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What Would People Think?

Wednesday, August 24, 2005

Love and Lawyering

Something happened today which clarified to me my central conflict with being both a Christian and a lawyer.

In my Negotiations class today, we were discussing a mock-negotiation exercise we had all just done. One student mentioned what he thought would be a “fair” price in the exercise – a sale of land. The professor proceeded to criticize – if not outright mock – the idea of “fairness” when one is a lawyer representing a client.

Fairness is such a nebulous concept, she said. If your client paid $7,000 and the other guy is willing to pay $20,000 for the same land, who’s to say whether that’s fair? Furthermore, she said, your responsibility is to your client. You should be seeking the best interests of your client, not pursuing some idea of fairness.

This infuriated me. First, off, she’s got a nice, morally neutral hypothesis to work with. But the world isn’t always that way. If you are a lawyer representing, say, the government buying land from a poor family that has nothing in the world but their house…..is it ok, to pull the power of eminent domain as a bargaining chip and force them to take a pitiful price…..thereby leaving them destitute? You haven’t lied or otherwise violated the rules of legal ethics…..BUT IT’S STILL WRONG!

Then, 10 minutes later, the professor was talking about lawyer-client relations. She was talking about how, in the real world, a lawyer’s ego or desire for fees can lead him to NOT take a settlement that would be in his client’s best interests. Now she was advocating selflessness. No matter how much it might benefit you, she said, you cannot think of your own interests when representing clients. If it was your own money, you could do what you want with it. When you are representing someone else, things are different.

And here I encounter my central dilemma.

I know what my duty is as a Christian. Jesus told me so. First, “Love the LORD your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind.” Second, “Love your neighbor (read: everyone) as yourself.” And this is what I want to do. All I ever wanted to do with my life – when I thought long term about what I want my life to mean, as opposed to when I let my short-term selfishness get in the way – was to love.

And Jesus, hanging up there on that cross for us, provides me with the perfect example of what love is. Love is sacrifice. Love is more than just infatuation, or liking a person. Love is the willingness to put another’s interests ahead of your own.

But what does it mean to love as a lawyer?

I was infuriated by my professor’s comments about fairness, but when she mentioned that this isn’t my own money/interests/whatever that I’m dealing with….well, that muddied the waters. If I was in a position to harm Person X for my own benefit, and did so….clearly that’s wrong. That’s not love.

But what if it’s not for myself? If I’m in a position to benefit my client – even if it harms Person X – and fail to do so….am I then loving my client? Even if that leaves my client in the lurch? In failing in my duty as a lawyer – which is surely what my professor would say I was doing if I didn’t take this action to benefit my client – am I failing in my calling as a Christian? As a Christian, I should sacrifice my own interests rather than harm Person X. But what right have I to sacrifice my client’s interests for the sake of Person X?

Where does love fit into this picture? This is my dilemma.


  • The obvious solution here, of course, is to never take cases that would compromise your principles. For example, never represent the government in a property negotiation situation if you believe eminent domain screws people over. It is certainly well within your rights to turn down a case.

    Here's my take on this: Recall the verse from Deuteronomy, "Justice, justice, shall you pursue." Many people have wondered why justice is mentioned twice. I think it's because of this: not only are we commanded to pursue the cosmic Right but we must establish just systems on earth as well. (In that sense, being a lawyer is about the most God-loving thing you could do.) It's a roundabout way of getting to this point, but your first duty is to the Client, not to your client or the other guy.

    God certainly wouldn't want you to screw anyone. But then, if the other guy has a lawyer who will use every trick in the book to pursue his client's interest, is it truly "just" to make the legal battlefield unequal? To put it in other terms, if the other guy's trying to screw you, shouldn't you try to screw him, and trust in God that the agreement will screw nobody?

    Perhaps the point is this - in order to acheive justice, we must put our ideas of Justice aside for the moment and trust God to see to that. And that in contributing to a system of earthly justice that gives everyone a fair shake during an argument, you are doing God's work however odd it may seem.

    (I wouldn't apply that to this specific case though. Eminent domain is inherently unfair, since it is a case of those with power oppressing those without.)

    Caveat: the obsession over terrestrial justice tends to be a uniquely Jewish one, so the Christian view on this may vary severely. It may be un-Christian to ever put the idea of Justice aside for the good of the systems of the terrestrial world. In that case, you're back to just avoiding such cases, and you can feel free to ignore the last few paragraphs.

    By Blogger Jeff, at 8/24/2005 9:31 PM  

  • A couple of ideas:

    First principle, I think you must do right by all involved, at least to the greatest extent possible.

    A couple of variations on how that could work:

    1. You buy into the adversarial system. Believe that it is best (if imperfect) for society. You must play your role to make this system work.

    2. Truly seek justice. If your client is right -- fight zealously for what is right. If your client is wrong--tell her so. If she is half-right, explain that to her, and try to win her half for her. If she wins too much -- tell her she should give it back (what she actually does is between her and God).

    Now, it's still more complicated. What if there is no way for the outcome of a legal interaction not to wrongly harm someone. The I think you're to the fear and trembling moment, and you have to pray, tell God that His will be done (not yours), and make the best call that you can. If you're fighting hard enough to be in this position, I don't think God would be displeased.


    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 8/24/2005 9:34 PM  

  • I admire you for putting such a personal struggle out there for everyone to see and comment on, and man, you're grappling with difficult questions. My thoughts:

    When Christ talks about loving our neighbors, I don't think he defines love as "get the most money as you can for them, even if it hurts other people." In fact, that might be the opposite of love - it might be facilitating the client's sinful tendency (greed), which is ultimately going to be bad for their soul, and meanwhile it might actively hurt other people, which is definitely not loving them.

    Beyond that, I'm not sure how to answer your questions...I think they would make for a really good discussion in our seminar, so hopefully there will be a reading that will facilitate this topic.

    My gut feeling, though, is that love in the Christian sense is never about money (even in the case of sending money to starving orphans in Africa) -- it's about laying down your life for someone, about being Christ to them. And it's pretty hard to imagine Christ screwing one person (presumably the one with less power / money who couldn't afford the better lawyer) for the monetary sake of another. So any career that makes you choose between being a good practioner of the career and being a good Christian probably isn't the right choice. However, I think there are tons of lawyer jobs that don't force you to make this choice, or at least make it pretty rare.

    Good luck as you continue to think about this stuff.

    - Erin Gerrard

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 8/24/2005 11:50 PM  

  • One thing you can do is be upfront with your client about your beliefs. That way the client knows exactly who they are hiring from the beginning. Those who are turned off by a moral lawyer are probably not people you want to represent anyway. Those who stay will be people you can feel good about helping (and most likely clients who will respect you and be more cooperative, too).

    By Blogger Leah, at 8/25/2005 9:25 AM  

  • To quote "Rent", "what about...(cue ridiculously large number of harmonies) LOOOOOOOVE?"

    The best advice I can think to give (or echo, since it appears Jeff already said this) is not to take on cases in which clients have less than respectable intentions. Though that might prevent you from working for the state. (Just kidding...)

    As a lawyer, I think your duty is to act in the best interests of your client. Ergo, the choice of clients is key. Knowing you, I have a feeling you wouldn't argue for a client motivated entirely by greed or an actual desire to harm. I know this probably doesn't help, but you've got a good conscience and sense of compassion, so I have a feeling you'll do fine.

    By Blogger Mike, at 8/25/2005 1:08 PM  

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