A Legal Ethic

After taking Professional Responsibility & Legal Ethics this past semester in law school, I devised in essay form my own legal ethic:

Although I’m not studying to become a professor, I wouldn’t consider myself the black sheep of my family. My mom, dad, and sister — all undergraduate English majors — now teach some brand of literature, writing, or philosophy. I, on the other hand, teach nothing, and my prospects in that direction don’t look too promising. Of course, that’s only natural, because I don’t feel called to teach. At least, not yet. Instead, for the time being, I feel called to litigate. In fact, I’m so confident that the law is where God wants me that, if I knew how genes worked, I might say it’s in my DNA.

What I cannot say so assertively is that the solutions to all of life’s ethical dilemmas are etched into my heart. Let me be clear: I almost always know the ethical course of action. It’s the acting that doesn’t come easy. I’ve probably said that going on a hundred times, and it’s becoming cliché, but I feel convicted every time I think about it. Well, at least, I want to feel convicted. I never want variety to supplant cliché when the cliché is actually worth remembering.

Yet a question plagues me: If even I struggle to lead an ethical life loads of the time — and for sounding particularly immodest and potentially naïve here, I apologize — what hope have my friends whose upbringings were far different from my own? After studying Legal Ethics and probing the minds of my classmates, I find that this question scares me and breaks my heart. Let me explain.

I attended a Christian school for twenty-one years, sat through chapel four to five times a week for over a decade, studied the Bible in at least one class during each semester of my academic career, and went to church on Sunday morning almost every week of my life. I guess you could say I grew up in a “moral” environment. And, sure, whenever I look back on my childhood and wonder why God chose to bless me, I shudder, smile, and sometimes even shed a tear. It just doesn’t make a whole lot of sense to me. Yet when I consider the future, it does. Based on all that He’s put me through and all that He’s saved me from, I know that I can confidently surrender to His will as He leads me into the next stage of my life.

After studying legal ethics this last semester, I’ve concluded that ethics are not learned. I’ve reach that conclusion because I don’t believe that, on a practical level, they make a whole lot of sense. They don’t generally make you wealthier or happier or more powerful. Why even act ethically in the first place? Seriously. What’s the point? Whom would I be trying to please?

The presupposition of most of my law school classmates seems to be that the good person — the good lawyer — acts ethically . . . just because. Of course, that statement says nothing because it assumes everything — specifically, what is good? We talked about this all the time in class. We were constantly asked what we would do in particular scenarios. What I find more intriguing than the what is the why. I wanted my classmates to be pressed to really uncover the basis, the foundation, of their ethics. Is it them? Is it their religion?

I wouldn’t be surprised to find that it’s a little bit of both, and I wouldn’t be shocked to discover that the former constantly reshapes the latter in order to fit their ever-changing worldviews. If they only knew, I think to myself! At numerous times throughout the semester, I could hardly keep myself contained. I cannot understand how a discussion about ethics — legal or otherwise — can be held outside the realm of religious morality. (The professor, it should be noted, did a fabulous job exploiting that problem from start to finish, however slightly and surreptitiously at times.)

Having intentionally and comprehensively examined my legal ethic these last few months, I can confidently say that my faith directs my ethics. I was talking to a friend just last night about what our lives will be like as lawyers and about the constant struggles we will face. She and I share a similar worldview, so I took comfort in that. In the course of my discussion, the cliché of knowing versus doing came up. Yet this time, I spoke straight from the pool of truth in which I was bathed as a child. The words came out so clearly, and the truth sounded so obvious, that I nearly convicted myself right then and there: The confidence, the knowing that the story of my life has already been written from start to finish; the assurance, the promise I have that everything will work together for good; the knowledge, the faith that He is absolutely in control of my life — must I even hesitate when deciding whether to act ethically?

My faith assures me that I have been given every good thing. Yes, I might lose my job for failing to carry out a task; sure, I might lose the opportunity to pay off my law school loans as quickly as I’d like to. But who am I looking to please? In other words, whom do I serve?

God gave me so much as a kid, and yet I kept so much to myself. When He was asking for all of me, I wasn’t listening. I lived in a daze of self-centeredness. Yet as far away from Him as I was, God ran to me and pulled me back. If you ask me why God chose me, I won’t have an answer; after all, who am I that God would love me? Just another wandering sheep in the flock of a Shepherd whose love simply wouldn’t let me go.

Yet even when I was drifting, my God loved me enough to prepare me for what He would have me to do. Now, entering my third year of law school, I couldn’t be more certain what that is. Every day, I see the fields, white for harvest, and hunger for the opportunity to serve my God through the law.

Truth may be powerful enough to stand on its own, but it needs knowledgeable, passionate, ethical advocates to influence society — to disturb people and shake them out of their complacency and to inspire them to move their culture in a positive direction. My desire to be that advocate drove me to law school. Once I pass the bar, I intend to actively engage the legal culture to defend the rule of law and the code of legal ethics so that I might ultimately preserve Truth.