The Missing Witness

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By Paul Knowlton

About ten years into my law practice despite both legal and business successes, I started to sense that something was missing from both. Something big and transcendent that I couldn't put my finger on, the absence of which created a tension in my otherwise fulfilled career. At first I considered it some amorphous lack of enjoyment so I tried to placate it, usually by upgrading to a faster motorcycle. But that proved too naïve a solution. Rather, the sense was akin to the frustration of knowing there is an evasive eyewitness to the proximate cause of my client's injury, but until I identify, locate and produce that witness the jury will be unable to resolve the questions of fact and decide the case in my favor.

I also began to understand that I was not alone in my tension; my lawyer friends could not identify, much less locate and produce our evasive witness. I tried putting words to that which we couldn't identify, but to no avail. Several attorney friends, all older, leaned into the space separating us to offer clues and encouragement designed to propel me further into the quest for our mutually evasive witness.

And search I did. I began with the usual path for a lawyer looking to do more in the name of justice and career satisfaction: volunteering for pro bono work and lots of it. I began with being a guardian ad litem and quickly grew that to include family matters, landlord tenant disputes, wrongful termination, wrongful foreclosure, immigration, and criminal defense, all with an eye toward finding the mother lode of fulfillment through working for justice.

One difficult week, after mediating one pro bono client's third divorce and defending another's fourth drug charge, I began to think about the relationship between the law and the business of the law in a different way. Perhaps, I thought, there was fulfillment and a sustainable business model in being more than just the damage control guy a client needs in crisis. What if I could work upstream of a crisis by counseling a client away from the self-destructive thinking and behaviors that led him or her to court? In other words, what might it look like to wear the counselor-at-law hat to deal with a client's litigation yet be able to put on the licensed professional counselor hat to help clients avoid future conflicts and crises that inevitably led them to litigation? My experience suggested to me a market opportunity for lawyers willing to broaden their practice with a complimentary skill set.

But did I really want to return to graduate school for a master's in counseling just to test a market hunch? Could I afford the risk of reducing my practice while pursuing another degree program? Even confident that I would excel in the coursework, did I really want to cram and sit for another round of day-long licensing exams? To each of these questions my response was an honest, “No, not really.” Nevertheless, after completing my due diligence, and with the support of both a patient spouse and faithful friends at the firm of Hope Baldauff – who worked with me to dial back but continue my intellectual property practice, I began the Fall 2011 semester as a master's degree candidate at Mercer University's Atlanta campus.

Several months into the program, between the assignments due at Mercer and work product due at the firm, I somehow found time to read an interview of Chief Justice Hunstein. There she quoted a famous maxim I'd read before, but this time it profoundly resonated with me. “The practice of law is one of the three great professions: theology for preservation of the spirit, medicine for preservation of the body, and law for preservation of civilization.” What resonated so profoundly with me was that I finally noticed theology was listed first. (Note: the word 'theology' is used, not the word 'religion' and the distinction shouldn't be glossed over or the words carelessly exchanged.) I do not read this maxim as necessarily placing theology above the others, but I do read it as placing theology before the others.

I weighed and reflected over that maxim for some weeks, particularly in light of my recent coursework and training. As a lawyer I knew crises causally reside upstream of litigation. My recent training taught me mental health counseling preemptively resides upstream of crises. Through the lens of the maxim and similar recent training I then turned a corner to understand that theology is preemptive even of counseling. Logically, of course, this means theology likewise resides upstream of both crises and litigation.

Soon I began to wrestle with whether theology was that big and transcendent but absent something that initiated this search. What an odd twist to my quest, I thought, to find the missing witness hiding front and center of a famous maxim. I researched, discussed, and tested the possibility that theology – a sound theology that both guides and supports balanced justice – is the real upstream solution to both my clients' crises and my quest. That was not an easy realization for me. Neither was the switch to pursue an M.Div from Mercer's McAfee School of Theology instead of a counseling degree, as I remained confident about the market opportunity for an attorney who is also a licensed professional counselor.

Surprisingly, I was one of three lawyers in my class of theologians at McAfee and a meaningful number had graduated before us. I was encouraged to know I was not alone in my quest. More surprisingly, I am grateful for the switch to studying theology. As I prepare for the last semester of this program, I have to ask myself and honestly respond whether the deep dive into theology was worth the painstaking effort and sacrifice. The brief answer is: absolutely. I now understand the exploration of one's theology as a sure route to fill the void or ease the tension that most of us attorneys live with daily. I propose theology provides a preemptive solution to crises, litigation, and counseling. It is the “missing witness.”

I suspect my deep dive into theology is just the beginning of a journey that if nurtured will be lifelong. Since coming to understand the role of theology vis-à-vis the law, and putting theology in its proper position ahead of both the law and the business of the law, I find fulfillment in both. There are a number of additional benefits to practicing this new perspective. The most glaring may be a strengthened love of a good law or judicial decision, a deepened appreciation for a well-run law firm, and a renewed faith in the grand potential of lawyers that lead with sound theology. I recommend the quest for one's theology to every lawyer desiring to fill the void and ease the tension. Take the risk to explore, even if you are comfortable with your present theology—no, especially if you are comfortable with your present theology.

Paul Knowlton is a lawyer and M.Div candidate in the Pastoral Care track at McAfee. He and his wife Amy live in Decatur. This is Paul's last semester and like most graduates is in search of the right career move upon graduation.