The word of God is law

While many Americans vilified Kenneth Starr as an over-zealous witch hunter, faculty members at Pepperdine University School of Law, California, courted him to be their dean.

Students and professors at Pepperdine, who come from the same Christian legal world as Starr, say he would have been a perfect choice to carry out the school's religious mission: incorporating the values of Jesus Christ into the law. Starr had even taught there in summers past.

As it turned out, Starr had another calling. But the spiritually-minded independent prosecutor, who sings hymns on his morning run, remains an important role model for students at Pepperdine. They share with him a belief that a Christian approach to the law will help combat the amorality of the US legal system.

“We believe that law is a profession, not a business,” says Richardson Lynn, the soft-spoken man appointed dean after Starr turned down the post. “I tell prospective students that if the main reason they want to become a lawyer is to make a lot of money, they will not fit in here.”

Moral instruction at Pepperdine is considered as fundamental as a solid grounding in statutes and court decisions. Students are taught to take a Christian approach to the law. Whatever the subject – a tax class or a discussion on euthanasia – professors encourage their pupils to pause and consider some of the ethical questions raised.

Some professors hold bible groups, others advocate that their students ask combatants in litigation to read scripture as a path to the resolution of lawsuits.

Douglas Kmiec, a Roman Catholic and a professor at Pepperdine, favours the story of Solomon in the Book of Ecclesiastes. He says: “A group of students who are about to have very lucrative jobs waved in front of them are greatly advantaged by several evenings spent listening to Solomon.”

There are 37 religiously affiliated law schools in the US trying to keep the religious mission alive. But many of them do not emphasise their religious ties. Pepperdine is the only law school of its kind in the US. It is affiliated with the Churches of Christ – a theologically conservative denomination that has historically discouraged drinking, dancing and smoking. (Starr, in his first interview after his grand jury testimony, recalled that he had attended the high school prom, but that he did not take to the dance floor.)

However, among the 650 law students at Pepperdine, founded in 1969, only a minority are members of the Church of Christ. The majority are Christian, some Jewish and, more recently, Muslim. It is their faith, regardless of their denomination, says Kmiec, that brings them to the picturesque campus, perched up in the Santa Monica mountains, overlooking the Pacific.

Lance Bridge-Smith, 25, a third year student at Pepperdine, who was raised as a member of the Church of Christ, says the legal profession is his calling.

“When a client comes to an attorney, they are often in a predicament, or in a bad state,” he says. “Being able to offer them service – to help them through – is something I like the idea of,” he says.

“What concerns me is that there will be those who feel a Christian attorney is someone who is naive, someone who is weak, someone who does not know how to zealously apply the law, and that is not what Pepperdine produces, or what I want to be.”

A number of law schools in the US have tried to focus more on lawyers' ethics in recent years. Unlike Pepperdine, however, their approach has tended to emphasise the secular rules of the profession. At Pepperdine, a large cross on the hillside campus stands out as a symbol of the school's unswerving commitment to Christian values.

Lynn who, like Starr, grew up attending the Church of Christ, says: “In the US, an old term for a lawyer is 'an attorney and counsellor at law.'

“That counselling function has been lost over the years. We hope here at Pepperdine that graduates will be willing to say to their clients 'Legally this is the answer, but there are the other things you should be concerned about.'

“But this isn't about being so moralistic that you pick and choose clients depending on who you think is pure,” he says. “We don't teach students to refuse to represent someone who has said 'I'm hiring you to be my lawyer, not my conscience.'”

In fact, potential clients occasionally call up the university in search of a Pepperdine alumnus to represent them.

Although they are taught to think about what they can do to raise their clients' moral awareness, students are also “very bread-and-butter oriented”, according to professors at Pepperdine.

Although most Pepperdine students join firms in small cities, some do join larger firms' or start their own law practices after graduating. Many find work within the Bible Belt, usually in Texas and Tennessee, partly because that is where many originate from.

Chad Brown, 25, a law student at Pepperdine originally from Texas, says: “There seems to be this view that if you are a Christian, you think everybody else who isn't like you is wrong. And that's just not it. That's not how the original man we named religion after – Jesus Christ – was; he wasn't judgmental.”

By association, Pepperdine has fallen victim to much of the criticism directed at Starr, whose detractors refer to Pepperdine as a haven for right-wing activists.

Although many of the students and professors are conservative voters, they say they are frustrated by the cliched portrayals of Christian lawyers, stereotyped as one-dimensional zealots.

“The irony of it is that I stepped into Ken Starr's shoes and I'm a liberal Democrat,” laughs Lynn. “I voted for Bill Clinton twice.”

The US christian legal movement in the UK by Shaun Pye

PEPPERDINE has its own campus in London with around 40 US students travelling here every year.

Pepperdine University's assistant director Bill Ibbotson explains that students arrive over the summer and often gain internships in local firms.

However the concept of a totally Christian law school raises local lawyers eyebrows.

As one UK Christian lawyer says: “They do lots of strange things in the US.”

But while Britain has no local equivalent to the Pepperdine, the country's Christian legal movement has developed considerably in the last few years.

Professor Paul Beaumont, from the University of Aberdeen, is one of a number of academics who recently attended the third annual conference on christianity and the law and is the author of a number books on the subject.

He says the UK is “waking up to the fact that we can apply Christian principles to contemporary legal issues”.

Whereas, generally speaking, the Christian movement in the US is associated with fundamentalism and right-wing republicanism, Beaumont says Christian lawyers in the UK inhabit a broader and more moderate church.

He believes that Christians make excellent lawyers because, quite simply, they are concerned with helping people, although the notoriously long hours some lawyers work can disrupt a Christian family lifestyle.

“Old chestnuts” about the incompatibility of religion and the secular law are erroneous, he says, because the professional codes of conduct laid down by the Law Society and Bar Council should prevent lawyers from acting unethically.

It is impossible to tell how many lawyers are practising Christians. But the Lawyers Christian Fellowship (LCF) has a membership of around 1,300 UK lawyers. The Association of Christian Law Firms (ACLF), set up in 1990 for firms where all the partners are Christian, has around 40 member firms, including many sole practitioners.

ACLF secretary Nigel Spoor, a partner at Fairchild Dobbs, says Christian law firms have the same client base as any other firm, but may attract wider business from other Christians and churches.

He says: “We run as a business, and don't do work for nothing. We have to charge fees.”

He says that he never lectures clients on religion – the added value comes from “a greater degree of client care and compassion”.

Spoor admits that practical problems can arise – most obviously for family lawyers who fundamentally oppose divorce – and says commercial lawyers sometimes need to make tough choices. There is nothing wrong with making money, but Christian lawyers need to ensure that people are not exploited.

“It has been known for clients to question what we are doing. Ultimately, if the clients don't like it, they can vote with their feet.”

Andrew McCooey is a criminal defence lawyer and chair of the Medway LCF. His prime motivation is to rehabilitate his clients: “I may hate the sin, but I love the sinner,” says McCooey. Like Spoor he says his Christianity gives him a motivation other lawyers may lack. Over Christmas he invited a homeless client to spend time at his house.

He says his faith does not stop him acting in the best interest of his client. As an example, he cites a man accused of battering his wife. He would advise the man not to confess when interviewed and also to offer no comment, as the wife may retract her complaint. “It's my job to prevent him getting a conviction. His wife may forgive him, but the police never will.”