American Bar Association
General Practice, Solo, and Small Firm Division

 

Matters of Faith

By jennifer j. rose

Who, how, and whether a lawyer worships does impact the practice of law. A lawyer can elect whether to opt for the label "Presbyterian" or "Mormon," and, save for occasional self-identifying markers like a yarmulke or an affection for plaid, it's fairly difficult to identify most lawyers by their religious preference. The element of choice may not play out in the lot of disabled and ethnic lawyers, but at least they stand out in a crowd.

Is it harder for lawyers of certain faiths to prosper in the profession? Lawyers who worship in the religious mainstream or who remain silent about their choice don't seem to suffer at all, at least among the general population. But those whose religious preference limits certain areas of practice are likely to find difficulties in hiring unless their practice is specialized and focused. One lawyer, who asked to remain anonymous, felt that his Christian fundamentalist evangelical beliefs worked against him when a hiring firm asked, "Do you think that your religious activity will impair your ability to serve clients without being judgmental?" He insisted that his religion colored just about every aspect of his practice in one way or another.

There was time, not so very long ago, that certain law firms were known as "Protestant," "Catholic" or "Jewish" firms, and implicit was the assumption that those who were not of the tribe need not apply. Back in those days there also existed firms that didn't hire women or African-Americans. But all of that has changed since Time magazine ran that cover story "Is God Dead?" back in 1965. Clients and their lawyers today practice more varieties of religious beliefs than ever before. It's not unusual to find entire law firms comprised of Muslims, atheists, and possibly even adherents of the Church of the Blind Chihuahua.

Some lawyers use their religious preference to actively attract their co-religionists, assuming active roles in their place of worship. Ron Jones, a Belleview, Florida, solo practitioner and a Catholic who advertises in Catholic publications, notices a significant increase in potential clients calling in response to his advertisements. Art Mouton, a small firm lawyer in Lafayette, Louisiana, is an admitted "red brick believer" (dating from the term he supplied to the Army for his religious affiliation.) He professed a twinge of jealousy upon hearing Protestant lawyers' church attendance and participation yielded referrals. Deirdre Ganopole, an Anchorage, Alaska, solo, felt that her lack of organized religious involvement eliminated one networking sphere.

Does religious preference attract or deter clients and practice development? Los Angeles lawyer Lisa A. Runquist thinks it may, but she takes some active steps to neutralize the issue. When she makes a referral to another lawyer, and the client asks the lawyer's religious preference, Runquist tells the client that she doesn't know, stressing the lawyer's expertise instead. She stresses that the client needs a good attorney, and if that attorney is also a [desired religious affiliation], that's great, but being a [desired religious affiliation] is not any indication that the person is a good attorney. Those principles have cost Runquist a few clients along the way, but she's not going to back down.

Lawyers whose religious beliefs mirror the population they serve, as well as those who cautiously separate their distinctive beliefs from the practice of law, tend to fare better than those whose religious faith makes them as popular as an avowed Satanist at a Promise Keepers' rally.

 

jennifer j. rose is a lawyer-writer living in Mexico. She reads her e-mail at jenniferrose@abanet.org.

 

 

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