Do we need Adventist lawyers?

Twenty ago, as my generation was considering its career choices, becoming an Adventist lawyer was seldom an option in many countries. Church members would take aside those who wanted to study law and counsel them to choose another career. Misperception of the role of a lawyer led to misdirected advice, often resulting in frustration among young people. They wanted to serve their fellow believers and the community at large through the legal profession, but their church preferred that they enter the ministry or become teachers or physicians.

I recall an incident just after I had graduated from law school. I was participating in a church program on religious liberty when a member asked me pointedly, “How can you be an Adventist and a lawyer at the same time?” I have even heard some people say that Ellen White had warned against such a career choice.

The fact is that Ellen White gave a quite different—but still challenging—counsel on this subject: “It requires more grace, more stern discipline of character, to work for God in the capacity of a lawyer,…carrying the precepts of Christianity into the ordinary business of life, than to labor as an acknowledged missionary in the open field. It requires a strong spiritual nerve to bring religion into the.…business office [shall we say, courtroom?], sanctifying the details of everyday life, and ordering every transaction to the standard of God’s Word. But this is what the Lord requires.”1

The false dichotomy of practicing attorney versus practicing Christian still persists. Many see these two activities as mutually inconsistent. An attorney’s daily routine brings constant challenges to one’s Christianity and religious conviction. There are times when we have to reconcile the skills of our profession with the moral demands of our faith. How do attorneys, knowing the guilt of their clients, continue to pursue a line of defense that might result in their acquittal? How do attorneys, in the pursuit of “truth,” weigh and present evidence that may be counter to the interests of their clients? How do attorneys deal with clients who, under oath, will falsify testimony for their own advantage? These tensions between the law and one’s highest aims are constantly resolved by the committed Christian lawyer. Abraham Lincoln once noted that “a person who wants to practice law should resolve to be honest at all events; and if in your own judgment you cannot be an honest lawyer, resolve to be honest without being a lawyer.”

The law profession has been around since the beginning of time, enjoying its own kind of humor. A doctor, an engineer, and a lawyer were arguing over whose was the oldest profession. The doctor asserted that, of course, a physician removed Adam’s rib to create Eve. The engineer countered, “Of course, an engineer must have designed the Garden of Eden.” “I have you both beaten,” the lawyer gloated. “Before Adam and Eve, before the Garden of Eden, before creation, there was a state of chaos, and who do you think created the chaos?”

The French Emperor Napoleon once said that “the practice of the law is too severe an ordeal for poor human nature. The man who habituates himself to the distortion of the truth, and to exultation at the success of injustice will, at last, hardly know right from wrong.” Was it not William Shakespeare in Henry VI who said “Let’s kill all the lawyers!” Is there any doubt why those of us who entered the practice of law faced the hurdles we did or why countless others were successfully counseled not to enter the profession for fear of “losing their faith and their souls”?

A sense of justice

Despite such obstacles, Adventist legal pioneers led the way, placing beacons for those of us that followed. They braved the criticism and followed their dream. These pioneers were motivated not by the church member’s or the world’s view of lawyers but by a sense of justice and missionary zeal, to become advocates on behalf of those whose rights had been trampled and to witness in ways no others could. Their actions increased awareness that Adventist lawyers were contending for the faith in arenas that only they had access to.

At the time I entered law school in Canada, there were three Adventist attorneys in the whole country. In a few years, that number has increased to over 30. The same can be seen all over the world. Not only are the ranks of Adventist lawyers increasing, but more and more of us are finding that serving the church in an official capacity can be just as fulfilling as private practice. The Office of General Counsel (OGC) at the General Conference of Seventh-day Adventists maintains a list of Adventist attorneys around the world. At last count that number exceeded 1,000 in 68 countries. The OGC also publishes a bi-annual magazine called JD which, in addition to articles about lawyers, also carries a full roster of Adventist attorneys.2

Today, many who have followed their dreams have become respected practitioners, been appointed to judicial positions, serve in legislatures, teach in law schools, defend the oppressed, shape law so that others might benefit, uphold religious freedom, and serve the church in capacities too numerous to mention.

I think of distinguished colleagues such Daniel Nsereko, dean of law at the University of Botswana; the late Jerry Wiley, vice-dean at the famed University of Southern California law school; Daniel Basterra, professor of constitutional law at the Universidad Complutense in Madrid, judge of Spain’s Court of Appeals and Public Affairs and Religious Liberty director for the Spanish Union of Churches.

I think of Mary Atieno Ang’awa, judge of the High Court of Kenya; Justices Sevua and Salika who serve on the National Court of Papua New Guinea; Judge Terry Finney, retired, of California; John Bagnall of the Australian Compensation Court; and Peter Jackson, a circuit judge in Britain. All of these individuals have been the first Seventh-day Adventists in their respective countries to assume positions in the judiciary.

Judge Jackson perhaps sums it up best for these pioneering judges when he chose as the motto on his official coat of arms Laudate Deum, Latin for “Praise God.” Judge Jackson explains that he chose that motto because “God has and is in charge of my life.” The coat of arms also includes a cross at its apex, which is where Justice Jackson states, “I want Christ to be in my life.” Each of these pioneering individuals has shown by example to those of us who follow that they are contending for the faith in arenas to which only they had access.

I also think of Lee Boothby, vigilant defender of church-state constitutional issues in the United States and beyond; Gerald Chipeur, constitutional expert in Canada on freedom of religion; and Mitchell Tyner, the helper of the faithful as legal counsel on numerous religious discrimination cases in North America. There are others who have used their legal training to better the life of church members, to protect the interests of the church, and to provide counsel to church entities, so that they might insulate themselves from legal difficulties.

The listing above is not exhaustive but only representative of the many highly qualified and competent legal counsel who are devoted Seventh-day Adventists. Each lawyer in his or her own way has shaped, assisted, and counseled the church. Many give of their time and expertise to help their fellow church members, assist in church services, hold evangelistic crusades, and advise on religious liberty issues as only they are capable of doing.

The impact of a choice

Little did I know when I was questioned about my career decision the impact my occupational choice would have not only for me but also for others. Shortly after commencing my practice, I was approached by Adventist Church officials, who asked me to help a renowned barrister take on the case of a church member who had lost her job as a result of her religious convictions and decision not to work on the Sabbath. In order to prepare his case, this lawyer had to understand the Sabbath and its meaning for Adventists—that priestly absolution does not work in matters of conscience for Seventh-day Adventists. By the time preparation was completed, he knew all about the Adventist Church and its beliefs. This preparation helped him to present his legal argument before the Supreme Court of Canada which, in a landmark decision, ruled in favor of an individual’s religious freedom and right to refuse to work on their day of rest, and an employer’s corresponding responsibility to accommodate.

Seven years later, it was my turn to appear before the same high court on behalf of the church. It was another Sabbath accommodation case, one that would have further strengthened individual rights and protections. Along with two other young Adventist attorneys, I appeared before the Supreme Court of Canada representing a church member. Our task was to have the court clarify the obligations of a labor union to accommodate and not block the employer’s attempts to accommodate the religious convictions of an Adventist employee. To reach the highest court in the land was an accomplishment in itself; to advocate for principle and a judicial ruling that would impact countless others appeared to be an intimidating task—especially for three young lawyers. But God was on our side. He has promised that if we do our part, He will intervene and do His part. That intervention came when the members of the Court walked onto the bench. The panel of judges hearing the appeals included the person who seven years earlier had argued the accommodation case on behalf of our church member. When the decision was rendered some months later, it was a unanimous decision granting every protection of the law that we had requested. In fact, the decision was authored by the very judge who years earlier had posited the very same arguments on behalf of the Adventist member.

We do not know why God allows certain events to occur, but each of us has been placed in our various positions for a special purpose. Our lives should be open to the leading of the Holy Spirit so that God’s will may be done in our lives and we may be used as His instruments regardless of our calling or profession. If we are open to God’s call, He will work through us in mighty ways and draw persons who need Him right to us. The legal profession provides such a unique opportunity to do so.

Are you considering law as a career? If your commitment to God and His truth are firm, the answer should be a resounding Yes! Not only to defend fellow human beings from mistreatment, exploitation, and abuse, but also to share the gospel of Jesus in such unique ways that can only be available to one in this field of endeavor.

Karnik Doukmetzian, (B.A. Hons., LL.B., University of Windsor) serves as Claims Counsel at the central office of Adventist Risk Management Inc. Prior to taking up his current position, he served as General Counsel and Public Affairs and Religious Liberty director for the Seventh-day Adventist Church in Canada. His address is 12501 Old Columbia Pike; Silver Spring, Maryland 20904; U.S.A. E-mail:

Notes and references

  1. Ellen G White, Messages to Young People (Nashville, Tennessee: Southern Publ. Assn., 1930), pp. 215, 216.
  2. JD is published in English in even numbered years by the General Conference of Seventh-day Adventists and is available free of charge to attorneys and law students. Those interested in being listed or obtaining a copy, can write to Robert W. Nixon, Esq.; General Counsel; General Conference of Seventh-day Adventists; 12501 Old Columbia Pike, Silver Spring, Maryland 20904; U.S.A. or use e-mail at