Don’t stigmatize religious lawyers

What is the place of religion in a lawyer’s daily life? How should lawyers reconcile this with their professional obligations?

What is the place of religion in a lawyer’s daily life? How should lawyers reconcile this with their professional obligations?

And why is everyone suddenly squirming?

As the legal profession finally focuses increasing attention on mental health and wellness, especially in the face of some tragic, high-profile Big Law partner suicides in the U.S. in 2018, conversations often turn to the need for overworked lawyers and stressed-out students to employ strategies to take care of “body/mind/spirit.” It’s the last of that trio, though, that causes consternation for many, at least if “spirit” is conceived in anything other than vaguely neutral secular generalities.

Often raised in religious households or environments, lawyers and law students grapple with rules of professional conduct that seem to encourage (if not indeed require) moral neutrality, or schools and workplaces that seem to signal that being yourself — at least your religious self — is to be discouraged. While there has been increasing progress in addressing the challenges of diversity in a multicultural society, there is still more work that needs to be done.

One of the unfortunate consequences of the debates over the Trinity Western litigation that landed in the Supreme Court of Canada last year was that deeply held religious beliefs were seemingly dismissed as antithetical to “good lawyering.” I could neither be a student nor a faculty member at TWU, but the underlying tone of much of the debate was disturbing. Even having the conversation about anything overtly religious seemed to be unwelcome. And the cognitive dissonance that lawyers and students often already face between who they believe they are as people and who they think they are supposed to be as lawyers was amplified.

Fortunately, there is room to change that and dialogue about “religious lawyering” is far from new. A Fordham Law Conference in September 2018 celebrated the twentieth anniversary of a groundbreaking conference on law and religion, “Rediscovering Religion in the Lives of Lawyers and Those They Represent.” The original 1998 conference brought together lawyers, judges, professors and religious leaders to ask: Is a lawyer’s religion relevant to his or her work? If so, how? And how does that square with broader debates about “the role of religion in the public square?”

A second Fordham conference in the 1990s attempted to reframe the questions. As Fordham Professor Russell Pearce put it, the “second wave” of religious lawyering scholarship in the U.S. focused on moving “beyond the question of whether lawyers should bring religious values to bear on their work, toward the difficult issue of how this should be done.” That conference featured the involvement of the (U.S.) National Association of Muslim Lawyers, which had formed just two years earlier. Pearce himself had taken Thomas Shaffer’s seminal work On Being a Christian and a Lawyer and applied it to the tenets of Jewish Law, so all three Abrahamic traditions were represented.

The 2018 gathering not only sought to reflect on the past but to situate the conversations in what is now a very different context. As Professor Amy Uelmen, former director of the Institute on Religion, Law and Lawyer’s Work at Fordham put it, “We’ve spent, in many ways, the last 20 years becoming increasingly politically polarized, which makes it difficult to meet each other, hear each other, and figure out how to exchange stories and ideas.” She identified a particularly important ambition: figuring out “how we can bring ahead a really humanized approach to having difficult conversations where we might substantially disagree on important questions.”

Appetite for the conversation isn’t just south of the border or in religious institutions. In 2017, working with representatives of law student religious organizations, I moderated a discussion on the role of religion and religious identity in legal practice. Mormon, Catholic and Evangelical lawyers from the Edmonton bar explored how their faith traditions informed their understanding of the role of the lawyer, the meaning of professionalism and where religious practice shapes it in interactions with clients and colleagues and how they navigate the challenge of “doing justice.” Other faith traditions have been part of further dialogue I’ve hosted here. The questions are not only academic but personal.

So why such interest? And why now? As Dean Robert Vischer of the University of St. Thomas put it in 2005, “the prevailing assumption that a lawyer’s personal identity is of marginal relevance to her provision of legal services has been met with increasing skepticism. Our knowledge of human nature challenges the notion that our personal beliefs can be disconnected from our professional performance.” Religious beliefs, for many, are necessarily part of that equation.

Conversations about religion and politics are often avoided for good reason. But as lawyers engage economic and moral questions daily, understanding how religious or spiritual influences can and do guide how we think of lawyering — and ourselves — is essential. Candidly recognizing that is a place to start.

Paul Paton is Dean of Law at the University of Alberta.

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