The Law and the Word

Nov. 3-9, 2005
VOL 124 NO. 38
The Law and the Word
By Luke Eggleston/ SUN staff writer
SUN photo(s) Paul Finch
How Do Attorneys Balance Their Profession and Their Faith? Thomas More, a sir and a saint and the patron of all lawyers, once said of himself, “I am the King’s good servant, but God’s first.” Stereotyping attorneys is easy. Everyone has seen the ambulance chaser commercials. But many Catholic lawyers, by contrast, find that their faith informs their practice. In some cases, they view their legal endeavors as a kind of ministry.

Father Charles Vavonese has worked with attorney James Evans for six years and considers him a close friend. Father Vavonese is the assistant superintendent of Catholic schools, and educational issues are a major part of Evans’ practice. “He has a profound respect for the work of Catholic schools and does his work as though it were a ministry…with a really profound, deep spirituality,” the priest said.

According to Father Vavonese, Evans spends numerous hours immersed in pro bono work and also makes his legal services available to the Assisi Center’s referral program on the north side of Syracuse. In addition, Evans and his wife have adopted three children of multiethnic origin.

Father Vavonese detailed that, “It’s not only what we do when we take action, but it’s how we do it.” It’s not uncommon to see Evans and his family use a holiday to volunteer at Unity Kitchens. “He’s one of those people who walks the talk about being generous and the understanding that there’s something more to life,” Father Vavonese said. “There’s a unique sensitivity that he brings to issues involving the Catholic schools, and he does deal with some issues involving other parts of the diocese. That’s unique and, as a result, the way he deals with them professionally he’s able to use that to extend the culture, whereas somebody else might go in and just approach on the level of the legality….His willingness to be so generous with his time doesn’t come out of his profession; it comes out of his heart.”

Evans said that, far from inhibiting his legal practice, his faith directs it. “I think my faith guides how I go about my job, and part of that, I think, is trying to see Christ in everyone and then ensuring that you’re not shady,” the Syracuse attorney said. Utica attorney Betsy Snyder said that she was drawn to her profession through her faith. “Faith is not just something that you do on Sunday. It’s important to your profession,” she said. “Faith plays a major role in my career and faith led me to my profession.” After serving in the Marine Corps (including the Gulf War) as an armor officer, Evans went into law with similar motivations.

“I went into it in order to positively affect people’s lives. To do something good for people is a nice feeling. This job has given me an opportunity,” he said. A graduate of Utica College who obtained her law degree from the University of Buffalo, Snyder is a government attorney who works primarily with the mentally ill but also with the developmentally disabled. With her colleague and brother-in-law, Patrick Radel, Snyder has been trying to establish the St. Thomas More Guild locally. Currently, the two are developing the organization primarily in Utica, but Snyder said she would be happy to see the group expand out of the Mohawk Valley as well.

Radel was active in the St. Thomas More Guild in his native city of Buffalo. As a law student at the University of Buffalo, Radel was the student director of the St. Thomas More Guild. In Buffalo, the group developed the annual Red Mass (a Mass held for attorneys, judges and politicians), organized an annual luncheon commemorating the martyrdom of St. Thomas More and did pro bono referral work. In addition, the guild promotes the example of St. Thomas More. “St. Thomas More was vigilant in defense of his client, but also an honest and compassionate man. I pray to him daily,” Radel said.

Radel works at the Getnick, Livingston, Atkinson, Gigliotti and Priore, LLP firm in Utica and primarily works in bankruptcy law representing creditors. His work puts him in direct contact with defendants who may not have the means to pay back their creditors. In each case, Radel seeks to apply his faith to his practice. While we have an obligation to act on behalf of the client, we try to work with the debtor to the extent that that’s possible, Radel said.

“I try to be honest and advocate for my client but always be aware that the opponent is also a child of God,” Radel added. Like Evans and Snyder, Radel has never encountered a situation in which his religious convictions have come into conflict with a client’s prerogatives, but he can envision such a conflict arising. According to Evans, most lawyers don’t evidence their profession’s alleged reputation. “Virtually all of the lawyers I know are pretty good people,” he said. “But my faith informs how I practice law. I’ve never had that experience and if I did I wouldn’t do that. If I felt I had to separate my faith from the practice of law, then I’d get out of the practice of law. I don’t know how you do that.” Kathryn Grant Madigan, an attorney based in Binghamton, works in trusts and estates law as well as elderly law. In her work, Madigan deals with end-of-life issues and finds numerous openings for expressing her faith in her work as she deals with the elderly one-on-one.

“I find opportunities to encourage people to look within and look at their own spirituality,” she said. “I encourage people to look at aging as an opportunity to get back in touch with their own spirituality.” In some cases, clients have stressed that they may not want any kind of a religious ritual, such as a funeral to follow their passing away. In such instances, Madigan is able to explain to the client why such a rite is important to his or her family. Her proximity to the elderly and end-of-life issues has, in turn, directed her to look at her own faith. “Because I deal with it on a daily basis, it’s forced me to confront that,” Madigan said.

Father Vavonese’s family includes two brothers, Frank J. and Mike Vavonese, who are lawyers as well as several cousins and a nephew, Frank R. Vavonese. He estimates that he knows as many as 50 Catholic lawyers and in no cases does he find attorneys whose practice is in conflict with their faith. In fact, in some cases, the priest envisions a legal practice that can be used to grow one’s faith. “Not long ago, I read an article describing defense law as a kind of ministry; being able to say to someone, ‘I want to make sure that you at least get your day in court,’” the priest relayed. “I’m not perfect, I fall down a lot, but you should do it in everything you do in terms of how you treat people, in terms of how you treat the client, how you treat the people you’re coming into contact with, how you bill your client….It should inform every aspect of what you do,” Evans said.

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