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How Practicing Law Teaches Me to Love My Neighbor

Being a lawyer and a clinical law professor ushers me into a sacred space of vulnerability and trust with many lives and communities. Law school famously teaches students to "think like a lawyer," but the real work of thinking like a lawyer is in service to a client. Moving from the classroom to practice is a profound shift when we realize that a client is not a hypothetical fact pattern posing a theoretical question.

Clients are neighbors who entrust us with their very liberties, fortunes, dreams, families, and governments. Lawyers step into a place of trust and confidence that can reveal some profound truths about ourselves and our communities. Among those realities is the elusive tangle of individual rights with inescapable forces in society and community. All people are luminous individuals bearing the image of God who are utterly dependent on each other to flourish. When we approach these relationships with rigorous love, paths appear toward justice and peace.

The imago dei of the creation story is the foundation for the greatest commands: to love God with whole hearts and to love our neighbors as ourselves. God loves us. We love each other because we love God, and we love God by loving each other. This is the organizing principle of Christian life. The Golden Rule creates a radical rule of life that requires us to treat everyone else like we want to be treated. If we would not be erased, replaced, or ignored ourselves, so we should not erase, replace, or ignore. If we would be heard, we should listen. If we would have power ourselves, we should empower others. If we would have a place at the table, we should put in the leaves and pull up some chairs so everyone has room.

In law practice, we lawyers quickly learn that every client has a very specific story. We have to listen closely. This is why lawyers say, "It depends," so much. Every decision will turn on specific facts, specific goals, nuanced laws, and relationships. Context is everything.

In my years of practice representing victims of domestic violence and sexual assault, I have learned that while there are some classic, common features in abusive relationships, each relationship is hyper-local. A partner's polite suggestion in one relationship can be a violent threat in another, so lawyers, police, and courts cannot get at real justice unless they work hard to hear each story. But for anyone in these positions of power, after hearing case after case for years on end, the tendency is to treat clients as cases, to see people as problems.

But people are not problems. We often speak in the widest terms to characterize entire populations as the problems we suppose they represent: the homeless, "illegal" immigrants, criminals, veterans, victims. Not one of the individuals in those categories is essentially one thing, and we cannot serve or understand the people if we do not know their stories. None of us will stand for being defined categorically, so we should not stand to define anyone else by a category.

The undocumented immigrant is not a national emergency, but he is a father working himself to an early death to elevate his children. The veteran is more than a political talisman, and she is more than her diagnosis or a disability rating. The person sleeping on the street is more than a project for ministry but is a person bound in a cycle with a thousand little decisions, often made by others, and compounded by a layers of trauma. Everyone is more than their worst category, and everyone is more complex than their greatest privilege.

But we can mistake the dignity of every human being with rugged individualism. We should and ought to value every single person as a liberated child of God, but we must resist the temptation to view anyone as an atomized entity moving alone through a predatory state of nature. The temptation is to think that there is such a thing as a "self-made man." The lie is to think that someone "chooses" to be homeless. The mistake is to insist that parents desperate to get their kids to safety should somehow stand in an interminable line to immigrate "the right way" when murderous forces are decimating their families. The risk is to think that anyone truly deserves to live in luxury with a fortune built on others' labor. The danger is to say Not In My Back Yard then wonder where everyone went when we needed them.

Instead, upon closer inspection, we realize that all of us liberated children of God cannot live in isolation and survive, but we must live together. We are not merely to love ourselves, but to love our neighbor as ourselves. We're even supposed to love our enemies, because if we don't, everything goes to hell. We are like a body, as Paul says, a living, interdependent system. We are like the ingredients in bread, as Jesus says, interacting with each other in our component parts to make something wonderful.

For lawyers, we recognize the kid in juvenile detention is not just a "bad kid" from a bad home who chose to commit a crime, but we should recognize all the reasons she got there. What about her family's poverty and the segregation that created her neighborhood? What about the inequitable funding of her high school and the misogyny that objectifies her, all pressed in on her to lead to decisions that lead to juvie?

For the veteran facing charges for drug possession, what about the educational opportunities that led him to enlist, the choices of politicians that marched him to war, the violence of combat, the pain of a traumatic brain injury, and the politics of nation that will not fund his healing?

For the billionaire funding political campaigns or evading taxes, what about the rule of law that creates stability for investment, the public services that make a factory possible, the labor of thousands in wage-paying jobs, the tax-benefits that our representatives provided?

For the start-up enterprise, how will its innovative founders balance their ambitions to disrupt and profit with an ethical responsibility to consumers and the communities they enter?

What do we owe to each other but an acknowledgement that we are all in this together?

The sacred, spiritual space of being a lawyer and law professor generates rich opportunities to witness human beings who bear the image of God. We witness the extravagant complexity of liberated individuals making decisions within a cosmic web of relationships. We see the need for individual justice and social justice. We receive invitations to places of power and privilege, into intimate vulnerability with people in great need. We play critical roles in society, government, and public life. The responsibility is immense.

Lawyers have a call to advocate for individuals in our care while reckoning with the deep complexities of our communities across generations. If we're not a little afraid, then we haven't realized the burdens of our vocation. If we have eyes to see and ears to hear, we will witness the miracles of souls striving together toward love.

Jeff Baker, author and professor Professor Jeffrey R. Baker is the School of Law's Director of Clinical Education and is an Associate Clinical Professor of Law. He directs the clinical program which includes the legal clinics, externships and practicum courses. He supervises and teaches the Community Justice Clinic, and he teaches other courses.