Kicking off the Legal Vocation Fellowship
Our fifteen-month cohort experience for early-career attorneys is officially underway
This past Thursday, we launched the Legal Vocation Fellowship (LVF). I mentioned LVF in an earlier post discussing the challenges of burnout and mental health in contemporary legal practice. In this week’s post, I’ll depart from my usual format to provide more background on the fellowship. While I hope a few of you will be personally interested in it, I’m highlighting it in this week’s newsletter to share a bit more about my non-academic work and to illustrate a mode of Christian engagement in our world.
What is the Legal Vocation Fellowship?
LVF is designed for early-career attorneys seeking to integrate their Christian faith into the practice of law. In a pluralistic society where the sources and values of law and legal practice are contested and contestable, we want to anchor a distinctive community of Christians who desire to love God and love neighbor through their knowledge, understanding, and practice of law.
This practically-oriented 15-month program is led by Christian law faculty and senior practitioners. Our inaugural cohort of 18 mentors and 20 fellows is drawn from five cities: Chicago, Houston, San Francisco, St. Louis, and Washington, D.C. Our core faculty include Rick Garnett of Notre Dame Law School, Ruth Okediji of Harvard Law School, Elizabeth Schiltz of University of St. Thomas Law School, David Skeel of University of Pennsylvania School of Law, and me. In a news story from Notre Dame, Professor Garnett expressed his desire “to help Christian lawyers flourish.” And in Pepperdine’s coverage of LVF—Pepperdine is an LVF sponsor and Pepperdine law professor Jennifer Koh is one of our speakers—Pepperdine’s dean Paul Caron added his shared “commitment to transforming the legal profession for the benefit of all.”
Why did we create the Legal Vocation Fellowship?
Much of my academic work focuses on our fractured society: shrill discourse, torn social fabric, growing ideological divides, and the loss of trust in institutions, in expertise, and in each other. Whatever rebuilding or reimagining of our society is to come, lawyers are going to be part of that work. And even as lawyers confront the unique challenges of our current moment, we do not escape the timeless temptations of those engaged in the profession, including pride, ambition, wealth, competition, and the desire to win at all costs.
LVF seeks to form a community of lawyers influenced more deeply by our Christian faith than by our politics, our social circles, and our consumer lifestyle choices. That means, among other things, we hope to be Christians who are eager to come together with others who have different political views but who are committed to prioritizing their faith in their daily lives as lawyers, citizens, neighbors, and people.
Our focus is multigenerational, multiethnic, and nonpartisan. We hope to equip and inspire early-career attorneys who are looking for community and discernment surrounding the challenges and realities of the career they have chosen in light of their faith commitments. We believe that small cohorts committed to the shared LVF experience will develop bonds that can anchor locally and reach nationally.
Laying the Groundwork: Traditions, Culture, and Law
Professor Okediji and I led our first session this past Thursday. We focused on Pepperdine law professor Bob Cochran’s 2020 article, “Christian Traditions, Culture, and Law,” published in the Pepperdine Law Review.
Professor Cochran begins his article by invoking the five categories from H. Richard Niebuhr’s classic work, Christ and Culture. In Cochran’s summary:
Synthesists seek to reconcile Christian teaching with culture; Conversionists seek to transform culture based on Christian teaching; Separatists remove themselves from the culture; Dualists hold Christian faith and culture in tension and play a role in each; and Culturalists adjust Christian teaching to conform to the culture.
Cochran suggests that Christian lawyers generally must ask how to “bring Christian influence to culture and law.” In other words, Christian lawyering is closer to transformed engagement—Niebuhr’s conversionist category—than separatist withdrawal.
I think this is largely correct. As I tell my students, those of us engaged in the practice of law already rely on systems of power and coercion to perform our craft. There is good reason to be involved in these systems—fighting for greater justice in politics and law requires using the tools of politics and law. But that reality leaves few of us with clean hands. If you want to be separatist, you shouldn’t practice law.
At the same time, the goal of transforming culture need not rest solely or even primarily on power. Even as the law itself trades on power, lawyers can pursue persuasion over coercion, reconciliation rather than vengeance, and relationships instead of adversaries.
The Separatists also have a point: participating in the practice of law often surrounds us with influences in tension with Christian faith. Quoting the sociologist James Davison Hunter, Cochran observes that those of us in “the higher echelons of culture, politics, business, and finance are under great pressure to carefully manage [our] identities” and “the temptation to be deceptive or dishonest about one’s faith in these circles is enormous.”
If we live and work unreflectively in worldly institutions, we will inevitably be shaped and formed by those institutions. This is one of my principal concerns about the practice of law: that it will slowly deform our souls over time. Christian attorneys need the ever-present reminder that we are immersed in two very different kinds of formative communities.
We also always live out our faith contextually. Lesslie Newbigin’s important book, The Gospel in a Pluralist Society, reminds us that Christian witness is always contextualized. Aquinas would not write the Summa if he were living in 2023 America. And those of us engaged in the practice of law today would work quite differently if we found ourselves in thirteenth-century Italy.
Our present context is also influenced by the public image of Christianity in today’s society. Even if we learn when to speak and when not to speak (or even, as Cochran says, to be silent for a season), lots of other Christians won’t. Whether we like it or not, Christians today will often be positioned in the national discourse as the people who crave self-interested power.
Whatever faithfulness in this present context looks like, I’m convinced that it must be sufficiently forwarding looking, as it has been throughout the history of the church: bearing witness to the kingdom of God that is fully just, where there are no more tears or pain or lies or abuses of power or hurting the vulnerable. This is a vision of a promised future that reaches back to help us live into our vocational purpose today.
We’ll engage with these themes over the course of the Legal Vocation Fellowship. But we’ll also tackle other dimensions of being Christian lawyers in 2023 America—like finding the right life rhythms within the challenges of legal practice, caring for the people we encounter throughout our days, stewarding power responsibly, and engaging our craft with excellence.
You can learn more about LVF by visiting our website or by watching this overview video. And if you’re not a Christian lawyer but know someone who is, please pass along this post to them!