Updated: Oct 26, 2020
Missionality is the first pillar of the Litigator's Foundation. It is his commitment to the Mission in all that he does.
Lawyering was just a job to me and not much else
I was not Missional on the day that I graduated from law school. In fact, I was cynical about the practice of law as a profession. I’m not blaming my law school for making me that way, I’m just stating a fact. If you had asked me on that day what my mission was, the question would not have made much sense to me. I probably would have said “to make a living”. Lawyering was just a job to me and not much else.
But then I began to change. The first impetus of that change was the bar examination. To pass it, I had to study for ten hours a day for thirty straight days. While I had studied in law school, that was nothing compared to the effort required to pass the bar. I studied so hard that I dreamt the law. It was like I was studying in my sleep.
The examination itself was the most difficult test I had ever taken. After the first day, I had the most intense migraine headache I’ve ever had—that’s how stressful it was for me. The ensuing month or so I had to wait for the results was agony. Usually I’m pretty good at putting things I can’t control out of mind, but not this. The anxiety dominated my thoughts.
The right to practice law had been so hard for me to obtain that I no longer viewed it as just a job
When I finally opened the letter notifying me that I had passed, that I had earned the right to practice law in the state of North Carolina, a feeling of profound relief washed over me knowing that I wouldn’t have to go through that experience again. I may not have become Missional on that day, but my cynicism began to dissipate. The right to practice law had been so hard for me to obtain that I no longer viewed it as just a job.
A week later I was sworn in to the county bar with 30 or so other new lawyers. The closer the judge officiating the ceremony got to calling my name, the weaker my knees felt. For a moment, I thought I might not be able to stay upright when my turn came. Taking the Lawyer’s Oath firmly affixed a duty to the right I had earned to practice law by passing the bar, and that experience expunged any last vestige of cynicism from my heart.
It is hard to say why the Lawyer’s Oath had that effect on me. I had been an Army officer, so this was not the first oath I had taken. In fact, the two oaths are very similar in that both require allegiance to the Constitution and a commitment to defend it. But the Lawyer’s Oath had an additional averment that I would “honestly demean myself in the practice of an Attorney, according to the best of my knowledge and ability, so help me God.”
Demean is a Janus word—one that is also its own antonym. Like cleave, which can mean to cut apart or to hold together (depending on context), demean is subject to opposite meanings. On the one hand, demean can mean to lower oneself in dignity, honor, or standing. But demean can also refer to proper conduct and behavior in conformity to a specified manner.
A detractor might argue that the negative connotation of demean is the one that should apply to lawyers, but I knew that it was the second meaning that was invoked by the Lawyer’s Oath. By taking it, I was swearing to conduct myself properly in the practice of law. That meant something to me, although exactly what wasn’t clear because I didn’t yet know what the proper conduct of the practice of law was. I knew what I had been taught in law school, but that was only head-knowledge. To make it heart-knowledge, I would have to experience the practice for myself.
Litigation (while by no means perfect) is the best means available to achieve resolution—without it, we could not govern ourselves
Through that practice I have come to believe three important things that bear directly on Mission. First, disputes are the inevitable result of human interaction—they will always be with us. Second, without resolution we would descend into anarchy, because unresolved disputes would only fester and grow into something beyond our power to manage, like a boil that is too dangerous to lance. And third, Litigation (while by no means perfect) is the best means available to achieve resolution—without it, we could not govern ourselves.
Now, two decades removed from my post-law school cynicism, I unabashedly view the Litigator’s Mission as essential to the preservation of a free and vibrant democracy. It is much more than a job to me, it is a calling to which I am wholly dedicated—which can be a little embarrassing to my family when I’ve had a few drinks and get on my high horse.
A man works at a job to get paid, but he answers a calling to serve a higher purpose (and hopefully gets paid as well). Observing how difficult it was for him, I once asked my pastor how he managed to stick it out year after year. He laughed and said “it’s a calling, I can’t-not do it”. That view, he said, informed his advice to all young people considering a life serving the church. Don’t start doing it it unless you can’t-not do it—otherwise, you won’t be doing it for very long.
My pastor had succinctly expressed the primary factor distinguishing a calling from a job. It is that singular thing that you can’t-not do. That doesn’t mean it will be easy or that you will be showered with money or fame because you stay true to it. In fact, it’s the opposite—you will continue to do it even though it’s way too hard for what you are paid to do.
And the life of the Litigator, like all callings, is not an easy one. I thought about that a lot during the three days I spent lying on my floor recovering from PTE after my Big Case. I was worn out, hopeless and sorely tempted to find something easier to do. But I didn’t. Actually, I couldn’t, not only because I had a family to support but because Litigation is something I can’t-not do. And knowing that I had to do it is what committed me to find a way to do it without burning out, so that I could continue to do it as long as necessary.
That search led me to the understanding that Missionality is the first pillar of Litigator’s Foundation. It is his bulwark against the chaos and and uncertainty that results from working along the jagged intersection between the lofty aspirations of the Lawyer’s Oath and the disorderly lives of the actual people we pledged to serve by it.