Fear and the Legal Profession

David Hyams

“Do not be afraid,”  (Matt. 1:27).  “Fear not,” (Is. 41:13).  “Let not your hearts be troubled, neither let them be afraid,”  (Jn. 14:27).  Repeatedly throughout Scripture, we are exhorted to have no fear except the reverent fear of God  (Prov. 1:7).  Yet the legal profession is rife with fear.

We attorneys fear judges; malpractice suits; opposing counsel; the scrutinizing judgment of partners; the opinion of the bar; not meeting billable hour requirements; missing deadlines; losing a case; someone discovering that we’re really a “phony;” going to trial (or not); angry clients; not making the latest peer “popularity contest;” not being able to instill fear in others; colleagues finding out we’re Christians; and not bringing in enough clients to keep the partnership happy (or, just to pay the bills).  As law students we fear professors; exams; being called on in class; not passing the bar; not finding a job; not being able to pay back student loans; and that the decision to go to law school in the first place was a mistake.  The list is virtually endless.

These fears weigh us down, keep us awake at night, rob our appetites, distract our thoughts, keep us paralyzed in a job we either hate or take no pleasure in, and serve as more of a motivation for decisions than we care to acknowledge or admit.  Twistedly, we even justify them, embrace them, accept them, and even go so far as to see some of them as markers of competence, prudence, and/or success.

But are these fears characteristic of the abundant life we’re promised as followers of Christ (Jn. 10:10)? Is the fear that is so rampant in our profession drawing us nearer to the heart of God?  Are our hearts fully enjoying the freedom Christ has purchased?

Recall the parable of the talents from Matthew 25.  There, Jesus tells the story of a man who went on a journey and left money to three of his servants.  Two of the servants invested the money and doubled it.  The third servant, however, hid the money in the ground.  Upon the master’s return, the first two servants were rewarded and commended for their faithfulness.  But the third’s fate was different.  He said, “Master, I knew you to be a hard man, reaping where you did not sow, and gathering where you scattered no seed, so I was afraid, and I went and hid your talent in the ground. Here you have what is yours,” (Matt. 25:24-26.)  The master did not reward this “cautious” behavior, but threw the servant out of his presence.

Did you notice how the third servant was driven by fear?  He feared his master, so he “played it safe.”  He spent his days worrying about screwing up, so he did not do anything with the money.  He was so afraid he didn’t even take the money to the bank!  Contrast his fear-based approach to that of the other two servants.  They took risks, acted courageously, and did not fear the master’s response.  Their only concern was taking advantage of the opportunities the master gave them.

How many of us are missing out on the full blessings of God because we’re racked with fear?  How many of us are choosing to “play it safe” over really living?  What would happen if we stopped participating in (and even perpetuating) a fear-based profession?

Am I suggesting we take risks with our client’s money, life, or liberty?  Am I suggesting we throw caution to the wind and ignore our deadlines in the name of “fearless living?”  Of course not. We have obligations to the court, the law, our clients, and God that prevent us from such reckless living.  (The first two servants certainly didn’t obtain a 100% return by ignoring all rules of trade.)

What I am suggesting, however, is that there is a better way of lawyering than lawyering based on fear.  It may not be as “safe,” “predictable,” or “controllable” as what you’re accustomed to.  It may require you practicing law in a decidedly different manner than those around you.  It may even require you to practice law in a different place altogether (or not at all).  But that is where true lawyering—and true life—await. “Whoever seeks to preserve his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life will keep it” (Lk. 17:33).

Take six minutes (only .1 billable hours (!)) and jot down your biggest fears.  Then, give them to the Lord who cares for you  (1 Pet. 5:6-7; Phil. 4:4-7).  This can be your first step toward a fear-free practice.  For remember, you are a beloved child of the Father, who cares for you, has called you to Jesus, and has prepared good works in advance for you to do (Matt. 6:25-34; Eph. 2:10).