February 2016 Bar Bulletin
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February 2016 Bar Bulletin

Legal Practice and Christian Faith

By Alissa N. Baier

 

When I think about my faith and the law, my thoughts wander to a serene alpine location. Tucked away in the small town of Plain — just 20 minutes outside idyllic Leavenworth — lies a cozy place called Mountain Springs Lodge. Every year since 2009, I’ve trekked over the pass to attend an annual Christian Legal Society (CLS) winter retreat.

Some years it’s been dry and clear, and other years traversing the snowy roads was downright treacherous. Once I made the drive alone, reflecting on what I might discover that weekend, while another time I drove a full car of male law students.

Past speakers include a Washington Supreme Court justice, a fierce female litigator, a criminal prosecutor and a private defense attorney who were best friends, and the legendary Bob Goff. (If you don’t know Goff, then you seriously need to hear him speak or read his book Love Does. He is the most audacious person whom you will ever meet.)

I was a 2L law student when I attended our first winter retreat and began my personal analysis into what it meant to be both a Christian and a competent attorney. I had been resistant to the ways that law school molds its students, fearing that giving 100 percent to the process would inevitability result in losing my morality and my identity.

I didn’t know any attorneys — my whole family works in the medical profession. Most of what I had learned throughout my childhood came from bad lawyer jokes. Even now, when I watch “Jurassic Park” for the umpteenth time and come to the scene where the lawyer gets eaten while sitting on the porta-potty toilet, I still laugh and think, “Of course, he would be the first to die.”

I grew up in a charismatic Protestant church where I learned how to live out my faith as a follower of Jesus, holding true to the Bible. I earned my J.D. from Seattle University School of Law where I learned how to practice law with a passion for social justice, holding true to the laws of the State of Washington and the United States of America. But neither venue ever mentioned how I might combine these two educations.

At the winter retreats in Leavenworth, I met other Christian law students and attorneys who knew of the same struggle. I was encouraged to discuss my faith freely and consider its relationship with my profession. I felt challenged to reject any false belief that I must claim two separate identities, living out my professional life as some Jekyll-and-Hyde-type persona.

In fact, I learned that these two aspects of my identity — my faith and my legal training — actually complement each other quite well. Who I am as a Christian is valuable to my practice of law, and what I’m passionate and opinionated about as an attorney is valuable to my faith practice, too.

Fast forward to today: I’m now a staff attorney at Open Door Legal Services, a legal aid office and ministry of Seattle’s Union Gospel Mission. Three years in, I still consider this my dream job. We work on family law matters, child support, quashing warrants, court fines, relicensing, debt issues, immigration, and an array of other civil legal services for those who cannot afford representation.

My clients often live in the Mission’s shelters, but many come to our walk-in clinic and are also struggling through domestic violence, drug and alcohol addictions, mental illness, poverty, and homelessness. It can be a tough crowd — former drug dealers, prostitutes, sex offenders, fugitives, undocumented immigrants — but I’d like to think that these are the people whom Jesus would be eating with and ministering to if he was on Earth today.

Because the Mission is a faith-based, nonprofit organization, I practice law alongside some amazing co-workers who share my Christian beliefs. We have the freedom to pray with clients during meetings, and our discussions are frequently seasoned with personal thoughts on God’s love and sovereignty as we tackle sticky issues like a client’s recovery, family abuse or their hope for immigration reform. Calling me a “counselor at law” is a perfect description for some of these meetings. I give not only legal counsel, but sometimes also dating tips, parenting advice and spiritual guidance. I’ve learned to always keep a box of tissues on hand in my office.

Like any other young attorney, I’m constantly challenged to learn new things, zealously advocate for my clients, do quality work, and abide by ethics rules. But given my faith, I find that I’m further challenged to practice the law with love and humility. Most Christian attorneys, including myself, share Micah 6:8 as a favorite Bible verse: “He had told you, O man, what is good; and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God.” 

I don’t make any claims of success here — I struggle with this constantly and recognize that I will always be a work in progress. Given the pride that our profession maintains, demonstrating any kind of humility is shocking and countercultural. Regardless of what sector of law we work in or the size of our paychecks, we all seek after financial increase, promotions, prestigious titles, glory and praise to drive our egos. Given the adversarial nature of the legal practice, it is also not an easy task to demonstrate love.

For example, when working on deadline, anger and frustration emerge from even the most patient saints. When dealing with an unruly opposing attorney in family law cases, there is always the temptation to write that surly email and “win” the argument. And don’t even get me started on the difficulties of loving one’s own clients, particularly when they act in direct opposition to the advice you’ve given them.

Yet, regardless of which category the law and society might cram a client into — right or wrong, good or bad, guilty or innocent, sober or still succumbing to their addictions — it is not my job to judge them. Instead, I must advise them as best I can and do the best work I can within the constraints of my job as a legal aid attorney.

But perhaps most importantly, I must also obey what Jesus has commanded. I’ve been reading through the book of Isaiah recently. Although it was mainly written as prophecy about the coming Messiah, Jesus Christ, I’ve been struck by the number of references to social justice mentioned throughout.


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