View Cart

Can a Christian Be a Lawyer?

Truth In Love 407

How does a biblical theology of work inform one's profession in the legal field?

Mar 27, 2023

Dale Johnson: This week on the podcast, I have with me again, Dr. Todd Sorrell. I’m so grateful for this brother and his work as a lawyer and so I cannot wait Todd to hear how you’re going to work through some of this material relative to a Christian being a lawyer. And I know a lot of our people are going to be interested in part because of the heightened awareness that legal issues are playing even in the counseling room for those of us who are non-licensed Christian believers who are trying to promote the Scriptures as sufficient in counseling. Let me tell you a little bit about Todd. He is an ACBC-certified counselor, he’s an attorney in California, and he’s an adjunct biblical counseling and business professor at The Master’s University. And he’s also a businessman. So, Todd, I’m so grateful that you are here brother to talk about this issue, and my goodness our awareness about legal issues is raging today. Now he’s been on our program in the past, so I want to make sure that you guys remember some of the things that he’s contributed to with our recent discussions about West Lafayette Ordinance there as well. We’ve talked in the past taught about Christian colleges and how to choose a Christian college and that sort of thing, he even wrote a book that helps parents think through choosing colleges for their young people.

Now, as we talk about some issues today, lawyers play I think a significant role in the church in helping us to think through so many issues that are bombarding us. You think about today, the issue of LGBTQ and the lobbying happens and those who are wanting to prevent biblical counselors from doing their work, as it relates to gender identity and sexual orientation change efforts, and that sort of thing. But today, I want to, I want to ask Todd several different things about maybe, for some of you are thinking about a career, and as you think about a career, you know, you love biblical counseling, you want to go into biblical counseling, you love Christ, you want to serve his church, maybe you’ve never thought about being a lawyer and ways that you could serve the church as being a lawyer. Let me just pause for a second Todd before I let you start describing some of the importance of work here, we need to recover a biblical theological view of work and what it means to work, and sometimes we exalt the pastor in his role, it’s super spiritual, and one of the highest callings and it is a wonderful calling. It is a very high calling, no question about that. But we act as though that’s the only type of work at which you do that spiritual, and that’s a false reality. And so I’m excited about our conversation today, Todd, that will help us recenter ourselves on a good understanding of a theology of work.

Now, Todd graduated almost 30 years ago from the UCLA School of Law. He’s been practicing law since that time and during those so many years of practice he’s been asked this question a number of times, can a Christian be a lawyer? And I think what people are getting at is, and it seems such a hostile world it seems to be against Christianity and this sort of thing. But more specifically, maybe we should ask it this way. How is Christianity consistent with the role that a lawyer often has to play in terms of things like disputes and negotiations and advocacy even representing undesirable clients? So I want to start us there Todd if we can and that that’ll get our interest piqued. Perhaps you can begin by telling us why it is that you personally went into law and a little bit about your career path. 

Todd Sorrell: Thanks, Dale. So way back when I was considering what to do toward the end of my college experience, I didn’t go through a deep theological analysis. I met a beautiful woman who later became my wife and I figured, hey, having a wife might cost some money, I better find a job that’s going to pay for that, and I think that’s consistent with 1 Timothy 5 that sets forth the requirement that Christians provide for their families, but there wasn’t a whole lot of deep thinking on it. I prayed about it, but I just decided to do the law school route. In fact, one of my roommates said hey I’m going to go take the LSAT, you want to take it with me? And I said sure, so I went to the LSAT with him, and I ended up going to law school, and he didn’t. But after that, I got a job at a very large law firm and by the time I left it was 4,000 lawyers. So this is one of the biggest firms in the world and I am in the disputes area, so, I’m a litigator. I go to court. I handle lawsuits, typically on behalf of defendants in the civil arena. So we’re talking about money, oftentimes companies or individuals who are getting sued, but I handle mediations, I handle arbitrations, international work, a number of things like that. So that’s what I’ve done for, you know, almost 30 years. I left a few years back. My wife and I were able to sell a business, so that kind of took the handcuffs off. And so, I left the big law firm and went to a smaller shop where I’m able to practice law kind of more on my terms, it will help more people. That’s what I’ve done since coming out of law school. So it’s been a great career in terms of providing for the family, giving me a practice or an area that not a lot of people have, and giving me a platform that I think not a lot of Christians have. 

Dale Johnson: Now, I would venture to guess taught that when you were going to UCLA you probably were not confronted with a deep theological education or a biblical worldview, right? I’m just interested to hear you since the time that you applied to law school, and you’re going through that process, have you come to refine some of your thinking based on biblical counseling, based on the Scriptures at large?

Todd Sorrell: When I went to law school, I was a Christian, and in fact, I led Bible studies at Law School through the Christian legal society and a number of things like that. But as I’ve gone through this process, I get asked the question a lot about, hey, how can I be a lawyer if you’re a Christian? So I got a start on the basic premise that there’s nothing in the Bible that prohibits Christians from being lawyers, and we know from 1 Corinthians 10:31 that we’re to do all things to the glory of God; that’s all things. So God makes no distinction between my professional life and the rest of my life. It’s all the Christian life. This goes to exactly what you were saying at the beginning, Dale, that there is no distinction just because you’re not a pastor doesn’t mean your job cannot glorify God. So you need to make sure that whatever you’re doing, you are focused on the glory of God.

Second, there’s a number of different professions in the Bible that are mentioned that would seem at least on their face to contradict Christian living. And I always go back to John the Baptist when he interacted with soldiers and tax collectors. These are two professions at least at the time that didn’t carry a whole lot of let’s say sway in terms of the faithful but John the Baptist didn’t tell them to quit their jobs. In Luke 3, he counseled soldiers to not extract money by way of violence or lies and to be content with their wages, he didn’t say to quit being a soldier. Well, these tax collectors who are considered so vile when they ask for guidance he told them listen, don’t collect more money than is authorized by the law, meaning be fair, don’t break the law. He didn’t instruct them to not to stop collecting taxes. The point is he didn’t force them in or out of any particular profession, and so I would say that unless you were in a completely immoral profession which is possible, there are some immoral professions, but unless you’re in one of those, I think that God expects you to grow where you’re planted, whether you’re a lawyer or whether you’re a plumber or whether you’re a, you know, full-time on ACBC staff, I think God wants you to glorify Him no matter where you are.

In addition, I’m convinced that we can and should reflect God’s character as lawyers. You know, we can fight for justice and truth, and I have a lot of cases that come to me, where I think the plaintiff, the guy side is a complete liar. By the time they get to me keep in mind that they’ve already gone through a number of layers of the dispute resolution process. Someone’s trying to settle a case, where they get rid of cases they think they have it have merit. Oftentimes the complex ones get to me and if I think the person on the other side is lying, I can fight against those lies. I can expose the falsehoods by way of examination and discovery and things like that, but keep in mind, I can also fight for peace. Those two words seem contradictory, fighting for peace, and the reason I say that is because I can bring parties together through mediation. Sometimes I’m a mediator and sometimes I advocate in mediation. Sometimes it’s reaching a compromise or advising a compromise resolution to allow the parties to move on without the stress of litigation. If anyone listening has been involved in a lawsuit, they know what stress litigation brings, it is the unknown and it can be scary. Well sometimes as a lawyer I can seek a resolution that eliminates that from the person’s life and there’s times when you can seek to deliver the truly oppressed people and that takes a whole lot of forms. But there’s lots of opportunities to assist people. There’s some people who are unable to afford lawyers and who are being taken advantage of by, let’s say for example, bosses or unscrupulous landlords those happen from time to time, and as a lawyer, you can step in and fill that gap.

And you know what else we can do, we can also help others when they’re facing the scary and difficult prospect of a legal issue. I can’t count how many times I have fielded calls from someone who’s facing a lawsuit or who might be involved in a legal system and who might even have been presented with a contract they don’t know what to do with and the law, the system seems very daunting to the average person. Well, I can spend time with these people and I can explain gently the situation to them. I can take the fear of the unknown away, I can draw on my experience to help them think through these things, and I can comfort them with the Christian faith. I don’t have to charge for it either. That’s the thing about being a lawyer. I mean, a lawyer is called to provide for his family. Don’t get me wrong. But I know of no other profession that does more pro bono work than the law profession. Now maybe I’m wrong about that but I can tell you that there are pro boner opportunities all the time, and what that means is providing free legal services and advice, and sometimes that’s a whole case. But sometimes it’s a five-minute phone call and I think we can step in and really hold the hand of people, especially Christians we are supposed to do good too. And so, that’s how I view it. That’s how I view Christian lawyers who are to be people of integrity or fight for justice. We remember that Christ is our advocate before the Father, and we are to advocate for our clients in a godly way and knowing, no matter what we do, we’re still wholly dependent on God. 

Dale Johnson: Now I find it encouraging because as we see the legal issues ramping up, you know to have a voice who thinks like I do from a biblical worldview who can give me wise counsel relative to the Scriptures, knowing the legalities of a certain issue, that’s comforting. That’s super helpful. And I really appreciate the way that you described it. You know, I’m not just giving them legal counsel, I’m dealing with the whole person, you’re recognizing the litigation in and of itself is inducing fear or worry or anxiety. And I mean, you’re helping to deal with the whole person as you give them information and then you have lots of opportunity to minister directly to them.

Now, as you talk about some of the positive things relative to being a lawyer, I’m sure there are times when there are tensions or difficulties as a lawyer. I want you to talk about if you’ve ever felt that your faith was conflicted with your responsibilities as a lawyer.

Todd Sorrell: It hasn’t happened often to me, I guess the overarching one would be if a client comes in and I help them with a worldly problem and then I send them on their way. That’s probably the main one. So, I have to be purposeful in representing Christ in my interactions with my clients. So that’s kind of the first big one, but there are some other tensions and temptations. For example, a lot of people think you have to lie to be a lawyer, but that’s just not true. In fact, lawyers are supposed to be truth-tellers. Now while there might be some tension and holding back information from the other side. You’re not lying. We are supposed to zealously represent our clients. And although there are some times that mean I have to hold myself back in terms of aggression because I’m a Christian, and I have to treat people the way God wants me to treat them. It’s not often that I’m in a position where I feel like, oh no, I’ve sinned here. I’ve outwardly and presumptively sinned. I guess the hardest part is sometimes when you are in negotiations you feel like you’re holding something behind your back because the other side says, oh how much do you have to settle the case? Well if your client gave you know fifty million dollars to settle the case you don’t walk out of the chute and say I have 50 million dollars. That’s just not how it works. That’s not what you would do. You start with a lower number etc., but you have to be extremely careful I think as a lawyer to not lie or mislead. So there might be conversations you have with your client beforehand about what kind of authority they would give you or what they want you to say. And to make sure that you’re not in a position where you have to lie because if there is that tension between lying and not lying, you always have to tell the truth because God wins.

Now, there’s some other temptations that lawyers face but I don’t think they’re unique to the practice of law. For example, there’s a temptation, I think with a lot of lawyers to overbill, which by the way is just a nice way of saying lying and stealing. There’s great substance abuse, problems in the legal profession. There’s immorality, there’s the desire or temptation sometimes even if subconsciously to neglect, you know one’s own family, and there’s the failure to prioritize your relationship with Christ. There’s a failure to share the gospel. There’s pride. But again, these things are not unique to lawyers. These are temptations that people face every day in every profession, and we just have to decide, are we walking in a manner worthy of the calling with which we have been called, as Paul tells us in Ephesians?

And finally, there’s just some cases you just can’t take. For example, I’ve had some cases come to me that I’ve just refused to take. There was a body painting case once which I knew would require me to look at material that I could not as a Christian in good faith look at, I rejected it. There is another one on a death penalty case, where I really was at odds with the position that our firm wanted to take on behalf of the client. I had one situation where a Christian was ripped off by another Christian church. And he came to me and said, okay, what do we do about this? It was a bizarre situation, it was a contractor who had come in and taken the money of my client and said, okay, you pay me this amount of money. I’m going to demolish your house. I’ll build a new one and then my client, you know, he was naive, but he paid upfront and then what happened later is the contractor demolished the house, took it down to the foundation, and said I’m out of money. So the money was gone, and the house was gone. What do you do in that situation? So obviously we had a very serious conversation about even whether the other side was a Christian or not. But also what we should do in that process and we ended up resolving it through mediation where I think it came out win-win, but there’s some things that I think as a lawyer you have to work through and that require discernment but that’s no different from any other profession.

Dale Johnson: I think that’s wise, it takes a lot of nuancing as you sort through some of those difficulties. But again, I want to go back to the idea that in the direction that we’re moving, culturally speaking, especially we in the church who practice religion, you’re going to have constant tensions, and I cannot say enough about if you’re a young mind even now that the legal profession could be an area which you can serve the church greatly because of your wisdom in some legalities that at some point we’re going to be up against. I want to ask maybe one final question and I want you to think about that individual who sort of teeter-tottering on a career in the legal world. So, what advice, Todd, would you give to a Christian who’s considering a career in the law?

Todd Sorrell: Let me start with one anecdote. I had someone 2 years ago come up to me and say listen, I’m considering going to seminary or going to law school, and it was an odd conversation because I didn’t know this young man, but I was asking him questions like well what do the people who know you and love you the most say? What does your pastor say? etc. And it sounded like he was called to preach the gospel from the pulpit. And I told him don’t try to do both. I think it was Spurgeon or someone who said, listen, if God has called you to preach the gospel, don’t stoop to be a king. All right. So preach the gospel if you’re called to that is what you should do, on the other hand, I don’t think the vast majority of people are called to stand in the pulpit every Sunday. So if someone is considering a legal career, remember as in any career, you’re a Christian first, a lawyer second, you’re a Christian who happens to be a lawyer, Jesus goes where you go, Jesus goes where you go.

So, I would tell someone first, you got to consider law school and what is required in law school. First, law school teaches with the assumption that the law is amoral, meaning independent of God. But we have to keep in mind that God gave the law in the Old Testament. There are moral absolutes. So, if we go in at least knowing what we’re going to be fed in law school, we can combat that and make sure we don’t come out with the assumption that right and wrong is just a matter of culture or relative ethics. Second, law school can put significant stress on people, and there is significant reading in law school. There’s probably more reading in one week in law school than an entire semester of undergraduate school. There is a lot of reading. There is with that busy workload a temptation to stop engaging in spiritual disciplines. There’s a temptation not to go to church, not to engage in your devotions. Why? Because you’re so busy, you just have to get everything done and I would tell, whoever’s thinking about it to make a firm commitment before doing that, that God comes first. In addition, you got to keep in mind after three years of law school you still have to pass the bar exam, and in some states that’s no easy task. And I’ve known people who’ve gone to three years of law school and not passed the bar exam. So, you want to think that through a little bit before deciding to go. Now, I think most people who are committed can do it, but it’s something to at least consider, and then you can come out thinking when you’re done, well, there’s no place to be a Christian in the legal profession. Meaning, how am I supposed to serve God here? I’m just going to be a lawyer, but remember Jesus goes where you go, serve Him as a lawyer.

Now, I tell people, look don’t think of law as what you see on TV is such a limited and exaggerated view. I mean, it’s not often the cases come and go in 20 minutes and they all resolved perfectly. You know, there are really exciting. There’s a lot of boring areas of law, just so you know, but you need to find an area that suits your personality and your lifestyle, I mean, I’m probably made to be a litigator in one sense, but I have friends who would never ever want to see the inside of a courtroom but praise God for them, they are great at what they do, and they provide a service, they’re transactional, some of those people. And they’ve helped me in areas that I’m not specialized in, just because you are a lawyer does not mean you know every area of law. And in addition, I was a hiring partner for a number of years of this massive law firm, and I interviewed a lot of people, and I’d say well what do you want to do as a lawyer? And they’d come in, and I said, well I want to be an international lawyer. So what does international law mean? Well, it’s a law that’s international. I mean, they had no idea, it just sounded exciting and I get to travel, right? And when I explained it to them, a lot of them thought, well, that sounds kind of boring, but the point is don’t go into law school thinking I’m going to have this massive impact. I’m going to go and fight for religious liberty. That might be great. You might get that job, but those jobs are few and far between, and it’s even more difficult to make a living doing those things.

You know students I guess you’re just a little more idealized in their minds and in some respects than some of us older guys. I don’t want to dissuade anyone, but I believe that the biggest impact, the biggest eternal impact you can do, is by focusing on the person in front of you. Help people with legal problems in ordinary ways, provide for your family, do not compartmentalize your work. You want to be a gospel-sharing, loving Christian wherever you go. I think that is how God defines success as a lawyer. And then, finally, remember that Jesus is our advocate in 1 John 2:1 says, if anyone does sin, we have an advocate with the father Jesus Christ the righteous. Too often people think of God as a bad cop. He’s just looking to bust us. Some of them think of Him like a legislator, you know, He’s just hanging down rules and others look at Him as a mean judge, and there’s some truth to some of those caricatures, but I think they do a disservice to what God has done for us. Jesus himself stands between us and the wrath of God that we deserve. So if Jesus is advocating for us when we don’t deserve it, we’re to obey Him by loving others. So, for any person thinking about law or someone who is already a lawyer, whether you’re advocating a courtroom, at the negotiation table, and a bankruptcy proceeding, or even just for an employment contract, you can do it to the glory of God that He would be pleased with what you’re doing and keep in mind, just because your lawyer doesn’t mean you can’t serve in other ways. I mean, I became a biblical counselor, and I’m ACBC certified. I think that I can serve the church by doing that as well, so as a lawyer, be generous with the money God provides you, help others, be humble, and love God by loving others because I do believe there are some professions that we won’t have a need for in eternity, like, policemen, like lawyers, firefighters, but this side of eternity we can serve God as Christian lawyers.

Dale Johnson: I love that vision, Todd. And here’s what I’m praying, I’m praying that there are some of you out there listening who, you know, you’re a committed believer. And you say maybe I’m not called to ministry. Well, this might be an area that the Lord can use in your life to serve His body to serve His church with the wisdom that you have. Brother, thank you for that testimony, advice, and counsel you’re giving. I appreciate the work that you do as a biblical counselor, you have been very helpful to us in ACBC giving us wisdom in thinking about legal issues and providing legal counsel and even help most recently with the West Lafayette ordinance that we saw.

So, brother, I’m so grateful for your commitment to us and your work as a lawyer, you’ve been a Gospel light in some dark places, and I appreciate that. 

Helpful Resources:

The Journal of Biblical Soul Care