I remember a professor in law school explaining that “lawyers are the grease monkeys of the economy.” What he meant was that the primary function of lawyers is to insure that the everyday business of life runs smoothly and in conformity with the laws of the land. That notion may sound far different from the way lawyers are typically portrayed in American culture. Lawyers are often portrayed as trouble makers who cause problems and unnecessarily complicate things. For instance, we often hear that agreements need to be in writing “because of lawyers” who would otherwise try to twist things. We may hear that someone is being sued “by a lawyer.” In actuality, lawyers never function on their own, and always act on behalf of a client. If a lawsuit is brought, its because the lawyer’s client believes they were wronged somehow. The work of the lawyer is to see that the client’s interests are represented within the bounds of the law.
Often the work of the lawyer stems from the fallibility of man itself. Why do agreements have to be in writing? Otherwise two honest men can agree to something, and months later one or both may forget the final terms of the agreement. Two men might agree on the purchase of a large piece of equipment to be delivered in two years. After two years, they may forget who was going to pay the cost to ship it across the country. Both men may honestly believe that it was the other that was supposed to pay. The written agreement serves to answer the question later when it arises, and avoids conflicts and hard feelings.
Even when an agreement is put in writing, the parties sometimes understand the same provisions differently. It is important to have precise language in legal documents to avoid problems down the road. For instance, perhaps the agreement to ship the equipment says that the seller will arrange for shipping. The seller may believe that while he is making the arrangements, the shipping will be at the buyer’s cost. The buyer may have thought that this language meant the seller also would pay for shipping. With a large piece of equipment, shipping could cost thousands of dollars, and the parties now have a serious disagreement. People often look at the wordy agreements that lawyers draft and think that the language could be much simpler, but lawyers try to use language that is precise and that can only be interpreted one way. Lawyers also try to anticipate any questions that could arise and address them in the agreement from the beginning before problems arise.
Looking again at the example of the buyer and seller who are disagreeing about payment for shipping, the parties may not be able to work out their disagreement. They may consult lawyers to assist them. Some people are offended if the other party hires an attorney, but the attorney will understand the law and realize how the law impacts his client’s position. It may be that the law favors the position of the other party, and the lawyer will understand this and try to explain in to his client. In reality, most lawyers will apply the rule of law to the transaction and seek to resolve the dispute as quickly and reasonably as possible.
When someone comes to me with a problem, I explain the law to the client and encourage them to work out disagreements with the other party if possible. However, if they are unable to do so, I am always glad to hear that the other party has also hired an attorney, because it is generally much easier to deal with an attorney than with the party himself. The attorney is not upset or emotionally involved and is able to remain somewhat objective. It is usually the client who is upset and wants to fight a matter to the end, and the attorney who counsels that at some point the costs outweigh any benefit to continue fighting.
Approximately two percent of disagreements are not resolved and proceed to court, where a judge or jury determines the facts, and a judge applies the law to those facts. The lawyer must advocate for his client and communicate his client’s side of the case to the trier of fact by explaining the case and presenting evidence and witnesses to explain the case. Often a complex matter, such as a business transaction that took place over the course of several years, must be condensed and explained to a jury over a couple of days. The lawyer must carefully choose the most pertinent information and plan when it should be presented. Jurors, like any other people, cannot retain every bit of information given to them, especially when listening to the evidence all day for several days. The lawyers must find ways to highlight the key facts of a case so that the jurors can piece them together at the conclusion of the matter. Communication and organization skills are important to convey a clear message to the jury.
Some lawyers specialize, but many lawyers, including myself, have a general practice. This means that instead of focusing on a particular area, I handle many types of matters, from drafting wills and trusts, to platting property for real estate development, to setting up corporations and drafting agreements for their acquisitions and transactions, to representing clients in litigation in court. I am also currently the city attorney for the City of Sioux Center, Iowa, so I also draft laws and ordinances, prosecute violations of the city code, and draft agreements for the city. I enjoy the variety of cases that comes with a general practice. Oftentimes, cases have interesting or even bizarre sets of facts.
One of the difficult things about practicing law is that the practice is always driven by schedules and deadlines over which the attorney has little control. Sometimes months can go by without a trial, and then two trials will be set a couple of weeks apart by court administration or the judge. Asking for a later trial date could mean that a client has to wait half a year longer for relief from the problem he is facing. To prepare for a trial, documents must be obtained and reviewed, statements and depositions taken from witnesses, research on the law must be performed, pretrial motions must be filed, and pretrial hearings must be held. Then a few weeks prior to the trial date the final trial preparation begins, and takes about two to three days preparation for every day that is actually spent in court. Often there are pressing matters from other clients which need to be tended to while this final preparation takes place, and working late into the night is not uncommon. Obviously, times like this leave little time for family or church matters, or even sleep. The attorney has to take great care to try to keep his schedule from overwhelming church and family life.
Sometimes clients come specifically seeking legal advice from a fellow believer. Several years ago I had a case in which grandparents who lived over an hour away came to me indicating that they wanted an attorney who was a Christian. They were seeking custody of their grandchild. The state had become involved and removed the grandchild from their daughter’s care because she was addicted to drugs. The state refused to place the child with the grandparents, and when I questioned a social worker about this, she explained it was because they were Christian. She explained that this couple was very radical in their beliefs and insisted that their children read the Bible every day, that they refused to use the public schools and didn’t believe in evolution, and a number of other ideas that she felt were outrageous. She was sure that these extreme beliefs must be what caused the daughter to become an addict. Ultimately the judge saw differently and placed the grandchild with the grandparents.
Some cases deal with positive developments. A father may be bringing his son into the family business. A business may be thriving and needs to acquire ground to expand, draft contracts for construction of new facilities, and draft contracts for sales of new products.
On the other hand, an attorney often sees clients when there are problems. Many of these problems are caused by the depravity of man, or at least the fallibility of man. Perhaps an employee has left a company and taken trade secrets with him, or a real estate transaction falls apart because of a problem with the title to the land. Maybe a parent is struggling because a child is in legal trouble or causing problems in the family business. Often the cases with problems can be the most rewarding, because the attorney can help people through these difficult times and provide encouragement and counsel that is in accord with the word of God.
The difficult situations are those in which godly attorneys are needed most, because often temptation arises when people are in a difficult spot. Even believers can be tempted to be vengeful to someone who has wronged them, or hide the truth about a problem to protect a loved one or to save money. A corporate CEO may want backdated documentation of corporate action that should have taken place months ago, but actually recently took place, with dire tax consequences. Usually a gentle reminder of our duties under God’s law will serve to put things in perspective. Even those who don’t claim to be believers will usually try to “do what’s right” in an outward sense. But if a client insists on pursuing a course of action that is not right, an attorney has the right to withdraw. In fact, an attorney cannot allow a client to lie to the court, and must tell the judge if a client does so.
As mentioned before, a good lawyer will counsel his clients when the costs of pursuing a matter outweigh the benefits to be gained. Sometimes those costs are not monetary, but emotional or spiritual costs. A family may be divided in an estate battle because one sibling thinks another has received more than his fair share. Each side may be tempted to fight “for the principle of the matter.” A prolonged court battle may cost more for each side than either stood to gain financially, but the non-economic costs may be even higher. By the time each side has publicly questioned the honesty of the other in the course of a court proceeding, the members of the family may be so bitter they do not speak to each other again. Working with a family to reach an agreement before that point can be very satisfying.
Sometimes one is pleasantly surprised by the honesty of parties in a dispute. For example, I recall a case a number of years ago when I represented a trucker who was injured when the driver of a pickup pulled out from a stop sign. The trucker swerved to miss him and the truck rolled several times. The other driver’s insurance company hired an attorney and denied any responsibility for the accident, claiming the accident was my client’s fault for swerving. I scheduled the other driver for a deposition, which is the taking of testimony under oath, to get his version of the story. I asked the man what happened, and he explained that he was thinking about the deacon’s meeting he had that evening, and forgot to look before he pulled out. As the insurance company representatives looked on in dismay, the man proceeded to explain that if my client had not swerved, “the truck would have hit my driver’s door, and I would have been killed. He saved my life by swerving.” Needless to say, the claim was paid shortly thereafter.
I had considered becoming a lawyer since the time I was quite young. I always enjoyed writing and debating with others, and I always had a keen interest in the political process and the way laws were made and administered. The law is an area that influences all our lives, sometimes at the most difficult times in our lives. I decided while in high school that I was interested in pursuing a career as an attorney. In college, I pursued a double major in history and political science in the pre-law program. A pre-law program is not a rigid set of classes to be taken as prerequisites to law school. Instead, nearly any class can be taken, depending upon what area of law one eventually intends to practice. For instance, patent lawyers generally have undergraduate engineering degrees so that they can understand and describe the mechanical processes that they seek to patent. Some attorneys have business degrees, while some may have psychology degrees.
Certain types of classes, while not necessarily required, are very beneficial to the practice of law. Communication skills are one of the skills needed the most in the practice of law. English classes help to improve written communication. Serving clients well requires being able to draft contracts, deeds, laws, wills, and other documents that are clear and concise and that make the client’s intentions clear or that clearly communicate the client’s position to the court. By the same token, public speaking skills and verbal communication are also important to advocate on behalf of a client. Psychology classes can help one understand how the human mind sees and processes information, which is useful to an attorney. For instance, jurors can only retain a limited amount of information, so key evidence must be presented in a manner that makes it easy to understand and easy to retain in memory. Different fonts, formats, and organization can aid people in understanding warnings or written documents. Law is based on logically applying rules to a given set of facts, so mathematics and other subjects that teach logical thinking are also helpful. The various classes that teach all these skills can aid a future lawyer.
A student must obtain a four year degree in order to be admitted to law school, and is usually also required to take the Law School Admission Test (LSAT). Law school is typically an additional three year course of study beyond college. A law student may focus his studies on certain areas of the law, but there are no particular “majors” in law school. The classes in law school tend to focus on substantive law, rather than practical application of the law. For instance, most law schools require courses on the rules of evidence, detailing what types of evidence are admissible in court and what testimony is required to authenticate the evidence. However, it may surprise some people to learn that classes in law school do not generally teach a student how to try a case, or even how to draft a contract. The main focus in law school is to teach the student to think logically and analytically, to identify issues and potential problems.
Upon graduation from law school the student is awarded a Doctorate of Jurisprudence (JD). Each state has its own licensing requirements for attorneys. Generally they include a requirement that the individual has obtained a JD from an accredited law school and has passed the state bar exam.
A Christian practicing in the field of law has many opportunities to live out his faith. As mentioned before, some of the work is positive, with the attorney assisting clients as they carry out their callings in business and other professions. Sometimes the work deals with problems, when clients are going through trials due to family difficulties or loss of property or business. The Christian attorney has a calling to provide Godly counsel and is called to do all his work in a way that gives glory to God. The Christian attorney must take actions and give advice that is in agreement not only with the law of the land, but also with God’s law.
A Christian attorney must also be careful to acknowledge God as the great and powerful judge of the heavens and the earth. If a case is won, it is because it is God’s will. If the case is lost, that is God’s will too, even if it may seem unfair and unjust from an earthly perspective. Sometimes it is difficult to know what the real truth of a matter is, and what a just outcome is. The Christian attorney prays before a trial, not necessarily that his side wins, but that the truth of a matter will come out and that God’s will is done.
The skills and knowledge used by lawyers in their daily work can also be used in the service of the kingdom. We are all called to be active parts of the body of Christ, and to use the gifts and talents we have been given (1 Cor. 12). Lawyers are trained in written and verbal communication and can use those skills in the work of the church or kingdom causes in general. The legal system is one that proceeds very methodically and systematically to try to ensure that all parties are heard and their viewpoints represented, and lawyers are trained to see that things carry forward in good order. The Apostle Paul in 1 Corinthians 14:40 admonishes that all things be done decently and in order. The same methods of insuring good order are embodied in our church order and the rules governing procedure in ecclesiastical bodies. Lawyers can assist in applying these same principles to all kingdom organizations, including school boards, Sunday school, and even society meetings.
Lawyers can also use their knowledge of the law to assist churches, schools and other kingdom organizations. All of our organizations operate under the laws of the state, and the laws of the state affect the operation of those organizations. Lawyers can assist kingdom causes in complying with the laws of the state, such as requirements for incorporation or tax exemption. Sometimes the state imposes requirements that could potentially conflict with teaching our beliefs. For instance, states have begun requiring schools to implement policies prohibiting harassment or bullying of homosexuals. Teaching against homosexuality could be considered harassment, so such policies must be carefully crafted to prohibit ungodly bullying without restricting our defense of the truth. The law continues to develop and progress to allow “Every man to do what is right in his own eyes.” As this progression continues, it will be important that there are those with the training to use the legal system God has given us for the protection of his church.