Whether Lawyers, Too, Can Be Saved

[1] In 1525, Assa von Kram, a professional military officer, asked Martin Luther a question that had been weighing on his conscience: if I want to be a good Christian, do I have to quit my job as a soldier? Assa had good reason to be concerned – didn’t Jesus, after all, say that his followers should be peacemakers, ones who love their enemies and turn the other cheek? Killing and maiming and destroying don’t fit well with the call to discipleship.

[2] On a regular basis, people ask me a similar question, but not about being soldiers. From my students in their first year of law school all the way through the most senior partners at the biggest and richest law firms in Washington, DC and New York, I get this question: “Can I be a good Christian and still be a lawyer?” Can lawyers, too, be saved? The question may strike you as a bit odd – lawyers, after all, aren’t out there breaking things and hurting people. We might be accused of suffocating people under red tape, or boring them with legalese – our whereinfors and hithertos and surrebuttals and incorporeal heriditaments. We never let one word do where five or six or a dozen would suffice.

[3] So what is it that these lawyers are worried about? Lawyer jokes, by their sheer number and the themes which seem to run through all of them, are revealing:

How do you know when a lawyer’s lying? her lips are moving

Or, a first grader, an accountant and a lawyer are all asked the same question – “what is 2+2?”
first grader – “4, silly!”
accountant – “3 or 4, but I have to check the spreadsheet and get back to you”
lawyer – closes the door and blinds, then bends forward in his chair – “2+2, you say.
How much would you like it to be?”

[4] Words and arguments are tools of the trade; any connection they might have to the truth is purely accidental (and maybe even a mistake). We bend the facts and even the law to suit the client’s wishes. 2+2? How much do you want it to be? Lawyers are amoral at best – selling their services to the highest bidder, wholly indifferent to the justice of the client’s cause. And at worst, lawyers facilitate wrongdoing by their clients – setting up stock deals that swindle investors out of money, or writing contracts that impose onerous terms on the unsuspecting. And lawyers do inflict harm on others – humiliating witnesses at trial, evicting poor people from their homes when the rent or mortgage isn’t paid, or keeping quiet when a mere word would have saved someone else from financial ruin or even physical harm.

[5] These criticisms are hundreds if not thousands of years old – but new circumstances give these old complaints more force. First, as our society has become more complex and more heavily regulated, the number and social significance of lawyers has grown. Lawyers are much more visible; the things they do affect many more people than just a couple of generations ago, and so the old jokes become widely held beliefs. Second, lawyers in the news lately haven’t exactly covered themselves in glory-from the O.J. Simpson trial through President Clinton’s impeachment, lawyers seem more the problem than the cure. Finally, there have been some pretty dramatic changes in the legal profession over the last two decades, changes that we still can’t quite understand. Between the time I graduated in 1991 and now, starting salaries at large law firms increased from $65,000 to $140,000 or $150,000; partners regularly earn over a million dollars a year. Imagine my students’ eyes when they first hear those salary numbers – but it comes at price. Billable hours shoot up – a target of 2400 hours a year means regular 70-hour weeks; relationships with partners and training deteriorates, not to mention family and any life these new lawyers may have had outside of work.

[6] And so the question comes. Can lawyers, too, be saved? We can imagine a number of different responses:

a. One answer is, “Of course,” – indeed we might be surprised even to hear the question. This is a Christian civilization, the role is important to upholding this civilization, and therefore the role and its expectations are perfectly consistent with Christian life.

b. The second answer is also “Of course,” – but for a different reason: What does my professional life have to do with my Christian beliefs? Christ rules in my heart, but the world is the world. If I have to do things that are bad during the week, I go to church on Sunday and know that I’ll be forgiven.

c. The third answer is “No, you can’t.” Being a lawyer (or manager/soldier, etc) according to the world’s standard of “good” is fundamentally incompatible with leading a Christian life. The role involves excessive contact with evil and must be avoided.

[7] The people who come to me wouldn’t find the first answer helpful (or even plausible). They experience a real gap between faith and work. The second is no better – it simply denies that there should be any direct connection between faith and work: religion is private, a matter for the soul – it’s supposed to make you feel better about being the way you already are. What’s missing in both the first and the second is any serious grappling with the call to discipleship – the call to live a holy life. As Paul says in Ephesians, “You were taught to put away your former way of life, your old self, corrupt and deluded by its lusts, and to be renewed in the spirit of your minds, and to clothe yourselves with the new self, created according to the likeness of God in true righteousness and holiness.” How can you wear this new suit into that same old office building?

[8] The third option is, I think, a real possibility. It was certainly part of Luther’s answer to Assa von Kram. There may be times when secular duties conflict with the life of discipleship, and our choice between the two is clear. But Luther also gives a fourth option, one that says “Yes, but…” We get the “yes, but” answer in 2 different ways:

d. First, it is a word about who we are as Christians – at once justified in Christ, yet still creatures entangled in webs of sin, webs we ourselves seem to spin daily.

e. Second, it is a word about the way God works in the world – the Holy One gets right down into the middle of all the mess and chaos and richness of this world; God creates and preserves and renews and sustains, Luther says, using the most ordinary of forms. Parents and teachers, farmers and government, all can be instruments of God’s care – God’s masks, Luther calls them.

[9] Our professions – these worldly jobs, with all their warts and demanding bosses and annoying clients – have the potential to be divine callings, “masks of God” – places where we participate in God’s gracious governance of this world. And yet (here we go back to the first “yes, but”) they also hold the potential to be twisted, perverted into instruments of violence, destruction, and injustice. So how do we tell the difference? To get a glimpse, I want to take a closer look at some words often used in discussions of lawyers’ ethics: vocation, profession, and responsibility.

[10] These words are pretty tired, to tell you the truth. Vocation can mean any sort of job (as opposed to avocation – the things that really matter to you). Profession’s not doing much better – pros get paid for their work, they certainly don’t do it for love of the game. Or you might view professions as old medieval guilds, restricting admission so they can jack up the fees they charge. And what can responsibility mean in this mix? Certainly it is something to be avoided or minimized at all costs.

[11] This certainly doesn’t sound much like the “mask of God” I hinted at earlier. But let’s look at the words again, and especially their Latin roots:

f. vocatio – a call, summons, invitation

g. professio – a public declaration

h. responsum – an answer

[12] The link among these three is obvious – all are rooted in uses of words which comprise a dialogue. Call and response. As Christians, and especially as those whose understanding is shaped by the teaching of our brother Martin, this puts us on familiar ground. We are first and foremost hearers of the divine Word – the Word that calls all creation into existence, the Word that gives this creation its form, the Word that calls us by name even before we are born. “Come, be my people,” God says to Israel. “Follow me,” Jesus says to his disciples.

[13] And how do we respond? The sinful truth, of course, is not well – we pretend, like Jonah, that we can’t hear, or simply run in the opposite direction. Or like Adam and Eve we turn our ears and listen for different words, words of our own making. But as promised in Jeremiah, God’s call is gracious. We are given new hearts, new voices to respond to the invitation.

[14] And what are we invited to do? First, God calls us to receive the plenitude – the good gifts – of creation: life and health and food and shelter and peace. In response to this call, we first accept the gifts and give thanks. It’s a great feast we’re invited to – but we’re asked to be not just diners but also stewards – servants at the feast. We are supposed to bring others into the feast as well, and share its goodness. Of course, sharing and stewardship require trust – that we won’t finish serving only to find that the table’s bare.

[15] I know you’re thinking “What does this have to do with criminal defense or corporate tax?” The answer, at least in its broad form, is a pretty simple question: Does this work help to share the gifts of God’s creation, or does it assume scarcity – a mark of grave distrust – and represent a mad rush to grab whatever can be taken? Are we sharing the feast with others, or are we cramming everything into our own mouths? Listen to Luther’s description of the Seventh Commandment forbidding robbery:

It is not to be confined to narrow limits but must extend to all our relations with our neighbors. On one hand, we are forbidden to do our neighbor any injury or wrong in any way imaginable, whether by damaging, withholding, or interfering with his possessions and property. We are not even to consent to or permit such a thing, but are rather to avert and prevent it. On the other hand, we are commanded to promote and further our neighbor’s interests, and when he suffers want we are to help, share, and lend to both friends and foes.

[16] We are called to serve the welfare of our neighbors as a sign of our confidence in God’s generosity, and not to be miserly out of fear of our own wants, desperate in the search for more for ourselves.

[17] That means we may have to say “no” to some types of work. I think of the lawyers for Charles Keating, owner of Lincoln Savings in Arizona. They set up deals that took in money from the unsuspecting elderly in exchange for worthless securities, and then hid the deals from regulators who could have stopped the problem from becoming catastrophic. The lawyers defended their conduct – and in some cases were exonerated – as a proper exercise of loyalty to the client. But surely that work could not count as “protecting our neighbor’s property and furthering our neighbor’s interests.”

[18] That doesn’t mean lawyers need to shun banking practice or securities law as the devil’s work – lawyers help arrange the financing and other capital resources that allow companies to get off the ground or expand – not to mention mortgages for home ownership or education loans. In complex ways, even securities markets can help to share the wealth of creation.

[19] The same holds true with representing criminal defendants – even those the lawyer knows to be guilty. The ideal of blind justice in an oak and marble courtroom ends up, in reality, to be more like Frank Purdue’s chicken factory: nameless defendants get stamped and processed in an assembly line, dispatched according to a formula that pays as little attention to their stories as possible. The defense attorney, if she has the time and energy given huge caseloads, can give that defendant a name, respect, and attention, defense where appropriate, and properly tailored sanctions if a plea. Personal connection – a humane solidarity – can be the richest form of servant ministry.

[20] Vocation is about more than just the kind of cases that the lawyer takes, or the lawyer’s attitude toward her clients. It also must affect the structure of the lawyer’s employment. It’s not just our clients who want more than their share. The current salary levels and expected work rates of lawyers in most large firms reflects a similar kind of desperate lunge for more – more money, more prestige, more power. Every year I send off young lawyers who say they’ll only work in these high-pressure firms long enough to pay down their debt, but they get trapped into patterns of consumption that make it impossible to leave – not to mention the patterns of competition for partnership slots that makes leaving seem like failure. They tell me they feel trapped – addicted, even. The cell phone (and even the portable fax) goes on honeymoons; week and weekend collapse in a way that most of us only know from finals in school (those last few days when the paper is due).

[21] What’s the alternative? In short, we need to learn the grace of saying “enough is best.” Our work may be a divine vocation, but it is not the whole of our lives – and certainly not what gives our lives meaning. The mask which allows us to represent God’s grace to our neighbor can so easily become the idol – our god, rather than a mere instrument of the Holy. We forget that the calling of work is in the middle of a much longer conversation, one that first calls us to rejoice and give thanks to God, one that calls us to care for our families (in more ways than writing checks); one that calls us to build up the church; one that calls us to rest. Only as part of that whole conversation can we really see this work as vocation. And only then can we say, with any confidence, that yes, “Lawyers, too, can be saved.”