A lawyer's calling
A lawyer’s calling

Learn to do right; seek justice.
Defend the oppressed.
Take up the cause of the fatherless;
plead the case of the widow.

– Isaiah 1:17

It was a Sunday in December 1971, at my grandparents’ home in Mentone, Alabama, halfway down the hundred-mile-long plateau from Chattanooga to Gadsden that is Lookout Mountain. Within a mile radius were the simple homes, church, school and country graveyard intimately entwined with several generations of our family.

At the “children’s table” off the kitchen with my cousins, I could faintly hear the conversation of our elders at the “grownup table” in the dining room.   In my dad’s voice I heard the words “Ken” and “law school” as he told of the path I hoped to pursue after college.  The response to his announcement seemed strangely muted. I heard him explain that, similar to ministry or teaching, law could be a calling too. My grandfather, who served a lifetime as a minister all over Alabama, made some quiet expression of resigned acceptance.

We were a family of preachers and teachers, builders and farmers, solid and devout country people.  Not only had there never been a lawyer in the family in living memory[2], but so far as I knew then, no one in the extended family had even remotely considered a legal career. Until I was twelve, we had lived at Mentone, across a pasture from my grandparents. I spent many happy days roaming the woods with my dog and building my immune system in the cow pond.  My father, a principal, and my mother, a schoolteacher, took me across the state and time zone line every day for school ten miles away in Menlo, Georgia. But by the time I entered high school, my family had moved to the “big city” of Douglasville, Georgia, where at night on a then-rural hilltop restless teenagers could see the lights of Atlanta twinkling in the distance. Visits home to the mountain grew less and less frequent.

When the dishes were cleared away, and the women were clattering dishes and talking in the kitchen, Uncle Leonard took me aside. He was the only one of his generation who seldom left the mountain for more than a few days except to pick up a piece of German shrapnel that he would carry in his body all his life. He lived within sight of his birthplace, building and remodeling second homes for city folks, while his siblings pursued degrees and careers far from their roots. In some ways he was the best of the bunch.

With a look of profound concern on his weathered face, Uncle Leonard jabbed a work-scarred finger in my chest and demanded, “Kenneth, don’t you know that it’s impossible for a lawyer to go to heaven?”  In retrospect, I realize his challenge was based upon a strictly literal reading of certain passages in the King James Version of the Bible. In his dealings down at the county seat, including service as a part-time constable and a Republican bid for Sheriff when the Democratic nomination was still tantamount to election, he apparently had seen no reason to doubt this interpretation.

In the cockiness of youth, I laughed off my uncle’s warning. What could this good man who left school at sixteen and made a living with a hammer and saw possibly know about the moral and spiritual health of the profession to which I aspired? Nonetheless, I silently vowed to prove him wrong.

Laboring in the trenches of the law in the decades since, I have often recalled Uncle Leonard’s warning, especially on those occasions when I strayed across some line, either hazy or clear, that I should not have crossed. Moral compromises are by no means unique to the legal profession, but none of us are immune from temptation.

Uncle Leonard’s warning, delivered in the most literal, fundamentalist terms, may reveal spiritual and secular concerns about the soul of our profession, but it also contains a hidden kernel of hope when we reflect upon our lives and motivations. We all know lawyers, most in other practice areas but including some in the plaintiffs’ bar, who are disenchanted with their work, unhappy with their workaholic lifestyle, and questioning the wisdom of their career choices.

As Justice Sandra Day O’Connor observed in a speech a few years ago:

[L]awyers, as a group, [are] a profoundly unhappy lot. . . . Attorneys are more than three times as likely as non-lawyers to suffer from depression, and they are significantly more apt to develop a drug dependence, to get divorced, or to contemplate suicide. Lawyers suffer from stress-related diseases, such as ulcers, coronary artery disease, and hypertension, at rates well above average.[3]

A novelist wrote that “[a] profession is like a great snake that wraps itself around you.  Once you are wrapped up, you are in a slow fight for the rest of your life, and the lightness of youth leaves you.”  Of a lawyer he wrote, “I saw how greatly he suffered the requirement of being clever.  It separated him from his soul, and it didn’t get him anything other than a living.”[4]    Lawyers seeking to retain their souls and some remnant of the “lightness of youth” after decades of practice must seek not only to avoid punishment by following the disciplinary rules of conduct, but also to escape indifference by reuniting our sense of humanity with our profession and, ultimately, recognizing the law as a passionate vocation.[5]

Like many of us in the plaintiffs’ bar, I labored for years on the other side, defending the interests of insurance companies and large corporations against injured individuals and families.  Stressed and unhappy in that firm, I was well on my way to the lot Justice O’Connor described.

But then an older lawyer against whom I had secured a defense verdict referred me the case of Rachel, a 19-month-old who was catastrophically brain damaged in a near-drowning in a condominium swimming pool with a defective gate and lock. After the usual conflict check and with grudging approval from the senior partner, I took the case.

When Rachel slipped away from her mom, distracted by care for a newborn sibling, she was able to enter the pool enclosure through the defective gate. She was found floating face down in the March-cold water of the pool. Due to anoxia, Rachel’s body was alive but cognition apparently was gone. Her beautiful blue eyes would track visitors around the room as caregivers tended to her g-tube, suctioned airways and exercised limbs in an effort to avoid contracture. Through a year of fighting for as much compensation as was recoverable for Rachel’s care and frequently visiting with the family, I found my heart and soul as a lawyer.

Many of us in the plaintiffs’ bar have had similar experiences in which we found a calling to “do right, seek justice, defend the oppressed, take up the cause of the fatherless and plead the case of the widow.” Insofar as our work of passionate advocacy is inspired by such a calling we can reduce our risk of falling into an “ethical winter,” or a “hibernation of the soul,” which can result in cynicism and even self-contempt among so many of our professional colleagues.[6]  But even we, when we treat law as simply a money making machine, when are subject to forgetting that “law is rooted in something bigger than the people who hand it down, that law is rooted in history and in the moral order of the universe.”[7]

Viewed with the right perspective, the law can offer among the best opportunities to help people who are hurting and to temper and resolve human conflict.[8]  Those of us who bear the scars of long legal careers, however, know all too well how easy it is to lose sight of the intrinsic values of our work when we are laboring in the muddy trenches of the law day by day, besieged with phone calls and emails, stressed out about deadlines and seemingly insoluble conflicts, struggling to cover overhead, make payroll, feed all the mouths we are expected to feed, and reserve some personal space in our lives.

But when we view our daily work as a calling to do what we were meant to do in this life, in a place where our deep gladness and the world’s hunger meet, then we may find in the work of helping people solve their problems a value and meaning that transcends our fluctuating material rewards. [9]  Blooming where we are planted, we may find our callings to serve as instruments of both justice and love in our labor on behalf of the injured and grieving families.  Personal injury lawyers who are true to their calling help clients retain dignity and independence that has been diminished by injury.

AAJ, this section and our litigation groups provide rich opportunities for us to hone our skills and preserve the rights of our current and future clients.

Compared to the infinite scale and complexity of the universe, our lives are infinitesimally small and finite.  But in this snippet of time and space we occupy, we are called to interpret the moral order of Creation into pragmatic legal solutions for the messy problems presented to us, and to use our skills to temper the chaos to which human nature gives rise.[10]  Being able to recognize this calling and our peace-making and problem-solving abilities may allow us to regain, and live with, a sense of passion and purpose in the face of difficult circumstances and never-ending temptations to ethical compromise.

Through it all, we should remain thankful for the opportunity to work and serve in the law, rekindling a more mature and probably more humble version of whatever first inspired us to pursue legal careers.  Laying aside the pretenses of professional arrogance, we can rekindle our passion for justice and pursue more conscientious and effective relationships with clients and colleagues.[11]

In the words of the prophet Micah, we should seek to “do justice, love kindness and walk humbly with our God.”[12]  In so doing, we should prudently seek ways in which we can no longer conform to the flawed patterns of this world, but instead to be transformed by the renewal of our minds.[13]

When I return to Mentone and walk among the graves of kin who followed their own callings – my great-grandfather the builder who started a church and a school, my grandfather the minister, my grandmother who read to me stories that unknowingly first launched me toward the law, my parents the educators, and Uncle Leonard who issued that stark warning – I silently pray that I might be worthy of the calling I followed in the law.




[1] Originally published by the author as a president’s column in the Georgia Bar Journal, August 2011, and later adapted for the American Association for Justice Motor Vehicle Collision, Highway & Premises Liability Section Newsletter in Fall 2015.

[2] I later learned than a forgotten collateral ancestor has been a lawyer, judge and congressman in antebellum Georgia, and died of “a fit of apoplexy” in the courtroom while defending a black man against a murder charge in Americus, GA, in 1860.

[3] Sandra Day O’Connor, Professionalism, Speech at the Dedication of the William W. Knight Law Center, in 78 Or. L. Rev. 385, 386 (1999).

[4] Mark Helprin, A Soldier of the Great War 110 (1991).

[5] John L. Cromartie, Reflections on Vocation, Calling, Spirituality and Justice, in Can a Good Christian be a Good Lawyer? 139, 143 (Thomas E. Baker & Timothy W. Floyd eds. 1998); see also Schutt, supra note 2, at 93.

[6] Robert F. Blomquist, The Pragmatically Virtuous Lawyer, 15 Widener L. Rev. 93, 107 (2009).

[7] Harold J. Berman, The Crisis of Legal Education in American, in Faith & Order: The Reconciliation of law & Religion 333-34 (1993).

[8] Cromartie, supra note 7, at 143-44.

[9]  Id., at 144-145.

[10] Thomas A. Wiseman, What Doth the Lord Require of Thee? in Can a Good Christian be a Good Lawyer? 35, 39 (Thomas E. Baker & Timothy W. Floyd eds. 1998).

[11] Jacqueline Nolan-Haley, Finding Interior Peace in the Ordinary Practice of Law: Wisdom from the Spiritual Tradition of St. Teresa of Avila, 46 J. Cath. Legal Stud. 29, 39 (2007).

[12] Micah 6:8.

[13] Romans 12:2.


Ken Shigley is a candidate for election to the Georgia Court of Appeals in 2018.