Doing the Lord’s Work?

January 1, 2015 | By Shane Phelps Law
Doing the Lord’s Work?

I have heard it said many times by prosecutors that they do “the Lord’s work.”

Since going out on my own to start a private practice five years ago (as of January 1), I have been accused of going over to the “Dark Side,” and “drinking the Kool-Aid.” I have heard this many times.

As Christmas approaches and we celebrate the birth of Jesus, I embrace my decision to become a criminal defense attorney and regret nothing. In fact, I am more fulfilled as an attorney and as a person as I have ever been in my almost 30-year legal career.

When I made the decision to leave my long career as a prosecutor and begin my new life as a criminal defense attorney, I found myself having to explain myself to a lot of people. I was a good prosecutor and many of my friends, including police officers and fellow prosecutors, simply could not handle the concept of me defending accused criminals. I met with one of my friends, a local police officer, at a local restaurant, to tell him face-to-face that I was leaving the District Attorney’s Office to go in to private practice. I had spent many hours with this officer on several difficult and high profile cases and we became good friends. I remember the look on his face when I told him. Disappointment. Shock. Sadness.

This particular officer was a Christian and his faith was very important to him, as it is to me. I asked him whether he believed that, if Jesus returned today, would he be a prosecutor or a defense attorney?

He had trouble with the question, but ultimately agreed that Jesus would almost certainly be a criminal defense attorney.

Jesus was the ultimate advocate for the poor, downtrodden, oppressed, weak, and sinful. Jesus recognized that everyone – everyone – is salvageable. A very good example of this comes from John (John 8:1-11):

1Jesus went unto the mount of Olives. 2And early in the morning he came again into the temple, and all the people came unto him; and he sat down, and taught them. 3And the scribes and Pharisees brought unto him a woman taken in adultery; and when they had set her in the midst, 4They say unto him, Master, this woman was taken in adultery, in the very act. 5Now Moses in the law commanded us, that such should be stoned: but what sayest thou? 6This they said, tempting him, that they might have to accuse him. But Jesus stooped down, and with his finger wrote on the ground, as though he heard them not. 7So when they continued asking him, he lifted up himself, and said unto them, He that is without sin among you, let him first cast a stone at her. 8And again he stooped down, and wrote on the ground. 9And they which heard it, being convicted by their own conscience, went out one by one, beginning at the eldest, even unto the last: and Jesus was left alone, and the woman standing in the midst. 10When Jesus had lifted up himself, and saw none but the woman, he said unto her, Woman, where are those thine accusers? hath no man condemned thee? 11She said, No man, Lord. And Jesus said unto her, Neither do I condemn thee: go, and sin no more.

Jesus stood up publicly for one who was accused of committing a capital crime. He advocated for mercy and perspective. This was Jesus’s justice.

No less than Pope Francis recently recognized the similarities between what criminal defense attorneys do and what Christ preached.

"The apostle John, thinking about these things and speaking of us, who are great sinners, says, “Do not sin, but if any of you do sin, know that we have an advocate before the Father, one who prays for us, defends us in front [of the] Father, justifies us. I believe we should really think about this reality: Jesus is praying for me right now. I can go on in life because I have an advocate who defends me and if I am guilty and I have so many sins…he is a good defense attorney and will speak of me to the Father."

I make no apologies for what I do. I stand up in court and advocate for the good in my clients. I advocate for mercy. To the best of my ability, I keep the government honest. I try to point out to prosecutors, judges, and jurors the whole picture and encourage them to see my clients as human beings; sinners maybe, but human beings. Mine is, at the end of the day, an optimistic profession. I certainly do not liken myself to Jesus, but I strive to follow his teachings in my practice.

So, what I do is hardly “the Dark Side.” What I do as a criminal defense attorney truly is “the Lord’s work.”

As we observe and celebrate the birth of Jesus Christ, let us all strive to see the best in every person and step up for the less fortunate as Jesus did.

Merry Christmas to one and all.