Caution! Lawyers at Work

The following article was first published in CLF's Christian Legal Journal (May/June 2017 Issue).

Caution! Lawyers at Work

By Michael P. Schutt*

God placed Adam in the garden to mirror Him by working it and keeping it.[1] The great Creator has created us to create—to work. As Adam’s descendants and God’s creatures, we are cultivators in a fallen world. Still bearing the image of God, we continue to mirror the great Creator as creators, cultivators, and workers—we are culture makers. 

Our Creator is also the great Lawgiver, who holds all authority in heaven and on earth. And He authorizes his creatures “to exercise portions of that authority as his ministers.”[2] Professor Craig Stern explains the implications:

Because man is made in God’s image, he can enjoy a relationship with God that may encompass covenant; that may entail the human administration of God’s authority and justice; that may require the exercise of judgment, applying God’s law, or any law at all for that matter. Furthermore, because he is made in God’s image, man may enjoy relationships with fellow man in enjoying these privileges and exercising these faculties.[3]

Clearly, we lawyers work as God’s ministers, doing His work in the world. We work because our Creator is a worker. We minister in and through law because it is a gift of the Lawgiver, and He gives us authority to exercise judgment and to apply and administer it. 

In all of this, we image our Creator, and that alone is a compelling mission. Yet he gives us more, for wrapped up in the work He gives us is His love poured out to the world around us. It is in and through our callings—as spouses, parents, students, church members, friends . . . and workers—that God lavishes loves on His creation. 

“Masks” of God

The reformer Martin Luther loved to use the imagery of a “costume” or a “mask” to demonstrate this truth. In loving the earth, Luther would say, God waters it through the rain. God himself, watering and nurturing, “hides” behind the thunderstorm, as if wearing it as a mask or costume. Those who know Him can often see him through the mask, but others can see only the mask—the rainstorm. Likewise, as God ministers His grace-filled healing, he wears doctors and medical professionals as a mask, through which His love and healing shines. 

Luther wrote often of “the mask of God” in the context of vocation and ordinary work. That God dispenses His grace in this way is borne out in our everyday experience: though God can heal and has healed me on His own without intervention of others, for example, most often He uses medical professionals, pharmaceutical companies, pharmacologists, and lab technicians as His instrument for healing. Though He could provide manna on the ground each morning for us, His primary method of giving us the bread—for which we ask him directly[4]—is through His instruments: farmers, grocers, bakers, and millers.[5]

Lawyers, too, are God’s instruments of grace in the world. He wears us as His mask as He reconciles parties, punishes criminals, judges justly, defends the accused, gives loving counsel, or vindicates the rights of victims. To be sure, He uses all human beings to do His work in the world, but those of us who know that He is “hiding” behind us to pour out His love to others have the privilege of embracing God’s mission and our callings. 

I want to briefly explore three aspects of that mission and suggest some ways to embrace them more fully as lawyers who desire to be God’s instruments. 

We Work for the Good of Our Neighbours

First, if God “wears us” as masks as He loves our neighbours, it would seem logical that the heart of our calling is to use our gifts to co-operate with Him in doing just that. While this seems like a no-brainer—loving one’s neighbour is, after all, the second great commandment of Jesus—it does not spring naturally to mind when thinking about the lawyer’s mission. (I am pretty sure it doesn’t spring immediately to our neighbours’ minds, either). 

My friend Ron is a doctor who came to Christ relatively late in his career. He was known as a brilliant doctor, but he had an impossible bedside manner—people went to him to get well, but not many liked being around him. His conversion totally transformed his relationship with patients. One night over dinner I asked him, “What was the biggest change you saw in your practice after you became a Christian?” Without hesitating, he replied that after he began to follow Jesus, he suddenly saw his patients as “human beings to be cared for, not medical problems to be solved.” To be sure, God used Ron to heal people before he knew Jesus. God was truly their healer, even if Ron didn’t know it. But Ron’s joy in his own calling became full, when he began to realize what God was doing through him. And his patients experienced the love of God in a more complete way. 

As lawyers, law students, and judges who follow Jesus, we have the opportunity to experience the joy of seeing God love the world through us, and our clients can experience God’s justice, mercy, or kindness more directly. But this happens only as we embrace the mission as masks of God. Here are some ideas of how we might intentionally do that:

Develop a theological understanding of our practice area.

If we are not sure how God pours out his love on our clients through our estate planning practice or tax work, we need to find out! In some areas of the law, it is obvious; in others it is a more difficult task to discern God’s love. This is a matter of prayer and deep reflection, not a matter of finding Bible verses that support our work. We ought to ask the God who has called us into law to show us how he loves others through our gifts. Then we can press fervently into that work. 

Be willing to serve the whole person, rather than just the “legal problem” to be solved.

As our mindset changes about who our clients are—real people with a depth of spiritual, emotional, and legal needs—our ability to love them expands. This requires us to listen and to be generous with our time. It also may require some risk as we reach out in ways that are not comfortable to those of us who see our practices in a traditional box. 

See the big picture, but realize my small and specific role in it.

We must think about law and justice in a broad way in order to discern our role as lawyers. As we do that, however, it is tempting to think that we can “do justice to all” in a broad sense. We will be tempted to forget that we have specific callings within the system, and that is harmful to the task of discerning specific duties we have. For example, if we forget that our first duty is to our criminal client, we may be tempted to serve as prosecutor, judge, or parole officer. 

Realize that clients are not our only neighbours.

Our legal work is likely at the heart of how God uses us in the world, since He has trained us and asked us to spend hours and hours doing it. But we cannot forget that God calls us to love our paralegals, partners, protégés, and the property manager in our buildings. Our legal work puts us in proximity—the neighbourhood—of hundreds of neighbours to be loved. We are also called to our families and churches. Law is a central part of our calling, but it is not the only call we have to love our neighbours.

We Work to Serve and Imitate God

Second, as we serve as God’s costumes, he will most certainly require something of us. He is, after all, the God who suffered and died for us, the God who waits patiently while we like lost sheep go our own way. What might He ask of us? 

Am I willing to suffer to love my clients, my partners, my legal assistant?

It is often painful to do our duty. It is difficult to have a conversation in which we disagree with our client on moral, rather than legal, grounds. It is hard to confront where we see injustice, and it is hard to change when we learn we are wrong. This is a calling we should embrace in order to be used by God. 

How do I respond to adversity in the courtroom or office?

James tells us that we ought not be surprised when we encounter various kinds of trials.[6] We are an example to our clients and partners when we respond to adversity. To small things like bad language, attitudes, and anger, to larger issues like training young lawyers to learn to lose cases and the like, we imitate Christ when we face trials with grace and forgiveness. 

Can I make hard choices in order to love in the way that God loves our neighbours in the profession?

I must be willing to have a conversation with my client asking “what is the right thing to do?”—rather than “what is the ‘permissible’ thing”. If I am not willing to have those difficult conversations and to engage in real dialogue, then I am not willing to love my client. There are of course many examples of how this plays out in the difficult choices that we are called to make in everyday practice. 

We Work to be Conformed to Christ

Finally, our work shapes us. Lawyers, in particular, are shaped by their education—that’s what they meant when they said they were “teaching us to think like a lawyer.” Our law professors warped us in order to develop our analytical muscles; we learned to cross-examine, to argue both sides of a brief, and to be skeptical about every claim. To be sure, the shaping power of law school is not all good. I cross-examine my spouse, I tend to be cynical and over-analytical in all the wrong places, and I think I know stuff that my friends don’t. In addition, we have not even begun to address the shaping power of law practice: our warped view of time flowing naturally from keeping track of hours by the tenth, our arrogance, or our materialism. 

Yet we are called to not be conformed to the pattern of this world (presumably even its subset, the law world), but to be transformed by the renewing of our minds. This kind of transformation, like the transformation we experienced in law school, requires repeated practices and ingrained habits that counter the forming power that presses in on us. What sort of countermeasures are we taking, in the power of the Holy Spirit, to fight the shaping power of the law? I’ll close with a few suggestions. 

First, we need regular retreat, or at least rest, to take the time necessary to think well about our work and to think well about whether we are being faithful to love our neighbours in and through the law. 

Second, we should practice new forms of communication—listening mostly—that counter-shape us, away from cross-examination and over-analysis outside the office. 

Third, we cannot neglect our calling to the local congregation. This is God’s plan for shaping and forming us. 

Finally, we ought to remember that our identities as lawyers are fundamentally shaped by what sort of wife or husband or son or daughter we are. Our callings overlap and interconnect. Because we are men and women of integrity, we are whole people, following Christ in every area of our lives. 

We work in order to seek the good of our neighbours, to imitate our Creator, and to place ourselves in a position to be conformed to the image of our Savior. This is a great and hopeful calling. 


*Mike Schutt is Associate Professor at Regent University School of Law and director of Attorney Ministries and Law Student Ministries for the Christian Legal Society. He is the author of "Redeeming Law: Christian Calling and the Legal Profession" (InterVarsity Press 2007). He lives in rural northeast Texas with his wife Lisa. They have three grown children and two granddaughters. 

[1]Genesis 2:15.

[2]See Craig A. Stern, The Common Law and the Religious Foundations of the Rule of Law before Casey, 38 U. S.F. Law Rev. 499 (2004). Available online.

[3]Id. at 507.

[4]See the Lord’s Prayer in Luke 11:1-4.

[5]See Gene Edward Veith, God at Work (2004) for this and many other examples. 

[6]James 1:2-4.