Lawyers, Lawsuits, and Christians: Thoughts from Experience

In this post, I’ll tackle several attitudes about the legal community that exist in American business today and within many Christian business owners. These attitudes can be sumed up in the joke as follows: “What do you call 500 lawyers at the bottom of a river? A good start!”.

To be sure, there are many in the legal profession who twist and parse the law – made famous by one President: “…it depends on what the meaning of the word ‘is’ is.” Sometimes, the words of a law are so pressed that we get to the point where the intent and meaning of the law is damned in favor of getting their client’s objectives accomplished. Moreover, there are some who view our current set of laws as the final arbitor of what is right and wrong, denying that there is a law above our laws.

Yet there are also many good lawyers in America: people who respect the law and try to help their clients navigate the (sometimes) difficult terrain of liability as they try to us non-legal people run our businesses. These lawyers can be found and when you find one – don’t let go. They are a rare and dying breed, IMHO. And they will save you a *ton* of money.

Attitudes Matter

Let’s discuss several attitudes in light of the Scriptures. These attitudes are represented by the bold headings in this section.

The “handshake guy” in a contract world: Lawyers will just suck you dry and give you little value in return.

The essence of this attitude is this: “We don’t need contracts: We trust each other and know that we’ll do the right thing.”

I’ve met more Christians who think like this that I’d care to admit and I just shudder to think what will happen to them *when* they are sued because the “right thing” in their mind was something vastly different than what was in the other party’s mind. This is a terrible way to conduct business and it represents a lack of willingness to take seriously our call to be good stewards of God’s entrustments to us in our culture. Our culture is a one that litigates. Operating a business without good contracts and legal protection is poor stewardship.

Even between Christians, over time, attitudes and viewpoints can change. Relationships can deteriorate. Operating without contracts that stipulate what will happen in all of the unforeseen and/or negative events is a great way to give Satan a foothold into our lives to disrupt, divide and destroy.

All lawyers are slime

I’ve worked with people who think all lawyers are slime. They just want to suck you dry for money. They thrive on conflict – that’s how they make their money, so they do what they can to keep the conflicts going.

This simply isn’t true. Every profession has its’ bad apples and good apples. No profession (perhaps except for the vices professions, like strip clubs) should be painted with a broad, negative brush. I fully and completely reject this notion that all lawyers are slime (or any other negative connotation) who are just waiting to carve you up for their own gain.

A Good Lawyer will Save You Money in the Long Run and Limit Your Exposure to Liability too.

I recall talking with a life-long friend who runs a mortuary on the West Coast recently. My friend had just emerged from a lengthy battle with some activist groups whose complete false and unfounded claims against his business repeatedly made the local news. I remember him commenting on how much money he had put into his lawyers. I responded by saying that a good lawyer will save you money in the long run. He agreed, though he admitted that before his experience, he had the exact opposite view of the legal profession.

This has been my experience – perhaps because I’ve worked with a law firm that is both ethical and grounded in their faith in Christ. They have given me invaluable advice which has saved me tens of thousands of dollars. Moreover, they have positioned my business, from a contract standpoint, to be much more solid and ready for litigation should that litigation ever come.

This has been especially true in the area of employment law. We now have tight contracts with each of our employees. Those contracts are enforcable in court and contain the following four clauses: IP Assignment, Non-Solicitation, Non-Use and Confidentiality. Notice we don’t have a non-compete since those are much more difficult to enforce and they often put off the prospective employee. We’ve chosen to focus on strengthening our relationship with our employees instead of trying to enforce a difficult non-compete. We have been at the receiving end of several litigation efforts and I’m so glad that we had followed our lawyer’s advice to get contracts and written agreements in place in the last 5 years. As a result, we were well prepared for those efforts and while neither went to court, we feel that we came out in pretty good shape in both instances. Had we conducted our business with a handshake mentality, it would have likely cost us over $100K and probably resulted in us having to close our doors.

Legal Action Between Christians 

How should we view the resolution of our conflicts in a court of law when both parties are Christians or at least claim to be Christians? What does the Bible have to say about a Christian being involved in a lawsuit with a believer or an unbeliever? These can be thorny issues and individual circumstances are often filled with intense, personal emotions about fairness and justice.

Since the earliest days of this earth, court has been an official place where parties involved in a conflict could confront each other: “He is not a man like me that I might answer him, that we might confront each other in court.” (Job 9.32) Job is probably the oldest book in the Bible and yet even in his early culture, the concept of a legal court that would render decisions between opposing parties was common place.

Biblical Commands

There are some commands about going to court that we must follow. First, we are not to crush the needy in court (Proverbs 22.22). In addition, we are not to go to court hastily (Proverbs 25.8) and we must realize that if we go to court with a fool, that there will be no peace while the fool scoffs and rages in court (Proverbs 29.9). We are to settle matters quickly with our adversary before we go to court (Matthew 5.25) and should choose to be wronged and/or cheated by a fellow believer instead of going to court with them (1 Corinthians 6.7). To go to court means that we “have been defeated already”. In fact, a few verses earlier, Paul writes this: “If any of you has a dispute with another, dare he take it before the ungodly for judgment instead of before the saints?” (1 Corinthians 6.1) Expanding on 1 Corinthians 6.1-8, we learn:

  1. Within the church, we are competent to judge matters of dispute between believers. No outside court is necessary.
  2. Using a public court to resolve our differences is a sign that we have been defeated by the Enemy
  3. We should choose to be wronged or cheated instead of choosing to go to court with a brother in the Lord. We would make this choice because we know that
    1. going to court means we’ve not done everything we can to ensure unity and peace within the body of Christ, and
    2. God is able to right any wrong either on this earth or in heaven.

If a brother sues you, there are limited actions that you can take to defend yourself. I would suggest that you contact your elder team along with the brother’s elder team and ask that they form a panel who will judge between you and your brother. Yes, my advice is both unusual and counter-cultural. Both should submit to this temporary board and their decisions. This would be the most Biblical way to handle this.

What if your brother insists on going to court or is uncooperative? Then you should do whatever it takes to settle the matter swiftly with your brother, even if this means being wronged or cheated. God is fully able to supply what you need for this and will use this for good in your life.

What if your brother firmly refuses to follow Biblical commands and enters into a lawsuit against you? In most cases, because of the way our legal system works, you’ll be pitted against your brother as if he were an enemy. You’ll end up having to go to court to get your conflict resolved. You can only control your actions and attitudes, which is why Paul writes in Romans 12.16, “If it is possible, as far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone”. You can’t force peace on others who do not wish it and there is the chance that they will become your enemy. And in fact, in the legal sense, he is. So the commands to love our enemies and to be good to them apply, even if you’re being wrongly accused and wrongly taken into court:

  • Matthew 6.44: Love your enemy and pray for those who persecute you
  • Romans 12.17-19: Do not repay anyone evil for evil…do not take revenge, my friends, but leave room for God’s wrath (see also Proverbs 20.22)
  • 1 Samuel 26.9-11 is an example of how David refused to lay his hand on the “Lord’s anointed”, saying that “As surely as the Lord lives…the Lord himself will strike him; either his time will come and he will die or he will go into battle and perish”. David believed that God would handle his enemy at God’s apointed time and in his sovereign way. We should do the same with our enemies.

In some cases, your emotions will get wrapped up in the events and you’ll need to (and probably will want to) talk about it. Find 1-3 people who can act as your confidence (assuming your lawyer agrees – most won’t incidentally) and unload your thoughts and emotions on them. Guard against hating your brother and gossiping about him to others. Keep your speech pure and edifying. In many cases, this will be extremely hard to do.

Legal Action Brought Against Your Corporation by a Believer

What are your Biblical responsibilities when another believer in the Lord brings a legal action against the corporation that you own but doesn’t bring the action against you personally?

It seems to me that there are two basic schools of thought on this, both of which I’ve gleaned by talking with other Christians. At the outset, we have to note that the Bible has no concept of a corporation in the sense that it exists in American law today. This doesn’t mean that the Scriptures are incomplete – nothing could be further from the truth. Instead, what it means is that we must rely on the Holy Spirit to give us wisdom in how we apply the entire counsel of God to this part of the discussion.

First, there is a strong part of me that says this: If a believer (or group of believers) are 100% stock owners in the corporation, then there is really little difference between the action coming against the corporation and against the owners personally. Pragmatically, they are the same and theologically, that’s where I feel the most comfortable. Yet, we must recognize that as an owner of a corporation (as well as a steward of a business that God has given you), there are additional factors to consider, such as the protection of employees of the corporation (other than the owners), the setting of precedence in actions and decisions (especially if you’re planning on taking the corporation public) and the fact that the corporation *is* a different entity under the laws of our nation. So, this first school of thought would hold that all the commands of Scripture would apply to those owners of corporations when they are the majority or complete owners of a corporation.

Secondly, some think that the commands of Scripture apply only to individual believers and not to the corporations that they own. This can also be inferred from the Scriptures which do speak of personal litigation between Christians and not between corporations or between a corporation and an individual. But since the entire concept of a corporation didn’t exist when the Scriptures were written, it’s hard (IMHO) to make that argument forcefully and make it stick. Yet, I’ve talked with some who are strongly of the opinion that where Scripture is silent, we should not add commands to Scripture. The commands about avoiding litigation between individual believers simply don’t apply when a corporation is involved, they would posit.

Personally, I disagree with the second line of thinking for reasons cited above.

What if you have been wronged by another Christian?

I watched a very good friend of mine nearly lose his business because he had two Christians who basically screwed him. One was a Christian who ended up owing him some $70K for work my friend performed and the other party utilized without any complaints. But he never paid my friend even though he ended up having a very successful effort that landed him on the local news time with acclaim several times. Another Christian mis-handled his finances and hid this fact from him, landing him in debt to the tune of nearly $750K. He nearly lost his house, his cabin and most of his wordly possessions. I remember watching him cry his eyes out. My heart went out to him. He is smart – faithful to God and the best in his field. But two Christians stabbed him in the back. It cost him dearly and his family paid a difficult price as well.

In both cases, my friend didn’t sue. He did what he could to re-coup the $70K from this other Christian, but in the end, he had to let it go and leave justice in the hands of the Lord. This was a difficult decision, to be sure. On the second scenario, he fired the Controller and little recourse other than to work with the vendors to work out payment plans over time. All agreed to work with him and after a few years, they were all paid off.

I admire him greatly. His need for justice was strong. He deeply wanted to go after the Christian that owed him $70K. But he wanted to follow God more and thus refrained.

Someone recently landed on this site from the keyword search “how to sue your christian boss who has publically humiliated you and you want your reputation back”. Wow. I don’t know what happened or who this is, but suing your Christian boss won’t solve anything. You will build your reputation by simply letting God manage the vengeance and justice for you and walking away from it. You may think you’ll appear weak. I’d suggest you’re being strong by focusing on what God has for you, not for what you can extract from a fellow believer.

Legal Action Brought Against a Christian by an Unbeliever

My company has been involved in legal actions with both believers and unbelievers. One was an individual who professed faith in Christ, but sure didn’t live like it. In actions with unbelievers, I generally hold to several principles:

  1. What is the least cost way to get the matter settled so I can focus on running the business? This is one of the basic principles I use to assess my response. Why? Because in nearly every action I have been involved with, I’ve been (from my viewpoint) the innocent party. Yet proving that I did nothing wrong would have cost so much more than was necessary to settle the action. The harsh truth is that unscrupulous people can use the legal system to essentially extort money from employers. The laws and regulations are weighted toward employees. Of this, there is no doubt in my mind. People can make things up out of thin air and find a hungry lawyer to press their case. Since I know it will cost me larger amounts of dollars to fully defend myself vs. settling the matter, I have opted to settle and move on. I leave the injustice to God.
  2. Unbelievers don’t have the regenerating power of the Holy Spirit operating in their lives, so our legal system is all they know when it comes to methods of resolving disputes. I recognize and accept this. Again, I work with the system I’m in and do the best I can.
  3. Stay away from gossip about the other individuals in the case. It’s difficult to do this when emotions run high – but it is necessary.
  4. Stay focused on running the business and let the lawyers handle the details.
  5. Do not get emotionally involved. I do this by constantly asking God to check my heart and my mind to ensure I’m thinking and reacting to the situation in the manner that would please Him.

Bill English, CEO