What Makes a Lawyer Good?

September 12, 2022

By Fr. Dominic Legge, O.P.

Director of the Thomistic Institute

Board Member of Napa Legal Institute

Advisory Board Member of The Good Counselor Project.

This essay is adopted and edited from a recorded lecture before the St. Thomas More Society of Richmond, Virginia on October 17, 2020. It is published by Napa Legal with the author’s permission.

What makes a lawyer good? What makes a good lawyer?  

Maybe we should start with the question, “what is a lawyer?”  

There are perhaps many answers to this question. St. Thomas More’s sardonic description, from his work Utopia was: “a sort of people whose profession it is to disguise matters.” More, being a lawyer himself, perhaps knew what he was talking about. But if we try to answer more seriously, we can say: a lawyer is a faithful servant of a client, or perhaps a skilled negotiator, or an eloquent advocate, sometimes a wealthy power broker.  

Now, these are all reasons that perhaps one might want to be a lawyer. But are these answers sufficient?

When you reach the end of your life, will you be proud to say:  

I was a power broker.

I was wealthy.

I worked for an important firm.

…this is the meaning of my life.

Or are you made for something more? Should a lawyer be something more?

We can take a cue from what the law asks of a lawyer. When you are admitted to the bar, the law requires you to take an oath. That’s because you are entering into an office. You are becoming a servant of public justice. An oath is a serious business. We can go back to St. Thomas More who was ready to die rather than take an oath that he could not, in truth, affirm. To quote Robert Bolt’s version of Thomas More:

What is an oath than but words we say to God? When a man takes an oath, he is holding his own self in his own hands like water. And if he opens his fingers, then he needn’t hope to find himself again.

The real St. Thomas More knew that by taking an oath you are swearing before God. You’re swearing on your immortal soul, and the Catholic tradition takes oaths with a deadly seriousness. Your eternal salvation is involved in an oath.

So, what is the oath in the commonwealth of Virginia?

I do solemnly swear or affirm that I will support the Constitution of the United States and the Constitution of the Commonwealth of Virginia, and that I will faithfully, honestly, professionally, and courteously demean myself in the practice of law and execute my office of attorney at law to the best of my ability, so help me God.

You swear that you will be faithful and honest in the practice of law, but why?

Why do you need to be faithful and honest? Because you are a servant of justice. Being a lawyer has to do with justice and serving that very important dimension of the common good.

When I came home after my first year of law school, my parents and friends began posing questions to me. I was the first person in my family to have ever gone to law school, and they started posing deep questions about the law—questions that were really about justice. They didn’t realize that at that point all I knew were the rules of civil procedure. When you show up to your first year of law school, you don’t have a course that explains to you ‘what is justice?’ You start instead with things like the rules of civil procedure.

But the intuition of my family was right. A lawyer should know something about justice. A lawyer should, in some way, be serving justice; and should even be able to say something about what justice is.

Scripture has a lot to say about law, about judges, and about justice. And it shows us what an important and noble role lawyers and judges have.

I started with demeaning remarks about lawyers from St. Thomas More, but actually if we were to read the Bible we would discover that lawyers are very important servants, officers, of justice. The Old Testament tells us that serving as a judge in Israel is to stand over God’s people. Exercising judgement in the service of justice on behalf of God himself. So the lawyer, in this sense, or the judge is sharing in God’s own authority and governance.

The book of Exodus speaks of Moses’ role this way: “You shall represent the people before God, and bring their cases to God. And you shall teach them the statutes and decisions, and make them know the way in which they must walk, and what they must do.”

The classical Christian tradition approaches law along these lines. Law is not just an arbitrary command of a superior authority that demands obedience and punishes violations. The law is a teacher, about how to live. It protects what is good. It is a guide for life.

Now this is true above all about God’s law. But also, it’s true about just human laws. When they are formulated by those with care of the community, they should aim at protecting and promoting a flourishing community, a flourishing city, a flourishing nation.

Now, if we were to fast forward to the New Testament, we would hear St. Paul in his letter to the Romans telling the early Christians to obey even the secular authorities of the Roman Empire or of pagan states. Not because St. Paul has some theory that God directly appointed them, or because they always judge in accord with divine justice, but because the rule of law is necessary for human society.

And in that sense, any judge, any officer, charged with the protection of justice and the service of the common good is acting then according to God’s plan. It’s a human activity, but it’s in the service of a higher and more transcendent good than the goods protected by doctors, accountants, and engineers.

I don’t mean to demean those professions in any way, it’s simply to point out that those professions serve a particular good. The lawyer takes an oath to be a servant of a common good—the good of justice.

It’s very important, especially for lawyers and judges, to see their profession not as a private employment that is serving only private goods. But to see their profession in the light of God. And to see that serving the law, and serving justice, is not just one profession among all the others (which, if you happen to be a Christian, you can reconcile with the practice of your faith, much in the way you can be a Christian doctor or a Christian accountant). I’d like to make a stronger claim than this: being a lawyer isn’t just reconcilable with the Christian tradition, or a Christian vocation. Rather, Scripture and the Christian tradition bear witness that serving the law is a kind of service that is intrinsically a part of God’s plan for human communities. By the nature of their profession, lawyers and judges participate in a higher project, a higher order, than these other professions precisely because their concern with the rule of law and the administration of justice are higher goods than bodily health, or financial gain, or material possessions.

After hearing this, lawyers might be ready to say, “Hold on, what you’re describing sounds great, kind of highfalutin; it’s not what I do in my daily life. I’m dealing with clients, I’m reviewing documents, and I’m writing briefs.”

And of course that’s true, but I would suggest that everyone involved in the practice of law is in fact in the service of a very high and noble common good. It’s the common good of justice, and that is an attribute of God himself. Those who work for justice are working for something that transcends what is merely human.

St. Thomas Aquinas, the great Dominican theologian and philosopher and universal doctor of the Church, explains it like this: “Human beings are not only ordered to personal or individual goods, but also towards nobler goods, higher goods, that is the goods we can purse are not on one horizonal plane, they exist in a hierarchy. Some goods may be important and necessary, but they remain goods of a lower level.”

The good of our biological life—we need food, shelter, health, and so forth—they are necessary for us to live, but they don’t guarantee that we will live well. They don’t guarantee we will be good.

Having those goods doesn’t even guarantee that we will live in a way that is authentically human. To be authentically human we need higher and nobler goods, and these are not private nor individual goods. They are goods we share with others—common goods.  

They’re the kinds of goods that can be shared by many without being diminished. Their very nature is common. So, the kind of life you live in a family is a common good—the common good of the family.

Friendship is a common good, so is knowledge of the truth. And a flourishing neighborhood, a just city. Justice is a common good. Ultimately though, at the top of all these goods, of these hierarchy of goods, we find God, who is the universal common good of the whole universe. God is a common good.

The good.

And laws of various kinds direct human beings towards these goods. They protect them. They make it possible to obtain them.

So if all of this is true, then it’s especially important that lawyers and judges be good. That is, that they be virtuous. That’s how to become a good lawyer, because moral virtues are more than just technical skills, they make the person who possesses them to be good. So what virtues does a judge need? What virtues does a lawyer need? We can probably come up with a list of professional qualifications that would be important for any lawyer to be proficient in the practice of law. But those kind of things don’t necessarily make you good. It seems to me that, above all, the judge and lawyer needs wisdom, and especially the special form of practical wisdom, which is called prudence.

That means understanding something of the whole, where we are and where we are trying to go, and thus making right judgments about the particular principles of this circumstance, of this case. Acquired prudence requires and builds on experience; it can be mentored, and that’s a very good reason to have good mentors in the practice of the law.

Let me give you a summary of the virtue of prudence based on Aquinas’ teaching, which I’ve taken from a French Dominican, whose discussion of this I’ve found very fruitful, and you’ll know why it’s important to say he’s a French Dominican because a very typical French example.

Suppose I’m going to cook a delicious French meal. This action of cooking a meal has its own proper end—to prepare edible food that is both healthy, appetizing, and tasty. It’s an art.

But I’m free, I can do something else, why am I cooking? It could be for myself (because I’m hungry); it could be to serve my religious community (because I received a work assignment and I’m supposed to cook for the community tonight); it could be to earn a living (because I’m a professional chef working to support my family); it could be simply because I love to cook. Each of these motives is perfectly justifiable, but notice that each of them presupposes that I have some end or goal in mind that is higher than cooking itself. It’s the goal by which my activity of cooking will be measured.

So, if you’re a professional chef who cooks but you don’t get paid, and so you can’t pay your rent, it’s not working out very well. Or, if I’m cooking a tasty meal for myself, but it turns out that I made something I don’t like, then it didn’t turn out so well.

But something can also render cooking morally bad. So, if I love to cook, but I have an assignment given to me by my superior, or perhaps a work project that is due tonight, and there’s someone else who can cook who’s just as good at it as me, but I choose instead to neglect my other duties in order to cook, then obviously I have placed the wrong order in my actions. I can also cook in order to make people appreciate me. It might be to puff myself up, it could become a source of pride for me.

I share these examples to point out that cooking requires us to look at something beyond it in order to judge whether it’s being done well. The same is true of any human practice, and certainly the practice of law.

In the line of moral goodness, you can be very proficient at an activity, you can be very proficient at being a lawyer, and put being a lawyer at the service of the wrong end and your activity will not necessarily be good. This is why prudence is needed - to see what is the act of the good lawyer, the just lawyer in a particular case.  

Prudence requires a kind of reflection on the meaning of what I am doing. And that kind of reflection is sometimes difficult for lawyers to come by. In the heat of battle, in the middle of a law practice, one often doesn’t have the opportunity to step back and ask, “why am doing what I am doing?” or “what am I really serving with my work?”

That is why an occasion like this is a very good opportunity for every lawyer to ask for the illumination of the Holy Spirit. To see my life, my career, and my work in God’s light. To ask and to help me, to order it back to God.

God can infuse prudence into us. St. Thomas Aquinas thinks that God does this all the time, especially in those in whom he gives the gift of sanctifying grace. So, if you’re in a state of sanctifying grace, that is -  if you are living according to the precepts of the Church, you’ve been to confession, you’ve confessed the sins you know on your conscience and you desire to please God - then Aquinas would say you have received a divine gift of infused prudence that you can rely on to direct your life towards God and to direct all of your activities towards him.

But Aquinas also thinks that there are obstacles that we sometimes place that prevent that divine prudence from being effective in us. What is the greatest obstacle do you suppose that Aquinas identifies? It’s kind of surprising Aquinas points us in a direction that we probably wouldn’t first think of.  

Concupiscence, he says. Concupiscence could be the desire for material things in general, above all sense pleasures, but lust, above all he says, causes us to become blind. We begin to judge our actions according to our lower impulses. And we develop a kind of numbness for what is really important in the higher order of things.

This is why living an upright life is actually very important for being a good lawyer. And why there is nothing in our lives that will not bear on growing in professional virtue. It’s very important to be a good Christian if you want to be good at any other thing that you’re doing. Good in the full sense of that word.  

Aquinas would also say that it’s very important for the lawyer to think about and consciously cultivate a love for the common good. Justice as a common good that pertains to the community. It’s true that we serve our clients in a particular case, but we should always recognize that this is in the context of a legal system which should be just and a legal system that is ultimately subordinated to the highest common good, which is God himself.  

That’s another temptation, I think, we face in our contemporary world. A temptation that many succumb to. To think that politics, in the end, deals with the highest good of the human being. And, therefore, that we can solve all of our problems with politics. But of course, that isn’t true. In fact, it could even ultimately lead you, if you went too far with a view like that, to a kind of blasphemous position that forgets that this world is radically relative to God. And if human beings have an obligation to worship and honor God, this exceeds the jurisdiction of every human authority.

That was precisely the issue at the Exodus, when Moses appeared before the king, the pharaoh. Pharaoh wanted to govern how the people could worship. In fact, Pharaoh commanded them to work instead of worshipping. And this was the one thing on which Moses would not compromise.  

That is to say, the political common good is limited not just from below. Often in our constitutional system, we think of the power coming from below and therefore only what is given from the people is granted to the powers of the state. But in the Catholic tradition, the common good is also limited from above. That is, the local community cannot enact laws that overrule what is higher and, above all, they cannot overrule God himself.

So, we’ve talked enough about the virtues of a lawyer. I could mention a few more but we don’t have time to go into them.

Perhaps the most important virtue that I have not mentioned yet is one of the cardinal virtues – the virtue of courage. Courage originally means “to be brave in the face of physical danger”, but it also includes the willingness to speak the truth even when it’s hard for others to hear. Of course, to speak the truth with charity, to speak it with a real love for the other and for the common good, but nonetheless to say what might even harm my standing when it is needed, when justice calls for it.

Let me conclude with just a few very brief practical recommendations about the path towards being a good lawyer. Not only to meditate on justice and your service of the common good, but also to recognize that calls for a certain personal integrity.

And that includes being honest; that’s part of the oath. Try to be scrupulously honest. That is, not to be dishonest in any way. It sounds perhaps easy enough to do, but it can be quite challenging. Ask God for the grace to be one who always is a straight shooter - who speaks the truth. And then recognize that what you do as a lawyer is not different from what you do as a person. You do it; there is no dispensation from your moral responsibility for the acts that you perform, even in your professional capacity.

To be a good lawyer then, in the end, needs the help of the Holy Spirit. That’s the purpose of the Red Mass. That you are here, already speaks very well of your disposition to receive the graces that the Holy Spirit will generously give you. He loves justice. He loves our community. He loves each of you and He will not withhold His help from anyone who seeks Him with an honest heart. So, perhaps we can conclude with a very brief prayer invoking the Holy Spirit for our legal community, for all here present, and for all lawyers and judges.  

Come, Holy Spirit, fill the hearts of your faithful

and kindle in them the fire of your love.

Send forth your spirit and they shall be created.

And you shall renew the face of the earth.

Further Reading  

The Spirituality of Compliance

Gratitude, Service, and the Vocation of a Good Counselor

The Things of the Spirit: What a Good Counselor Should Know

Why the Good Counselor Project?

Greatness of Soul – On the Launch of The Good Counselor Project

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