Convivium was a project of Cardus 2011‑2022, and is preserved here for archival purposes.
God's Love and the LawGod's Love and the Law

God's Love and the Law

Growing up in a family filled with faith was the best possible preparation for this distinguished Canadian lawyer’s career

John Cordeau
14 minute read

When my law partner, John Craig, asked me if I would make some remarks about law and faith, I took the opportunity to review the mission statement of the J. Reuben Clark Law Society. Your mission statement is very powerful:

"We affirm the strength brought to the law by a lawyer's personal religious conviction. We strive through public service and professional excellence to promote fairness and virtue founded upon the rule of law."

This mission statement caused me to reflect on my own journey of more than 38 years of practice, 18 of which were in the senior management field at a major Canadian international law firm, Bennett Jones LLP. From 1995 to 2011, I had various management positions, including Litigation Department Head, Lead Director and Chairman. In reflecting on how I would approach this topic, it became clear to me that faith and personal religious conviction are, and always have been, one of the ways that I and others of the firm have discharged our obligations.

When I reflect upon the landscape of the legal profession today, more than ever, there are opportunities for faith and the need for strong moral codes to guide law firms. To begin, I want to give you some background that led to my career. In giving you my background, I invite you to think of your own background, how you got to where you are, and how, in most cases, we are unlikely candidates for the roles that we fill.

In reflecting on my background, I thought of Biblical references to the calling of the 12 Apostles when Christ used fishermen and tax collectors to spread His Word. Christ uses us no matter how unqualified we think we are to do His will, and He bestows on us the grace and tools to perform the job.

My background is modest to say the least. My father grew up in Cape Breton, N.S., the third of 14 children. He served in the Second World War as a gunner with the Fourth Canadian Army, which was the second wave of Canadians to land in France two weeks after the D-Day Invasion. His father died when he was overseas, and his mother was widowed with 11 children at home.

My father was a man of great faith. He suffered some damage in the war, which we did not know about as children; but after his death in 2005, we retrieved his records. We found out that he had many harrowing experiences. After the war, he went to work in a bank and eventually found his way to Timmins, Ont., where he met my mother.

He later moved to Montreal, where I grew up. My father was not a professional man. His highest pay was under $30,000 a year working security at a construction company.

My mother was a Slovenian immigrant who came to Canada when she was seven years old. She did not meet her father until she arrived in Canada. He had left Slovenia for Canada before my mother was born and had headed there with the intention of bringing his wife and child over. Politics intervened and they were unable to immigrate.

Her father worked in the mines in northern Ontario and never earned more than a dollar an hour. Despite this, in the 1950s, he raised enough money to start construction of what is now the Slovenian Catholic Church in Toronto.

Both my parents were people of great faith. Resources were scarce, but they raised eight children while we lived in a three-bedroom apartment in the East End of Montreal. My mother used to say that all she had was "a bunch of kids and God."

My parents took us to church every week, where I served Mass for six years. We knew nobody of influence, but we always had people of faith around us. My father had two sayings, both of which revolved around his faith and our futures. One was: "If you put one foot in front of the other and do the right thing, you will be where you're supposed to be when you're supposed to be there." We used to look at each other, puzzled as to what this meant. The second was something he used when we faced disappointment. After going through what we might or might not have done and whether we had put one foot in front of the other, he always commented: "God is always right, on time and never makes mistakes."

I cannot tell you how this allowed us to get through difficulties when things did not go our way. In the 1960s and 1970s, I got caught up in the culture and did not do very well at school. My last two years were excellent at Loyola College, but I had to make up for some bad years. I did not get into law school the first year. I shipped coats for $95 a week and licked my wounds. The second year, I got into two of the 12 law schools I applied to. I entered McGill University.

When I entered law school, I did not know what corporate law was except that my father worked for companies that paid him money. I did not know what a share was. I remember on the first day of school asking a friend what this word "statutes" meant.

I wanted to be a lawyer because I wanted to help people and I seemed to be pretty good at talking and getting my point across, which was something you had to do in our house because everyone had opinions on everything. My background was not really conducive to becoming a Senior Partner, Chairman and Lead Director of a 400-member law firm with 800 employees in nine cities in Canada, the United States, the Middle East and China. But later, I would learn this background and my faith were a blessing that I could use to assist people.

I began practising law in 1976 after graduating from McGill and moving to Winnipeg to get a new start. I was quite successful. There, too, I noticed there were always people of faith around me. In Winnipeg, I met my wife and came into contact with my father-in-law, who was a high school principal and very active in the Anglican Church. My father-in- law was a prodigious worker and always did the hard work. At his funeral, he was compared to Saint Bartholomew: always working in the background to help people. As a practising lawyer, I learned from my mentors that my clients had entrusted important matters in their lives to me and that I had to do my best. Rewards would come by doing good work and helping others; and at the same time, I would earn good money.

I came to Bennett Jones in Calgary after being introduced to the firm by a friend while we were curling one weekend in Winnipeg. I had never heard of the firm but thought it somewhat large with 40 lawyers at the time.

That is my background.

In the early 1990s, the partnership of Bennett Jones elected me to lead. From 1995 to 2011, they honoured me by electing me on secret ballots 14 times to various management positions. I quickly learned that other leaders in our firm were people of faith. They told me that leadership cannot be taught. It must be lived. While it can be learned, it cannot be explained in a neat package or formula. It was best described in an article titled "Leadership as Muddling Through" as a messy mixture of people, passion and constraints pushing and pulling in different directions. It was more a matter of living with vision, character and integrity in the midst of a network of relationships.

Several convictions as a Christian guided me and my mentors over the years at the firm. In Mac Jones, Bill Britton, Jack Major, Cliff O'Brien, Hugh MacKinnon, Don Sabey and Dick Low, I had mentors in faith as well as leaders. Both Don Sabey and Dick Low served as bishops for the Latter Day Saints. Simply put, my faith is that I have been blessed by God to serve others, and if I do my best, He will provide the tools to guide me to proper decisions. My mentors in leadership had a similar outlook. Central to our faith were:

  • Leadership is exercised in the service of God.
  • Leadership is always about service to others; whom you choose to follow in that service will define your leadership.
  • All persons have value, personal worth and potential. They deserve respect, space and opportunity to realize that potential. Leadership serves this truth and uses it in its decision making.

Today more than ever, this grounding and faith prepare us for the important jobs we carry out. I know that on many occasions the intersection of my background and these two convictions allowed me to make meaningful decisions. One that comes to mind was in 2008, during the last recession, when we did not lay off any employees.

The 2008 to 2010 period was a difficult time for many businesses. The recession struck hard and leaders were attempting to deal with the financial issues. Our board got together to discuss our response. The usual business principles were discussed, but we concluded that we were going to do something unusual. We were going to tell our staff right then that there would be no cutbacks as a result of the recession and that they should go home and tell their families that they had a job. This was seen as controversial at the time, but the grounding for it was several directors' personal experience growing up when their parents faced the loss of jobs. This included my own father in the 1970s.

How comforting, we thought, it would be for people to know they had jobs and that we were behind them—that we were all in it together. Without our backgrounds and sensitivity to others, we could not have made such a decision. While controversial at the time, we received our answer later that year when we were recognized by the Globe and Mail. Through surveys, our employees had voted Bennett Jones the third best employer in Canada. It is a source of pride to us that every year for the last 12 years, our employees have given us that recognition.

This was just one of hundreds of decisions we made with our leadership values of service and the dignity of people.

Over the years, the law and the delivery of legal service by law firms has changed. While it has always been a stressful job, never has it been what it is for legal professionals, their families and the staff today. If you google "lawyers and stress," you'll see there are many articles, and it starts at the beginning of a career with law students at university.

In 2010, the University of Sydney in Australia funded research into stress among law students. Here are some findings published in "Lawyers Must Learn to Manage Stress" by Fran Metcalf, in the Courier Mail, June 2010:

  • "The psychological distress starts at university with 35 per cent of law students suffering high to very high stress loads."
  • "‘When law students start [university], their mental health is the same as the general population, but by the end of the first year, they are going downhill,' [according to senior law lecturer Rachael Field]. ‘They are becoming depressed.…' [This] psychological distress was caused by the ‘competitive, isolating and adversarial learning environment' of the law schools."
  • "‘The prevalence of emotional distress among lawyers is one of the greatest ethical challenges facing the profession,' [Queensland Legal Services Commissioner John Briton] says."

There are similar findings in American research, where students report that law school is alienating and a place where they lost their self-confidence, motivation and passion for learning. Until 2000, I was actively involved in the recruiting process and, at that time, attempts were made to evaluate the whole person. Would they be a fit for the firm? The top students were always top students, but there was always room to give someone a break and take a flyer. I would say that I was a flyer.

Today that is very rare. When I looked at the resumés of some of those 25-year-olds, I was staggered by what they had done to get admitted to law school. I remember asking one, years later, if he had done anything in his life other than build a resumé. He told me that things were competitive, it's a different world, and it wasn't the world I had grown up in. How true that was.

The plight of students has caused us to look over our recruiting skills and what we look for in young people. It was decided as a matter of policy that we would try to be open to students, understand the stresses they were under and give them a chance. As a result, the norm, all things being equal, is that you are placed after articling for the first year. Our committee members who are part of that process are given the skills and training to help students get through. We, as a firm, have an obligation to give young professionals a chance to grow and develop.

And the grind continues for these young professionals. When I articled to Jack Major, later of the Supreme Court, he took an interest in me. Today, students at large law firms have professional development organizations, have to learn the computers and other systems, do research and rarely see their principals. There are sometimes 20 hired at a time. This causes a more impersonal, competitive atmosphere, where your goal is to keep up rather than develop bonds with others. Assignments are put on boards and students are assigned to a specific task. In an environment where it is already difficult to connect with others, there is pressure to perform, and the student becomes defined by one or two pieces of work rather than by the whole person. For people in their 20s starting their careers, this is difficult and stressful. Awareness is important. If people are seen as human beings made in God's image, then you will act a certain way towards them. If you see them as profit centres or commodities, as many do, you are tempted to take another route.

Over the years, I have observed students who are just too young to face this. In the "business of law" model, young lawyers and staff sometimes are made to feel expendable and like failures. Adopting a moral code that faith provides is important in making your choice on how you will act.

Faith challenges us as lawyers to ask how we view success. How do we define it? Do we define success as money, winning and fame as a secular connotation, or do we want our people to be people of value to the community? Do we value them for the gifts they bring? What about the example we give? How do we treat each other? How do we support each other? How do we share the benefits with each other? Faith tells us to be honest in our dealings and to respect others. Faith gives you the answers and strength to carry through by looking beyond the immediate.

Now a word to those who practise law in today's environment: How can faith assist you? At the end of the day, law is a wonderful calling. We are the representatives of justice in the community, and we have the privilege of representing our fellow citizens before the courts for mostly good compensation. We are given status and, despite lawyer jokes, most people see it as an honourable and necessary profession. It does, however, have some contradictions, especially our adversarial system, which makes the role of faith and morality important. Comparing law and medicine, Yvette Hourigan, who runs the Kentucky Lawyers Assistance Program, commented to CNN on January 20, 2014:

"There are a lot of high stress professions. Being a physician has stress. However, when the surgeon goes into the surgical suite to perform his surgery, they don't send another physician in to try to kill the patient. You know, they're all on the same team trying to do one job. In the legal profession, adversity is the nature of our game."

By its very nature, law is adversarial. In the North American and British context, the claim is made that this is the best system to ensure justice. However, the toll on individuals in terms of stress is significant. Starting from basics, every person knows that arguments are a cause of stress. Lawyers spend their entire day in well-researched and rehearsed disagreement. The outcome greatly affects the lives of their clients. It's high stakes.

The practice of law is not as glamorous as it appears on TV. Few, if any, lawyers have the luxury of sitting around philosophizing about the law – especially if they want to get paid. It's demanding. Even the most well-balanced and well-adjusted lawyer feels the pressure.

Now, put in place the added pressure of dealing with human beings with sometimes unresolved issues and inadequate defence mechanisms, and you may have a formula for personal crisis. While competitiveness in law in the North American system has always been the case, many lawyers now question it. Are we part of a legal system where everything goes if it is not illegal? Or are we part of a justice system? Are there no limits if it is legal? Faith and the Scriptures give guidance on these issues.

Big law, for many lawyers today, has become big business. Many firms are run by highly skilled, sophisticated management teams using business principles. The buzzwords, all too often, are "profitability per partner," "revenue growth," "profit centres" and "left on the table." There is nothing wrong with this in itself. But what effect does this have for some practising lawyers? Is law a win-lose proposition? Maybe it's just a question of degree, but winning, to many, is the name of the game. Lawyers who want to be successful sometimes rely on conflict, difficulty and distortion to persuade others and appear to profit by it. While these skills may be rewarded, in law they can have disastrous personal consequences on relationships.

Public perception is often that lawyers are rich and powerful, but really it can be grim for some attorneys. In an economic downturn, many law firms reduce pay and lay people off. The business of law has caused many lawyers to question their careers. Some feel helpless and angry at the loss of control that comes with their job. They spend long hours to satisfy their demanding clients, and they are accountable to their firm for their hours and billings. Often they just don't get a break.

Now, how does this stress affect one's spouse, one's children, the staff and legal assistants, receptionists, the court runner and everybody else involved in this environment? As a manager for 18 years who observed these challenges, I know that without faith and a moral code, we would be lost. The belief that we are here to serve God, that every decision we make has an effect on someone and their family, that each person is made in the likeness of God, is integral to getting it right. The faith I had was that I was chosen to do this job and that if I did my best, it would all work out.

Faith and the Scriptures remind us that even great saints such as Peter and Paul made mistakes and were forgiven for them. In the end, we are dealing with human beings under great pressure, trying to make a living.

Here are some thoughts on how to make good choices and cut out stress. They work for me and, over the years, have been of assistance to my partners. Not surprisingly, there is authority in the Scriptures for each:

  1. Have realistic goals and pray for direction.
  2. Get others to help you and share the load.
  3. The Golden Rule: Treat others as you want them to treat you.
  4. Say "no" if you are asked to do something you consider improper. Equally important, never ask anyone to do anything improper.
  5. Do not be a perfectionist: Lawyers are human beings and you are loved for being a human being.
  6. Balance your life. Make time for family and friends – they are gifts from God.
  7. Meditate on the universal truths and find out what is important to you.
  8. Enjoy yourself.
  9. Give others a chance to shine and take joy in their success.

In my case, faith and background were indispensable. It is an honour and a blessing to have been called by God to serve such wonderful people. My prayer for each of you is that, in faith, you receive the grace and tools to meet your challenges.

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