An Adventist litigation lawyer discusses how legal practice can become a mission field.
Published on: 08-27-2019
Tavia Dunn, a Seventh-day Adventist litigation lawyer and law lecturer from Jamaica, delivered the following plenary presentation at the Inter-American Division Adventist Laymen’s Services and Industries (ASi) 2019 Convention in Nassau, The Bahamas, on August 23, 2019. The text has been condensed and edited for clarity but retains the elements of her oral presentation.—Editors
When I told my grandmother that I was going to be pursuing a career in law, the conversation did not go as I had expected. I had expected her to hug me and beam with pride. But my grandmother began to cry. I could tell she was disappointed. She answered with some words from Jesus: “Woe to you lawyers! For you have taken away the key of knowledge. You did not enter in yourselves, and those who were entering in you hindered” (Luke 11:52, NKJV). Of course, the lawyers of whom Jesus was speaking were the religious leaders of the time, who, to sustain their leadership roles, were turning faith into legalism.
When I was about to leave home to go to law school, however, my grandmother called me and told me, “Well, child, if that is what the Lord is calling you to do, then so be it. But always remember to do justly, to love mercy, and to walk humbly with your God [Micah 6:8].” Over the years, those words have been my guiding light.
Speak Up and Judge Fairly
In Isaiah 1:17, we are charged to “seek justice, rebuke the oppressor; defend the fatherless, plead for the widow” (NKJV). And Proverbs 31:8, 9 tells us, “Open your mouth for the speechless, in the cause of all who are appointed to die. Open your mouth, judge righteously, and plead the cause of the poor and needy” (NKJV). These verses capture what, as lawyers, we are called to do.
We have a specific relationship with justice because we are officers of the court. As such, we are required to seek justice and correct oppression. We certainly do speak for our clients and defend the rights of all.
For the Commonwealth Caribbean, the professional code of ethics by which all lawyers are bound to act is in keeping with the scriptural directives. At the time of being called to the bar, we are required to take the oath of attorneys, which includes the requirement to “demean ourselves in the office.”
The word demean is usually used more as a negative reference. It is viewed as “to lower in character, status, and reputation.” However, a lesser known meaning is “to humble.” Some will say that just as there is no such thing as a truthful lawyer, there is no such thing as a humble lawyer. But as Christians we are called on to walk humbly with God. So, as lawyers, we have a double duty.
Our Mission Field
One of the great blessings of being a lawyer is the ability to share our time and knowledge. It is easy not to see lawyers as being on the mission field in the traditional sense. The long-held view is that as children of God we are to go to the mission field. We sing, “Going afar, upon the mountain.” But the last stanza of that hymn starts with “Thus I would go on missions of mercy.”
As litigation lawyers, we have a unique calling as the mission field comes to us and hires us. We see people at their worst—they are stressed and worried. A lawyer can be described as a healer of human conflict, a professional to whom clients bring their brokenness and interpersonal struggles, needing help, begging for guidance, maybe even hoping for measures to remedy the situation.
In the daily frustrations of practice, we can lose sight of our missionary role. There is also the competitive edge, the desire to win, to be right, to be in control of the outcome and prove one’s legal abilities and competencies. The profession can become a distraction from the fact that our calling goes beyond the profession of law.
A Missionary Mindset
A mission mindset covers all areas in the practice of law. Even in the dullest legal work, there is a person with a need, from the largest corporate transaction to the petty theft, the drafting of a will, an insolvency case, and complex litigation.
In our practice, there are constant interactions with persons who are observing how we respond to daily crises. These interactions can take any shape or form, but at the core are human souls.
Christ seeks to use us in these moments to make His appeal to those with whom we interact. It is in the difficult moments, whether big or small, that we best exhibit Christ within us. How do we react to opposing counsel who has been condescending, a phone call from a difficult client, or yet another emergency in an already full day? If we adjust our focus and view our daily work as a calling, then we may find value and meaning in our practice that transcends material rewards.
The Minimum Required?
The parable of the Good Samaritan starts with a lawyer who wanted to know what to do to inherit eternal life. Jesus responded, “Love the Lord your God, … and your neighbor as yourself.” But it wasn’t specific enough for the lawyer.
For us as lawyers, “the devil is in the detail.” We want details; nothing is too insignificant. So the next question the lawyer asked is, “Who is my neighbor?” He likely thought that the statement “Love your neighbour” was not well defined and a little too wide and all-encompassing. The lawyer was seeking clarification.
This is what we deal with daily. We are trained and paid to understand legal standards and then often try to determine the minimum required to meet those standards. It is what the lawyer in the parable of the Good Samaritan was doing.
The question, as in a good cross-examination technique, was a hopeful attempt to solicit from Jesus what was the least he would have to do while being certain that he would inherit eternal life. In recognizing the lawyer’s intentions, Jesus answered with the well-known parable. By the end of the story, Jesus had broadened rather than limited the scope of His earlier answer.
In the same vein, our responsibility as Christian lawyers is to be ready to use and give our talent—our learning as lawyers—and give all that we have to accomplish what God sets before us.
Loving those around us is not always easy. It involves spending time with people, helping them, sharing our lives with them—actually loving them as God loves us. We can be busy every day doing seemingly great things. However, it is the simple things in life that can make the most difference. Our listening ear, our prayers, the giving of legal advice can mean so much. By this form of service, we too can help restore value to persons. That’s part of loving our neighbor, doing justice, loving mercy, and humbling before God.
As lawyers, we are not known for being restrained in our expressions, but in making an appeal for Christ in our careers and to lead others to Him, we have to use gracious speech. Well-chosen words and sometimes well-chosen silence can define us in this profession.
It is instinctive to want to reply to an inaccurate email immediately or to launch into a verbal duel over the phone regarding my opinion on a case. But we must remember the client’s interest is not served with kneejerk reactions, nor is Christ glorified by a tirade.
As Christians, we must keep eternity in mind. If we approach our dealings by looking through the lens of eternity, our clients are eternal souls who will exist far beyond not only the judgment in a case we are handling but also the final judgment of this world.
As part of our witness, we need to practice telling the client the truth. The truth is that every case includes a number of factors that influence the outcome. As lawyers, we can participate, prepare, respond, advocate, and counsel, but we shouldn’t manipulate these factors to get the perfect result for the perfect fee.
Every case has facts to be discovered and tested. Truth does exist and will, at some point, come to light. It takes, however, time and effort to find it, and injustice does exist as well. As Christian lawyers, we are encouraged to diligently seek the truth, study the law, and pray for the justice that God promises.
The practice of law can be, at times, overwhelming, vexing, and monotonous. We are required to fix issues that we certainly did not create and, had we been consulted before, could have been avoided. Some issues can be repaired within the confines of the legal system; some cannot.
Let us strive through our actions, attitudes, and words to point to the One who can restore lives from within. Then we would have exhibited a spirit of service and been true ambassadors for God. It will certainly be the greatest witness of all.