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Blackstone Legal Fellowship Underscores Priorities For Christian Attorney

by Derek Muller

Derek Muller is finishing up the beginning of a dream, wrapping up his first semester teaching civil procedure and complex civil litigation at Pepperdine University School of Law. A native of Detroit, he is a 2007 graduate of Notre Dame Law School who hit the ground running. Across the last four years, he has clerked for a federal judge, worked for a major Chicago law firm, and taught at Penn State. Now, he’s on the faculty of one of the pre-eminent law schools in America.

His accomplishments in all those arenas, he says, have been significantly influenced by his experiences as part of the 2005 Blackstone Legal Fellowship, an intensive summer-long leadership training program of the Alliance Defense Fund designed to prepare Christian law students for the particular challenges of living out their faith in the legal profession.

Going into law school, my affection for the subject was a whole lot clearer than my sense of direction – I was fascinated with the law, but wasn’t sure how to focus that. As far back as I can remember, I have been intrigued by the fact that we have things written down that govern how society works. That you can sit down and read a law, write a law, get up and talk about it, argue about it. So I did some mock trial in high school, took some law classes in college, and even worked at a local courthouse. Career-wise, the law seemed like a natural fit.

"Is showing mercy shirking justice,or am I there, as a Christian, to temper justice with that mercy?"

So did Notre Dame Law School, where the emphasis was on natural law, and most professors presented a fairly objective view of what the law can and should do in society. In other words, I didn’t have to deal with some of the aggressive political agendas pushed on other campuses.

Once enrolled, I became active in the school’s Christian Legal Society, whose then-president was a graduate of the Blackstone program. He spoke highly of his experiences there, and convinced me I might benefit from a summer of Arizona heat and ADF tutelage. He was right. I did.

For me, Blackstone was an opportunity to see what practicing law might be like for a Christian. I was met with an impressive array of attorneys, educators, theologians, and ministry leaders who made very real both the challenges facing any believer moving into the field of law and the potential for believers to meet those challenges – and make a lasting impact on society.

Beyond the lectures, though, I was grateful for the experience I gleaned working for six weeks that summer with the Center for Arizona Policy, a group that lobbies legislators and cultivates grassroots support for laws that support life, marriage, family, and religious liberty. I saw how policies are formed and laws are written, and what it takes to enforce those laws in society.

Jeff Ventrella, who leads the Blackstone program, talked about the critical importance of understanding, as a Christian, what’s appropriate to say and not say in any given legal situation. You always speak the truth in love, he said, but sometimes you speak it loudly, sometimes softly, and always in a way that will make the most beneficial impact on the people you are with at that moment.

That call to self-control was something frequently addressed in one of my favorite parts of the Blackstone experience – the daily devotionals, tailored specifically to our concerns as law students and future attorneys. Many emphasized the dangers of being caught up in worldliness or discouraged by a hostile culture, and stressed how important it is for Christians to be teachable and able to receive thoughtful correction from others.

Perhaps the most enduring impact of the program, though, as designed by ADF, is that it enabled me as a Blackstone Fellow to become a part of a global network of fellow Christian attorneys. The legal world is pretty small – and when you narrow it down to young lawyers who are Christians, it gets a lot smaller. Just being in that close-knit community, I regularly cross paths with other Blackstone graduates with whom I’m able to trade e-mails, bounce ideas, and even think through legal questions and challenges.

Often, those discussions center on a Christian’s obligations to the law. Working in a federal appellate court, I frequently found myself weighing the old, old questions any thoughtful lawyer struggles with. If a man’s crime calls for long years in prison, for instance, do I push for the maximum, knowing this man has a family who will live so much of their lives without him? Is showing mercy shirking justice, or am I there, as a Christian, to temper justice with that mercy?

"You always speak the truth in love ...and always in a way that will make the most beneficial impact."

Even for a Christian lawyer, though, not all of the challenges come from confronting dark questions in a courtroom. It’s a steep learning curve, coming out of law school. No amount of preparation can get you ready for the real world and real practice, so it’s especially crucial that you keep your priorities straight and maintain a sense of balance. Blackstone emphasized both: you always keep God first, and don’t put work before your family.

Both of those are tested at a major firm, where you’re expected to be on call for the client, or the partners, nearly all the time. That sometimes means working on Sunday morning, or sacrificing too many dinners with the family. You have to find ways to show you can be a "team player," while holding firm on your commitments to your wife, children, and church. It’s a difficult line to navigate – for not everyone shares those priorities. But memories of those Blackstone themes encouraged me in taking appropriate stands, and in time, my co-workers came to respect them.

Now, I’m moving into a position where I can impress those same lessons on a whole new group of young people – and I’m realizing that this is what I wanted when I decided to pursue the law.

I hope to make a meaningful impact in the lives of my students, provide some guidance, and produce some scholarship that will further the great, ongoing discussions of what the law is, and what it should be, and how we ought to think about it.

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