy’s problem is not that he’s so relentlessly committed to doing good that he’s wrapped up in self-righteousness. His problem is that he’s so constitutionally averse to doing what God wants that he’s seeking to reframe God’s law to be much more restrictive in accordance with his own personal preferences. As the story will indicate, that’s love for his Jewish neighbors but nobody else. This is why a Samaritan – half Jew half gentile who can always be counted on to get the law wrong – is the hero of the story. This lawyer’s legalism consists in trying to reframe God’s commands in accordance with his own peculiar set of strengths and predilections. Jesus is saying, “No, you’ve got to love everybody.” That love is rooted in the transforming grace of God which only appears in the ministry of Jesus and the gift of the Holy Spirit which changes us into people who can love. But it needs to be worked out in lives of service which constitute love for God, for neighbor.
The idea that Jesus comes to do away with the law, and indeed to do away with rules and restrictions and laws in general, is belied not only by this passage but by many of the explicit comments of Jesus. Foremost among them: “Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets; I have come not to abolish but to fulfill" (Matthew 5:17). This is particularly true when we’re thinking of the law in terms of the 10 words, God’s moral desire for how human beings are to treat one another. The old covenant did in one sense need to obsolesce because it was bound to sinful people and therefore could never achieve the righteousness that God desired. But what concerns me, and here we begin our transition to the profession of law as it’s practiced in 21st century America, is the idea that any rules are shackles upon us which inhibit our freedom in the gospel. That’s bad New Testament theology.
At the broader cultural level, people think laws in general, rules in general, and restrictions in general keep us from being our true selves, that what really matters is what I feel like doing, and I want to be able to do whatever I want. This wrong idea has its quasi rooting in the aforementioned bad New Testament theology.
A proper balanced view of Jesus and the law is that Jesus does advance upon the law in the sense of moving from the old covenant to the new covenant with the gift of the Spirit which transforms us. At the same time, God gives us instructions as to how to live. That we are joyfully duty bound to do those things is just a consistent part of the scriptural witness.
The law of Moses, as reframed by Jesus around the love command and as fulfilled by the transformation that comes in the grace of the gospel, is important. And for that very reason laws are important. And if laws are important then so are lawyers.
I didn’t go to law school until I was 32. I had a profession before that in sales, and I loved selling. My father was a commissioned salesman door to door, and I always wanted to be like my dad. But there was one little thing in the back of my head. My dad always said, “If I had to do it over again I would have been a lawyer.”
I think I was causing a little trouble at home because my wife said, “If you don’t stop drinking like that…” so I went to law school at night. We had 4 children at the time, I had a full-time job, and my wife took over absolutely everything else. It took time, but it wasn’t all that difficult. I was fortunate enough to pass the bar exam and I opened my own practice immediately. That was always something I wanted to do – I didn’t want to work for a big law firm.
I opened a little office and bought an oriental carpet, a roll-top desk, and one of those signs with the gold lettering. The first person who came said, “How long have you been here?” and I said, “Well, what does it look like?” I couldn’t tell him he was my first client. Because, as Meirwyn will tell you, we really don’t learn a lot from law school. We learn how to run to the books. The first court case I had, I found the courthouse, and to the guy checking me in I said, “Where is the clerk’s office?” he said, “Criminal or civil?” I said, “Let me think… Civil.” I got to the clerk’s office and asked, “Can you please tell me where the courtroom is?” The old lady said, “Mary! We got another one over here we’ve got to train!”
Basically, that’s how you learn. You learn where the books are in law school, but the actual training is on the job. That’s why they call us practicing lawyers.
If I could do physics I wouldn’t be here now. My mother is a physician and I grew up wanting to be a doctor. But in college, physics didn’t go so well. At the time I was taking some history and I found that my interest lay not so much in the sciences as in other areas. So after years of thinking I’d be a doctor, I didn’t know what to do. And what else is there to do with a BA in the humanities than to go to law school? My grandfather had said, “He should be a lawyer,” but I was set on another thing so I didn’t really hear that until later.
I did some of the work needed for law school, and then I thought perhaps I was going to be called to the ministry. I’d gotten into law school, so I deferred for a year and I thought I’ll go to the seminary and work up a Christian jurisprudence, a philosophy of law from the perspective of the Bible and theology. I also thought it would be helpful to see what people who are called to ministry are doing and what their calls are like. After about a year I realize I wasn’t really called to the ministry in that sense, so I went to law school. I came out and worked for a big firm in Boston until it went belly-up. So I hung a shingle. I had gone from this firm in Boston where, if you wanted a pen, you just called out to your secretary and the secretary called down to the pen room and they would deliver the pen and a pad of paper. Now I had to figure out where the dumpster was.
There was a learning curve. The first client came in and said, “Would you draft a deed for me?” I said, “Absolutely!” Then he left the office and I said to myself, “What is a deed?” It was interesting how God actually would bring clients in the order of my competency. The first thing was to figure out how to do a deed. They don’t teach that in law school – they teach you all about property but they don’t teach you the document you need for the property. Then the next one is to do a realty trust, which takes a deed plus a trust. I had to learn “What’s a trust?” It was interesting how God would bring in clients in those first few years that I’d be able to work with. I knew what I was doing eventually.
Given the fact that my father was preaching, initially I had this struggle on whether or not I was called. Should I go into full time Christian ministry? I fell into that fallacy that there is full-time Christian ministry and then there is everybody else. Over the years I’ve come to understand that one of the key texts for me in terms of my work is Ephesians 6.
Children, obey your parents in the Lord, for this is right. “Honor your father and mother”—this is the first commandment with a promise: “so that it may be well with you and you may live long on the earth.”
And, fathers, do not provoke your children to anger, but bring them up in the discipline and instruction of the Lord.
Slaves, obey your earthly masters with fear and trembling, in singleness of heart, as you obey Christ; not only while being watched, and in order to please them, but as slaves of Christ, doing the will of God from the heart. Render service with enthusiasm, as to the Lord and not to men and women, knowing that whatever good we do, we will receive the same again from the Lord, whether we are slaves or free.
And, masters, do the same to them. Stop threatening them, for you know that both of you have the same Master in heaven, and with him there is no partiality.
Finally, be strong in the Lord and in the strength of his power. Put on the whole armor of God, so that you may be able to stand against the wiles of the devil. For our struggle is not against enemies of blood and flesh, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers of this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places. Therefore take up the whole armor of God, so that you may be able to withstand on that evil day, and having done everything, to stand firm. Stand therefore, and fasten the belt of truth around your waist, and put on the breastplate of righteousness. As shoes for your feet put on whatever will make you ready to proclaim the gospel of peace. With all of these, take the shield of faith, with which you will be able to quench all the flaming arrows of the evil one. Take the helmet of salvation, and the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God.
Paul starts Ephesians 6 by talking about parents and children, and then about slaves and masters, which we can take to apply to our role in the workplace: how we are to be as bosses and as workers. But then he follows that up with the whole armor of God passage. He sets out the various armor things that we’re supposed to be wearing, or protective measures we could take as we go into our arenas. And in the middle of that passage he says “For we wrestle not against flesh and blood, but against principalities, against powers” (Ephesians 6:12, KJV). We are to be participating in this powers and principalities battle at work. How do we know that we’re doing that?
When I went to law school I started thinking, “Well, how am I going to be a Christian lawyer? What am I going to do that’s particularly Christian?” There were only a couple of things you could do: a few think-tank type groups where you talk about first amendment, or maybe become the lawyer for a college. There wasn’t any explicit Christian lawyer thing to do. I started realizing that what I do to participate as a full time Christian minister of the marketplace as a lawyer is to do everything the opposite of what Satan wants. Satan tears down, so as a lawyer I’m to build up. Satan is the god of chaos, law is given to us to withhold the powers of chaos in a fallen world. Lawyers are preeminent in that battle.
And of course, excellence applies to any work. Satan wants to tear things down and destroy, so if I draft a deed with excellence I am participating in this battle of the powers and principalities in a way that I will not know until I reach the other side how successful it was.
Lawyers is a slight wordplay to liars, and people think lawyers are in the business of lying. But we’re really in the business of trying to present the truth of our client as best we can. When we do our job presenting truth the best way we can, then the truth finders, the judge or the jury, do their work in ascertaining the realities.
Our powers and principalities battle happens every day all the time. But I think we can all agree, looking at examples from scripture and from history and in your own life, it seems there are times when we are called upon particularly. There are moments in our lives when we are called to do something specific and great through the power of the Holy Spirit in a particular setting. We need to be prepared for that at all times. When I go into the office, it may be just a regular day of putting together contracts, helping with some disputes, selling real estate, but every once in a while there’s the phone call or the situation you’re brought into that is particularly concerning. You can sense that there’s something pivotal about it in the work of the kingdom. What we do on Sunday is making sure we’re ready for whatever happens on a Monday.
Eldon on God in his work:
I was a church guy, but it wasn’t until after I became a lawyer that I found out it wasn’t just a Sunday thing. I used to think you’re a good guy if you do the best you can. But once I did find the Lord at age 43 – I knew who he was, I just didn’t have a relationship with him – things totally changed internally. The way I practice law now, I look at it as a mission field. I bring in 50 to 100 new clients a year, so it gives me 50 to 100 new relationships. My practice of law now is to love people and to have a relationship with them. Before you can really love them and show them the love of Christ that God has shown me, you really have to get to know them. We do get to know them intimately in most cases.
As far as law goes, we’re problem solvers. I’ve argued the exact same issue on both sides of the case with two different clients. And I’ve won them both, or lost them both. The main thing is that God is sovereign. I just got through a 6-day jury trial and this time I happened to win. When I walked out of the courthouse I said, “Thank you God, you must know something I didn’t know – I didn’t think it was that great a case!” Or if you lose and you think you have a fantastic case you say, “Okay God, I don’t know why I lost that one, but you must know something.” I look at his sovereignty.
Meirwyn on responsibility to clients and to truth:
We’re governed by rules of ethics. As lawyers we can’t knowing put falsehoods in front of the court. If our client is going to testify and lie, then we can’t use it as evidence. Probably each of us has had those conversations with clients where they’ve said they’re going to lie and we say, “No you will not!” I will phrase it as A) you don’t because it’s not right to lie and B) because it will be found out and you’ll lose your entire case. Just deal with the facts the way they are and let me deal with how to frame those for the jury and the judge.
Eldon on truth:
When I was in law school ethics was a no credit course. Do I have to say more? By the time my daughter got out of law school, you had to pass the ethics course or you didn’t graduate. Do you think lawyers are more ethical because of that reason? No, I think it comes down to the individual. If I have a client come to me and I don’t think he’s telling me the truth, I just won’t take the case. I just say, “I’m not the guy for you.” If you’re in the middle of the case and something comes up I say, “Well, we’re going to put some lipstick on that pig and buy her a new dress.” We deal with it, because if you don’t bring it up the other side is going to bring it up.
I had a client who broke his leg. It was a pretty good case, and I got him some money. He said, “You know, I could get you a lot of cases. I got this group of guys. They’ll see a little old lady in an Oldsmobile and they’ll pull out on a side street in front of her and slam on the breaks so she rear-ends them. I can get you a lot of those.” I said, “No, but if your mother gets seriously hurt you call me back.” And I never heard from the guy.
Other than doctors, it’s hard to think of another profession where you’re invited into people’s lives in the midst of extraordinary crisis. Even something like buying a house is a huge deal for someone. When people are in our offices they’re sharing a lot of things with us. We take that as a sacred trust. As a believer, you view that as a sacred trust.
- In Luke 10:25-29 Jesus contrasts a narrow interpretation of the law with a broader understanding of the law’s intent. In your work do you struggle with narrow interpretations verses broader understanding?
- Meirwyn debated whether to go into law or Christian ministry. Did you ever go through a similar debate? How did your faith affect your career choice?
- Eldon's faith leads him to focus on relationships with his clients. How are relationships important in your work?