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Balancing Life and Practice

Getting Lawyers To Reset Moral Compass

The Boston Globe
April 2006

Daniel Webster: You seem to have an excellent acquaintance with the law, sir.

The Devil: Sir, that is no fault of mine. Where I come from, we have always gotten the pick of the Bar. (Stephen Vincent Benet , "The Devil and Daniel Webster")
More from The Boston Globe

Even in the hereafter, they tell lawyer jokes. Nor was Jesus above venting against experts in the religious law of Moses. "Woe also to you scholars of the law!" he declares in Luke's gospel. "You impose on people burdens hard to carry, but you yourselves do not lift one finger to touch them."

The idea that lawyers need a dose of spirituality finds a modern prophet in Northeastern University law professor David Hall, who says his profession is in depression and must openly reclaim spiritual values to reconnect with its noble mission. Some have disagreed with his prescription, but there's evidence that the legal field is indeed in a funk.

A survey six years ago by the American Bar Association found three-quarters of lawyers reporting themselves anywhere from "somewhat satisfied" to "very dissatisfied" with their work. Hall blames nasty court battles, some lawyers' sense of working solely to make money for other people, and the focus of law schools on teaching legal rules, rather than moral values.

The dissatisfaction has led some lawyers in Massachusetts and elsewhere to practice collaborative law, in which they and their clients agree to settle cases out of court to avoid the cost and antagonism of litigation.

Hall is not seeking a revival meeting, open only to religious believers. In a new book, "The Spiritual Revitalization of the Legal Profession," he defines spirituality as "the intentional decision to search for a deeper meaning in life and to actualize in one's life the highest values that can be humanly obtained."

"These values and beliefs may have their origin in religious traditions, but they may also spring from numerous other precious wells of human experience," he writes.

That said, the 55-year-old Hall says he wouldn't be where he is today without his own religious faith. A member of St. Paul African Methodist Episcopal Church in Cambridge, he grew up an African- American in segregated Georgia, where his father was a church deacon.

"One of the powerful themes that was always in the church was this notion that one can overcome circumstances," he says. "During a period of segregation, a period where the society is telling you you're `less than,' [the church] allowed me to hold onto this dream of wanting to be a lawyer when there was nothing around me that said you can do this."

His religious faith has insulated him from the burnout infecting his profession, he says, though he concedes that he hasn't studied whether religious lawyers are immune in general. Hall's impression is that most of his fellow Northeastern law professors are religious when tragedies happen, they head for church, not a law firm, he notes but that spirituality needs to be talked about more in legal academia.

"Spirituality is a resource," he says. "That's an appropriate thing to discuss and grapple with while you're in law school."

Others agree. Parts of the agenda for the Association of American Law Schools' annual meeting in January read like the schedule for an ashram, with panels discussing spirituality and contemplative practices. Later this month, Hall is to speak at the yearly meeting of the Massachusetts Bar Association, whose president, Boston attorney Warren Fitzgerald, has read excerpts of his book with interest.

"It's a very holistic view" of the law, says Fitzgerald, who describes himself as spiritual, though not religious. "It is something that lawyers don't often stop to think about."

But part of the mission of the bar, he says, is to encourage lawyers "every so often to stop and smell the roses and reflect on their work and their role in society."

Going this route, however, could require some big changes. Hall's prescribed cures for the spiritual deficit include doing away with billing clients by the hour and encouraging lawyers to meditate. He's aware that some colleagues fear that "spirituality" is camouflage for the overzealous to proselytize to clients or other lawyers.

Hall recalls one lawyer who approached him after he had spoken about his ideas at an Oregon conference. Great talk, the man said, but "I just wish you would not have mentioned that last part around spirituality, because that's divisive."

Well, maybe, but Hall points out that lawyers represent all sorts of controversial clients and delve into disputed issues, such as gay marriage and affirmative action.

"I'm not arguing for spirituality as a hammer," says Hall. "I'm arguing for it as a mirror, as something that allows us to look at ourselves to see if we are really achieving those highest ideals."

Copyright 2006 Globe Newspaper Company

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