On being a Christian and a solicitor

How does being a Christian affect me in my job as a solicitor? The answer, I suppose, was never going to be easy or straightforward. To come up with any useful answer, the question also assumed I was a good Christian, a very big assumption in itself. Mind you, I definitely draw the line at Jesus’ description of the lawyers of his own day: handsome on the outside like whitewashed tombs but inside full of dead men’s bones and all kinds of filth (Matthew, Chap.23, verse 25)

Reflecting further on the question, I came to the conclusion that the answer was basically, not a lot. (Ed.: David, this had better improve. I wasn’t looking for a declaration of personal apostasy.) Some explanation is required.


The reasons, I believe, go back some five years to my training as a mediator. The “bible” of the German law professor instructing us at the time was “Getting to Yes”. The authors are two Harvard Law School professors by name of Fisher and Ury. The message of the book is to turn adversarial haggling into constructive joint problem-solving and handling conflict through successful negotiation. I recommend it whole-heartedly.

Much of my job as a solicitor involves negotiation and dispute resolution. The traditional battleground has always been the courthouse. My training as a mediator involved a completely new approach. Most importantly, the skills of successful negotiation were based on principles of honesty and integrity.

These principles were themselves not based on the teachings of Jesus, although they were not incompatible with such teachings. The German law professor instructing me was not, to my disappointment, propounding any Christian doctrine. The principles, I came to realise, were self-validating.

To take an example. We are commanded not to bear false witness. Thou shalt not tell porkie pies. The practical lesson to be learnt from our training was that telling lies in negotiations was a high-risk strategy and should be discarded. What exactly were the reasons for this?

Quite a number, in fact. One of the biggest dangers in lying is that you do actually succeed in persuading your opponent to believe in a state of affairs which is false. This impedes an exploration of interests with a view to mutual gain and precludes reaching a satisfactory agreement. Secondly, to be a successful liar, you have to have a very good memory. Forget a crucial detail of the web you have spun and you immediately lose credibility with your opponent as you are self-evidently not telling the truth. The cost to both parties is again failure to reach a mutually beneficial agreement.

The Prisoners' Dilemma

But there were many other lessons to be learnt. These lessons were certainly counter-intuitive given my formal legal training and where no immediate reference point in the Gospels comes to mind. Space allows me to mention only one. It is the theory that with your opponent it is usually better to pursue a policy of co-operation rather than hostility.

In fact, St Matthew does attribute this theory to Jesus: “Always treat others as you would like them to treat you.” (Chap. 7, verse 12). This seemed to me an impossible and unrealistic demand, particularly in my work recovering assets on behalf of the victims of fraud. (The theory was not unique to Jesus and can be traced back as far as Confucius, 551-479 B.C.)

The scientific proof of the theory had to wait 2000 years. As a result of work done by the celebrated American mathematics and game theorists, John von Neumann and John Nash, it can actually be proved that a co-operative strategy statistically produces better overall results than a strategy based on the pursuit of exclusively individual interests. Here I have to refer you to another publication called “The Prisoners' Dilemma” by William Poundstone (Random House, 1992, ISBN 0-385-41580-X) where you can consider the arguments and theories for yourself. I will, however, cite for you the famous paradigm contained in the prisoner’s dilemma itself and which illustrates the point I am making:-

Two members of a criminal gang are arrested and imprisoned. Each prisoner is in solitary confinement with no means of speaking to or exchanging messages with the other. The police admit they don’t have enough evidence to convict the pair on the principal charge. They plan to sentence both to a year in prison on a lesser charge. Simultaneously, the police offer a Faustian bargain. If he testifies against his partner, he will go free while the partner will get three years in prison on the main charge. Oh, yes, there is a catch … If both prisoners testify against each other, both will be sentenced to two years in jail.

The prisoners are given a little time to think this over, but in no case may either learn what the other has decided until he has irrevocably made his decision. Each is informed that the other prisoner is being offered the very same deal. Each prisoner is concerned only with his own welfare – with minimizing his own prison sentence.

B refuses deal B turns Queen’s evidence
A refuses deal 1 year, 1 year 3 years, 0 years
A turns Queen’s evidence 0 years, 3 years 2 years, 2 years

The prisoners can reason as follows: “Suppose I testify and the other prisoner doesn’t. Then I get off scot-free (rather than spending a year in jail). Suppose I testify and the other prisoner does too. Then I get two years (rather than three). Either way I’m better off turning Queen’s evidence. Testifying takes a year off my sentence, no matter what the other guy does.”

The trouble is the other prisoner can and will come to the very same conclusion. If both parties are rational, both will testify and both will get two years in jail. If only they had both refused to testify, they would have got just a year each!

If, like me, you have difficulty in getting your head round the “Flood-Dresher” experiment, Nash’s equilibrium point and other refinements of game theory AND you have access to the internet can I suggest you visit the web site http://serendip.brynmawr.edu/bb/pd.html and play the game against the fiendish monster. It makes the point perfectly.

Do these views make me a suitable case for excommunication? I hope not. If so, I am in good company. I really have to thank Andrew Deuchar for pointing me in the direction of Richard Holloway, the former bishop of Edinburgh and his excellent book “Godless Morality”. The Bishop here asks some difficult questions. Even if a religious connection to a good ethic is established, is it always necessary to accept the religion in order to have the ethic? Can the ethic not stand on its own as something that is likely to commend itself to people who want to try to live well and believe in the importance of morality for healthy human communities? I leave it to you to answer.

Quo vadis, Griffiths?

I’m honestly not sure. At least I can try and focus on where I’m not going. Conflicts are rarely resolved satisfactorily where both sides are in the defeat / victory mindset. In practice, it can be difficult to avoid the power game, particularly where my client is right (he always is, of course) and has the financial means to bring court proceedings. Experience shows, however, that abuse of power has a terrible price. You threaten or try to coerce your opponent into submission. Usually he parries and fights back, resisting your attempts to disarm him. He clings increasingly to his position. He resists reaching agreement with you because agreement under these circumstances would now mean accepting defeat. The harder you make it for your opponent to say no, the harder you make it for him to say yes. It is the classic case of the power paradox.

But something tells me I’ve been here before. Did not St Paul write “power comes to its full strength in weakness” (2 Corinthians, 12:9) and was he not perfectly encapsulating in these words the whole problem of the power paradox?

At the end of the day, what matters more is less the view from my own control tower than the challenges He has devised for me. Will it be better and more effective to try and (1) engage the humanity in my opponent or (2) focus on all the ways in which I consider him to be inferior to me? Common sense alone says (1) but does this not entail painfully high doses of humility? Undoubtedly it does, but those of a gentle spirit get no less than the earth for their possession and the peacemakers receive the ultimate accolade of being called God’s sons (Matthew, Chap.5, vv 5,9). It’s the deal of a life time.

David Griffiths

St Peter's Church, Nottingham
Last revised 7th November 2004