In the last of the series Solicitor Rob Phillips reflected on how his faith impacts on his work in a very busy solicitors office.
My workplace is an office. A solicitors’ office. Its busy, as are most offices nowadays. There are all sorts of pressures. The phone rings from the moment I arrive in the morning. Letters have largely been replaced with e-mail and as a result no longer are response times measured in days – or even weeks – but rather in hours or perhaps minutes. A particular client of mine telephones to enquire why I haven’t responded if his e-mail doesn’t get an answer within 30 minutes of it having being sent. And if I’m not in the office – no matter I have a blackberry. It has a red light on the top which flashes when an e-mail is waiting to be read and which makes it almost impossible to resist the temptation to check and to respond. Solicitors live in the modern society where everyone expects instant communication and patience is often a dirty word.
The end of the financial year for most solicitors practices is the last day of April. A date we are fast approaching. These weeks are a particularly busy time. Fees targets must be met. Bills must be issued in time. Debts must be recovered. Probably worst of all new targets must be set for the following year. It seems a never ending circle – targets, pressure and stress. Where then is Christianity to be found in this workplace?
I have recently been involved in a tender exercise. The tender was for a Christian organisation that wished to review the way in which it spent its legal budget and presumably to test the market to ensure what it was spending in legal fees was competitive and represented good value. As you will all know, Christian organisations of all denominations hold assets which are invested with the purpose of generating an income for the organisation. This income is used to pay clergy pensions, it supports ministry, sometimes it pays for outreach programmes. The investment is often made in property and this is where I come in. My legal practice is in property law – more particularly the disputes that arise from the ownership of property. I work for the owners of large property portfolios. I undertake the litigation work that inevitably and necessarily flows from the ownership of such assets. The Christian organisation I was recently involved in a tender for is certainly not alone in investing in property. Far from it. No doubt each of us here has invested money in one way or another over the years in property – whether it be our own homes, investments in pension funds, insurance schemes or similar – all of these invest in property funds. There will have been legal disputes and litigation about those disputes. Where is Christianity to be found in this work?
What I have told you so far hopefully gives you some insight into what I do in my workplace. It is not however what I have recently been advised by an American business marketing consultant to say about what I do. On a recent training course I attended he told me that I needed an elevator pitch. This he explained was a 30 second – or ideally less – exposition of my “offering”. What I would say to someone I met in an elevator in the 30 seconds or so it took me to get from the ground floor to my destination floor. I suggested I say that I am a property litigation lawyer, that I manage court proceedings, draft court papers, represent clients at court, attend mediations, negotiate with other parties, write letters, make telephone calls. This was great he told me, but I needed to think more about the “message”. Having listened to what I did he told me that my elevator pitch, that 30 second conversation (or opportunity to sell myself as he would have it) the answer I should give in response to the question, so what do you do, should always begin with the phrase, “I find fast effective and efficient solutions to disputes involving land and buildings”. I’m not sure that I could ever bring myself to actually say that whether in an elevator or indeed anywhere else – certainly not without visibly cringing. But, perhaps ironically, it did ring a chord when it came to this lecture. It is almost exclusively true to say that clients come to me with an intention of resolving their disputes. They do not want to be involved in time consuming, stressful and, above all, expensive litigation. The legal profession has increasingly recognised over recent years that litigation is often not the most effective way of resolving legal disputes, certainly not legal disputes between commercial entities who will often have numerous other contracts and agreements with one another – a wider commercial relationship which it is mutually beneficial to maintain. People, businesses, government departments, Christian organisations do not want legal disputes. They want a resolution to their dispute. The Christian organisation which I have mentioned undertaking a tender exercise for is surely in the business of resolving disputes – more than this, they wish to resolve disputes in a manner which is consistent with their ethics policy, a policy that itself is derived from a detailed consideration of Christian teaching. Certainly there will be hard questions to be answered in terms of whether it is ethical to engage in litigation in certain circumstances. Ultimately however for a Christian organisation entrusted with assets, the parable of the talents gives clear guidance as to what is expected. I am sure that the Church and certainly our clergy would be less than impressed at a Representative Body which decided not to continue investing its assets in the fear of finding itself unable to answer a difficult question and as a result without money to pay pensions, and to support ministry. The assets must be well managed but ethically managed so that they grow, but not at the expense of living out the Christian gospel. Sometimes a hard balancing act, but one that the parable of the Talents surely tells us that we must attempt.
What though of the client that does not have such religious convictions? How should a Christian lawyer respond? How do I respond? The legal profession is fundamentally client centred. Rules of professional conduct make it clear that, in almost all circumstances the interests of the client must come first. At first glance this may not seem problematic.
Isaiah Chapter 1 Verses 10 to 17 tell us:
“Seek justice, rescue the oppressed, defend the orphan, plead for the widow”
Where the client is the oppressed, the orphan, the widow, it is easy to see how the Christian lawyer may put the interests of his client first.
How is the Christian lawyer to balance his or her religious convictions with the fundamental requirements of professional ethics and codes of conduct? Would it be desirable in a democratic society that a lawyer should seek to dissuade a client from adopting a particular course of action when that course of action is permissible pursuant to the laws of the land, simply because it offends against the lawyer’s religious beliefs? What alternative does the Christian lawyer have? To segment work life from religious life? Perhaps the lawyer can blame the politician who enacted the legal framework in the first place which is now potentially being used by the client to obtain an advantage for themselves which the Christian lawyer considers unconscionable? If its not the politician’s fault then perhaps it is the fault of the electorate that elected him? All this feels far too much like passing the buck. Can it really be the lawyer’s place simply to represent and to pursue his client’s perception of what is good within the confines of the legal system within which the lawyer operates or can and should he represent his own moral and religious convictions to his client in the manner in which he dispenses his legal advice? The expropriation of Jewish property in Nazi Germany was presided over by lawyers who worked towards their client’s perception of what was good within the confines of the legal system that existed within that political state.
In the first book of Kings Chapter 3 verses 16 to 28 we are told the story of two advocates pleading their case before a judge. You may recall it better were I to say two mothers pleading to their king. The two mothers had spent the night in the same room after giving birth. One of the children died during the night. The allegation was that the mother of the dead child swapped her child with the living child. The king’s solution to the dispute was to take a sword and to divide the child in half giving half to each mother. The true mother abandoned her case in favour of arguing for compassion, that the life of the child should be saved, she would give up her claim to the child if it could but live. In arguing for compassion the judge saw the strength of the true mother’s claim and the child was given back to her. Compassion was the mother’s route to justice.
My difficulty with all of this however comes when I read the New Testament. For this appears to turn concepts of justice as I understand them as a lawyer entirely on their head. In the Sermon on the Mount Jesus tell us:
“if anyone wants to sue you and take your coat, give your cloak as well”
Does this mean that I should never be defending anyone against a legal action brought against them? Even an incorrect and unjust application? Is Jesus telling us that we must simply give up in the face of such unjust treatment? Or is the message that the way in which to defeat evil, anger and hatred is to meet it with love?
So with the telephones ringing in the office, the e-mails arriving, the blackberry’s red light flashing, the targets, the pressure and the stress where is the Christianity to be found in my workplace? In managing property portfolios and resolving disputes, where is the Christianity to be found in my legal work? I can answer where it should be found although I fear all too often I fall well short of the standard. It should be found in the advice, in the decisions, in the interactions with colleagues, with clients and with opponents. In demonstrating love for my neighbour, whoever that neighbour may be and no matter what they have done.
At evensong three weeks ago Fr Mark prayed an Ancient Welsh Prayer:
Grant, O God, your protection; and in your protection, strength; and in strength, understanding; and in understanding, knowledge; and in knowledge, the knowledge of justice; and in the knowledge of justice, the love of it; and in that love, the love of existence; and in the love of all existence, the love of God, God and all goodness. Amen.
TO READ EARLIER ADDRESSES IN THE SERIES:
Doctor-Professor John Saunders
Policeman- Sir Trefor Morris CBE QPM
Politician- Nick Ramsay AM
Journalist- Caroline Woollard