Mirror of Justice

A blog dedicated to the development of Catholic legal theory.
Affiliated with the Program on Church, State & Society at Notre Dame Law School.

Wednesday, May 2, 2012

The Purpose and Vocation of the Catholic Lawyer

One of my students in the "Catholic Social Thought and the Law" class shared this reflection:

Throughout the semester, as I read the Compendium and other authoritative expositions of the Church’s social doctrine, I often thought “this is incredibly grand and utopian, but how does this affect me?  What do you want me to do about it? ”   The institutional Church largely leaves the details of social policy to the laity.  Benedict has told us that “the direct duty to work for a just ordering of society is proper to the lay faithful.”  But what on earth am I learning in law school that can enable me to “change the world” or help build “a more just society”?  

Law, it seems to me, is—perhaps more than any other human discipline—a study in human anthropology.  Since law serves an important pedagogical function, it is crucial to get it right.  Part of being a Catholic lawyer is allowing the Church to purify our reason and convince us that law must be founded upon what we are as humans.  As John Paul II said, a proper anthropology is essential to the foundations of society and law.  Perhaps the key insight that the Church has about human anthropology is her understanding of human purpose.  

Recently, we read the transcript of a talk by Professor Amy Barrett to the graduates of our law school on what it means to be a “different kind of lawyer,” and her words were so forceful and true that they stayed with me and have helped me think about Catholic social doctrine as a whole— from subsidiarity to the teaching on economics—all of which calls for purposive integration and not isolation into the types of neat and tidy little compartments we tend to put things in when we can’t remember what we’re doing or why we’re doing it.  She said that we should always remember that a “legal career is but a means to an end . . . and that end is building the Kingdom of God.”  

The Church’s deep insight into human purpose tells me that we should never be complacent with the practices of our profession that conflict with its nobility and, as Aristotle would say, the “architectonic” role of the law: practices like creative over-billing, just telling the client what he or she wants to hear, lax and minimalist ethical norms, and going along unreflectively while there are unjust laws that hinder human purpose—with the practices in our profession that have made it the butt of so many jokes.  Instead, though we may not all have the nobility, and the iron will, of a Saint Thomas More, we should at least be willing to make the smaller sacrifices that reflect our great purpose—as individuals and as part of a guild—and to build the respect for our profession and for law that achieving this purpose requires.  In other words, Catholic Social Doctrine at its core does more than just tell us how to think about doing the big things—things that may seem so far out of our reach as to cause us to despair.  By informing us of our ultimate purpose, it shows us how to do the little things and how to order our lives and think about reality as a whole, since the Kingdom of God, like any kingdom, is built brick by brick.  


Garnett, Rick | Permalink

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WHAT!? No creative over-billing? I guess I should get back to studying for my PR exam next week.

Posted by: Catholic Law Student | May 2, 2012 3:00:22 PM

It seems to me a lawyer could live up to most or all of the standards this student advocates and still totally disregard Catholic Social Teaching. Which lawyers are doing the right thing—those who represent clients suing an archdiocese over sex abuse, or those representing the the archdiocese? Or are they both just playing certain roles according to certain rules, and both doing the right thing? In criminal cases, we believe that every defendant deserves good legal representation, but what about cases where the clients are guilty and the lawyers know they can get the acquitted? What about lawyers representing big national corporations and enabling them to undermine small local businesses? Is this just the way capitalism is supposed to work, or are the large corporations damaging the quality of life?

Is it living according to Catholic Social Teaching (and other teaching) to be the best advocate you can be for a client, billing fairly, acting ethically, when your client is doing something destructive? I recently read an article about groups who buy up patents and then go out looking for people they can sue for patent infringement. How does this help society? I was also reading in Jonah Lehrer's new book his opinion that tech companies are too aggressive in suing each other over alleged patent infringement. He argues that intellectual property deserves protection, but when there is *too* much protection, innovation is stifled. (He points out Shakespeare, by today's standards, was a flagrant plagiarist.) It seems to me if lawyers want to live according to Catholic Social Teachings, every time they take on a case or any other kind of assignment, they have to weigh principles very similar to those the bishops proposed in recent letters to congress about the Ryan budget. I have made slight changes to adapt the wording.

1. Every legal action should be assessed by whether it protects or threatens human life and dignity.

2. A central moral measure of any legal proposal is how it affects “the least of these” (Matthew 25). The needs of those who are hungry and homeless, without work or in poverty should come first.

3. Lawyers and law firms have a shared responsibility to promote the common good of all, especially ordinary workers and families who struggle to live in dignity in difficult economic times…

Posted by: David Nickol | May 2, 2012 4:28:42 PM

@David. Good comment - But I don't really see how what you say means that the Catholic lawyer who takes into account purpose, whose reason is purified by the Church (a key concept), and who integrates this informed purpose into how he or she advises clients (part of which I had in mind, the counseling role and not just the role of advocate) could still violate Catholic Social teaching as freely as you seem to have in mind, except perhaps by accident or misapplication of principles that are, admittedly, sometimes vague and leaving room for "play at the joints."

The lawyer's understanding, if it is informed by and purified by the Church (including its social doctrine), will consciously act with an eye to care of the poor, being on the "right side" of cases, protecting human life and dignity, etc. I certainly didn't mean to suggest that billing properly, acting ethically, etc. were simply mere "standards," like the Model Rules of Professional Conduct. (which I actually had in mind as an example of how NOT to think about legal ethics, as a system of rules). My point was that by thinking purposively, informed by the Church, one does NOT have simply standards or rules, but a guiding norm to apply in every situation.

Posted by: James | May 2, 2012 5:58:52 PM

With respect to being a decent practitioner, I don't believe Catholicism enjoys an advantage over any other religion or philosophy of life. Even if one grants that the aim of any such philosophy is to "promote human purpose," the only practical differences in approach between competing options will concern issues unrelated to legal analysis: abortion, homosexual sodomy, contraception, etc. Every grand scheme of life will oppose bilking clients out of money and support some conception of "flourishing." The concept of "purpose" is asbtract such that its content is utterly indeterminate. Anyone can assess, say, ten different guiding systems of life (Lyotard would label them "meta-narratives") and choose one; regardless of which system one selects, that system will purport to venerate "the good, the true, and the dignified." Whereas Robert George will use his law degree to prevent homosexuals from marrying pursuant to his conception of goodness, Kathleen M. Sulliva will use her law degree to combat Robert George pursuant to her conception of goodness. But both conceptions will (presumably) overlap regarding billing clients honestly.

Posted by: Cory | May 2, 2012 7:20:42 PM

@Cory - It's obviously true that in our society, as pluralistic as it is, we can't expect to come to a consensus on every aspect of what "flourishing" or "dignity" mean, or even a common understanding of human nature, though we ought to be able to come closer than the current cultural divide.

The point was not to say Catholicism enjoys an advantage (though I obviously agree with the content of its teachings on what our purpose is) as it is to say that for the Catholic lawyer, this is a way to think about integration and purpose. To "build the Kingdom of God," or "do God's will," is a vocabulary that a number of religions can share, but not all religions accept the Church as purifier of reason. I was not, after all, speaking about how to be a good Buddhist, Muslim, or Protestant lawyer, though of course that is not only possible but a reality though I imagine in many respects it would be the same.

Posted by: James | May 2, 2012 11:17:17 PM

@ Catholic Law Student, if you're studying for the same exam I'm studying for, you know that we can do pretty much whatever we want with fees as long as its reasonable. So if we want to creatively over-bill, we just have to do it faithfully and reasonably (our two wing'd retainer)

Posted by: C | May 2, 2012 11:52:46 PM


Yes, as I've been walking around with my textbook, I've been half-jokingly and half-seriously telling folks that the book's title ought to be in scare quotes.

I also think its interesting that the compendium with the Model Rules and Restatement, etc. is called "The Regulation of Lawyers," a name which to me sounds like a different enterprise than professional ethics.

Posted by: Catholic Law Student | May 3, 2012 7:28:25 AM