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Reclaiming the Sacredness of the Legal Profession

by professor david hall

In 2005, I published a book titled The Spiritual Revitalization of the Legal Profession: A Search for Sacred (The Edwin Mellen Press). The book attempts to capture the spiritual dimensions of the practice of law and argues that the legal profession is a spiritual enterprise that we have allowed to become profane. Father Robert Drinan epitomizes this merging of the profession of law and spirituality in a compelling manner. His death serves as a sobering reminder to me that this project I have undertaken is not a fanciful theory but a reflection of real people who have managed to live their faith as they pursued their occupation.


I was drawn to this project because like many professionals I felt there was an unnecessary gulf or barrier between my spiritual yearnings and my professional vocation. Though I had reconciled these two paths in my mind and spirit, the legal profession had certainly not reconciled them, and some lawyers felt that these two paths were irreconcilable and should not be discussed in the same sentence. Though there are dangers in merging our faiths with our vocations, there are precious gems to be unearthed if the legal profession were at least willing to honestly grapple with these tensions and dangers. I was also drawn to this project because of the various negative consequences of the dominant legal culture that forces so many good people to abandon their values, become disillusioned and cynical, or just leave the profession. There is a tremendous need to remind new lawyers that it is possible to be a prosperous lawyer and an ethical and caring lawyer at the same time. Lawyers and law professors like Father Drinan have paved a path through the wilderness of cynicism, creating numerous alternatives for future lawyers.


Various legal scholars and social scientists have documented many of the challenges the legal profession faces: high levels of depression, alcoholism, and divorce, and a low level of satisfaction among lawyers and a disturbing public perception. So as a profession we can dismiss all of these challenges and perceptions because the practice of law will continue. But if we are committed to enhancing the profession and restoring it to its rightful place, then we must reexamine its purpose and reexamine our individual callings to it. Though there are many antidotes that might provide a cure for these problems, spirituality is a viable healing force for the profession.


One of the first major challenges and intellectual pitfalls of this project was defining spirituality. Most of us use the word, believe we embody the concept, but have not reached agreement about this elusive ideal. I define spirituality as consisting of two very interrelated concepts. The first is a consistent attempt to live one’s life by the highest values humanly obtainable. The second is a sincere commitment to search for the sacred. In order to give more content to the first part of the definition, I suggested seven values which are important for the legal profession. They are love, loyalty, humility, forgiveness, service, faith, and integrity. The second aspect of the definition of spirituality is the search for the sacred. For many, like Father Drinan, this is captured by our incessant yearning to have a close and meaningful relationship with God. For others, it is an attempt to extract from life the deeper meaning and purpose for one’s existence. However one gives content to this second competence, it must contain a transformative power that exists within our being and that we believe exists within life itself.


The personality of the lawyer has been shaped at the expense of the lawyer’s soul. Legal educational institutions as well as the profession have contributed to this result. To master these traits of “thinking like a lawyer” one is led to believe that one must detach and remove oneself from the problem and from the individuals being served. Within the domain of the attorney personality is a fundamental belief that emotions get in the way of thinking clearly. It is believed that objectivity comes from emotional distance and can only be corrupted or diluted if one becomes too close or familiar with the client or the present situation. The developing lawyer is led to believe that the mind is the most powerful tool needed to master the discipline successfully and serve the client. These messages result in a personality that is more rigid than flexible, more analytical than caring, more emotionally detached than sympathetic, and more self-centered than altruistic. This does not happen overnight but becomes the unstated end game of the journey that began on the first day of law school.


Sitting quietly next to the attorney’s personality is the lawyer’s soul, waiting to be merged so that it can refine and transform the practitioner. The soul of the lawyer is that part that cares for, and feels for, the clients and the profession in a deep, authentic, and genuine manner. It is that boundless energy that allows us to see beyond and through problems. It is that fluid energy that permits us to not only analyze the problem of the clients, but also to touch their hearts in the process. The soul of the lawyer is different from the personality of the attorney because it has no fixed parameters within which to operate. It permits the lawyer to cry, laugh, hurt, pray, meditate, and be in the moment of all her experiences. There is no compartmentalization in the soul. The lawyer’s keen analytical mind sits next to her passionate ear. They do not work against each other but serve as a catalyst for each other’s growth, for some of our most creative and thoughtful ideas and solutions come when our minds are still, and when our hearts have been stirred. The soul is the repository for our spiritual growth. It is the place where we can see beyond present-day limitations and burdens. It is the place that allows us to see the client not as a person with a problem but as another soul striving to find its place in the universe. Once the merger of personality and soul occurs, lawyers can see themselves as healers and not as mere technicians who dispense skills, forms, and prepackaged remedies. The lawyer’s role is to serve the whole client and not just their narrow legal problem.


In a chapter called practicing your faith as you practice law, I argue that we must not see our spiritual traditions as an inoculation that permits us to practice law without being infected by the profession’s contaminated features. To the contrary, the practice of law, by its nature, is a spiritual endeavor. The practice of law should be to the lawyer what the church is to a minister, the temple is to a rabbi, and the mosque is to an imam. It is the place where the principles, values, and spiritual insights are realized and given life. It is the sacred arena in which we strive to transform our individual and collective shortcomings and remove internal and external structures that inhibit growth. Piety and internal peacefulness are sometimes obtained in prayer and isolation from others, but the true challenge of our goodness and our faith is when they are put to the test of human circumstances and conflicts. The legal system is a temple that is filled with spiritual choices, commands, and dilemmas for all who participate. Part of the calling of lawyers and judges is to ensure that this place and this process consistently embrace the highest ideals and consistently enhance the search for the deepest meaning.


I make a distinction in the book between practicing our faith as we practice law versus practicing our faith through law. This may appear to be splitting hairs, but there is a profound distinction. To practice our faith through the law means that law is the object that our faith redeems or transforms. To practice our faith as we practice law means that law is the subject of our faith. It sits at the center of our understanding of what we are called to do as enlightened lawyers and human beings. If we understand the spiritual foundation of the practice of law, and see law as spirit, then the practice of law is not in opposition to our faith. To the contrary, it is one of the most profound arenas in which our spiritual quest can be realized. This is one of the powerful legacies of Father Drinan’s life.


If the profession is to be revitalized, then those of us who teach and administer law school have to take a fresh look at what we teach and how we teach. We must not only teach to the minds of our students, we must teach to their hearts and souls. Father Drinan dedicated much of his life to instilling within law students and his colleagues this broader perspective and mission.


It is not an accident that rivers are central to the history and theology of most, if not all, religious traditions. The Jordan, the Nile, the Ganges are more than physical bodies of water that flow through ancient civilizations. They are sacred repositories of the insights, peace, and transformation that flow through people. They not only help us understand elusive concepts like spirit and soul, they become the embodiment of our spiritual journey. If one does not understand the beauty and challenge of the river; if one is not willing to bathe within its spiritual waters, then we become calcified replicas of human life and not the pure reflections of enlightenment that we are called to be.


I end the book with a chapter entitled “Voices from the River.” It is my way of spiritually imagining what the enlightened lawyers who have passed on would say to this generation of lawyers if we were courageous enough to listen to their voices as they speak to us from the center of the river. Father Drinan has now joined this majestic river, and I can imagine him saying to the lawyers of the future:


“We are the keepers of a flame that some would like to blow out. We are the bearers of a light that can lead individuals out of darkness and loneliness, to the fulfillment of their dreams, and lead nations out of the caves of injustice and oppression, into the sunlight of justice and peace. We do this not just with our finely tuned intellectual skills; we do it with what we draw from the river. We do it with our compassion and tears, with our hearts and wrinkled hands, with our unconditional love for those who have been rejected and despised.” Father Drinan lived these words and the legal profession would be wise to walk in his footsteps.


For more information on Professor Hall's book, The Spiritual Revitalization of the Legal Profession: A Search for Sacred (The Edwin Mellen Press, 2005), visit



Senator Edward M. Kennedy

“To look back over the sweep of [Father Drinan’s] incredible life is to see vivid proof of what even lone individuals armed with moral clarity and courage can do when they set their minds on making a difference. He demonstrated constantly that each of us has the capacity to work for change and have an impact and he did it by example through his service, his faith and ministry, and his writings and his passion for education.

Of all the hats he wore, none fit him better than that of teacher, and we’ll never forget all that he taught us. His election to Congress was a dramatic turning point in the effort to end the tragic, misguided, and wasteful war in Vietnam. We miss him more than ever in the halls of Congress today when that cruel history is repeating itself.

He stood up to the abuses of a president at first as a lonely voice but in the fullness of time, the nation agreed and the president stepped down. He took on immensely challenging and often unrewarding tasks such as rewriting the Federal Criminal Code to make the administration of justice both effective and fair. The challenge was tough, it was complex, it was thankless, it took a decade, but it was no match for the brilliant legal mind and the will of iron of this Jesuit. He summoned all of us to ease the plight of the oppressed whether African Americans in our own country, Jews in the Soviet Union, or the countless heartbreaking number of impoverished, dispossessed, and throughout the world.”

(From a eulogy given at St. Alyosius Church, Washington, DC, February 1.)