Faith and Legal Work Interfaith Conference at Harvard Law School (2014)

A network of five faith-based student organizations at Harvard Law School co-hosted the first Interfaith Conference on Faith & Legal Work on March 3, 2014. The conference brought together local practitioners, scholars, and students in the field to discuss the intersection of religious identity and professional practice. Organizers estimated that 60-70 participants, including law school students, divinity school students, and other community members, joined panel sessions and a reception at Wasserstein Hall at the Law School. Three panels comprised the event and highlighted distinct aspects of religion in legal practice from the perspective of practitioners, scholars, and students.

Welcome and Legal Practitioner Panel

Harvard Law School Dean Martha Minow opened the conference with a welcoming address. She reflected on her personal interest in the theme of the conference and her 2001 essay, “On Being a Religious Professional: The Religious Turn in Professional Ethics.”[1]

This was followed by a Legal Practitioner panel moderated by Luther Zeigler, Harvard University’s Episcopal Chaplain who also holds a J.D. from Stanford Law School. A recurring theme throughout this panel were the challenges of navigating one’s personal faith within the context of practicing law. “Vocational discernment is a messy thing,” said Zeigler. “We’re all stuck in different contexts and different narratives.”[2]

Panelists included Daniel Packard (who identifies as Mormon), Mission President for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints Boston Mission and partner at Packard, Packard & Johnson; Sameer Ahmed (who identifies as Muslim), Senior Associate at WilmerHale; and Paul McNamara (who identifies as Catholic), President of the Catholic Lawyers Guild of Boston and partner at Looney & Grossman LLP.

When asked to discuss a religious encounter from their work experiences each panelist reflected on moments of challenge as well as positive engagement. At Ahmed’s first job, where he was one of the only practicing Muslims at the office, his coworkers learned about why he was fasting for the month of Ramadan. One day when they observed him eating during the day, one colleague remarked that he was being a “bad Muslim” only to learn that Ahmed was exempted from the fast because he had traveled earlier that day. This experience affirmed that his colleagues acknowledged the importance of his faith identity.

Packard noted that clients, jurors and others in the field of law appreciate authenticity when it comes to matters of faith. Like Ahmed, he has been asked about his practices, such as why he doesn’t drink alcohol. “That type of authenticity has never been a hindrance in any way,” he said. “In the process of trying to be who I am everywhere I go, in the courtroom, at the office, at home, in the church, all of the judges and colleagues that I worked with knew what my faith was and they held me to a higher standard.”

During the open dialogue portion of the panel, one audience member asked about how best to balance identifying one’s faith in the process of dealing with clients and in the midst of legal practice. “Underlying your question is that you love your client,” said Packard. Growing up and practicing in Texas, he explained, “It’s not uncommon to pray with your clients. In Beaumont, they grab your hand and say ‘Brother would you pray with me?’” At the same time, Packard emphasized the importance of clarifying one’s role as a legal professional and not a priest, while maintaining a love and respect for one’s clients.

Other panelists echoed Packard’s emphasis on the importance of this distinction. At the same time, McNamara noted that “If you have a strong religious commitment, you’re obligated to say what the source of that conviction is.” Early in his practice, he was asked to participate in the divorce case of a Catholic and stated to the managing partner that he did not want to get involved, due to his faith convictions. “And he said ‘Fine.’ There was no more question,” McNamara said. “And what that taught me was tolerance.” These encounters are especially important for legal practitioners whose faith convictions may influence the ways in which they serve their clients and the types of cases they choose to take.

Panelists and audience members alike emphasized the importance of expressing one’s values within legal practice. A community member in the audience acknowledged the tarnished reputation of legal professionals; many, she said, are just taken to be immoral. By not disclosing one’s religious identity to a client there is “a far greater danger that the client assumes you only want money.”

Faith & Professional Ethics Panel

The second panel of the day focused on the ethical dimensions of faith and legal practice from the perspective of scholars in the field. This conversation was moderated by Nancy Moore, Nancy Barton Scholar and Professor of Legal Ethics at Boston University School of Law. Panelists included Daniel Coquillette, Charles Warren Visiting Professor of American Legal History at Harvard Law School; Susan Koniak, Professor of Law at Boston University; Judith McMorrow, Professor at Boston College Law School; and Joseph Singer, Bussey Professor of Law at Harvard Law School.

In contrast to the first panel, these scholars emphasized the messiness and difficulties of balancing their religious obligations and identities when confronted with ethical dilemmas in the practice of law. Coquillette identifies as Quaker and shared his experiences of speaking from a professional and also theological voice, where appropriate, with his clients. “[For Quakers,] your religious and spiritual life cannot be divorced from your professional life,” he said. “Quakers are about putting faith into action and that’s what legal practice is about.”[3]

Koniak, who identifies as an Atheist, discussed the importance of holding true to one’s religious, or non-religious moral convictions, especially in the face of dishonesty. “I take my morality pretty seriously,” she said. “I don’t lie. I don’t put up with lying, and I got fired a lot.” She discussed her experience of confronting dishonesty on the United States House Select Committee on Assassinations in the investigation of the deaths of President John F. Kennedy and the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. “I lasted there a very short time.”

Koniak encouraged students in the audience to take a stand on one’s moral principles in the practice of law. She challenged the law school myth that “everything is gray and nothing is illegal” and encouraged students to counter the “law school religion” with a courage of conviction and an understanding that it comes at a cost.

McMorrow offered a contrasting perspective and shared experiences that were not “fraught with conflict.” She also spoke about her faith formation as a Catholic and student at Notre Dame Law School. Faith is a part of daily life, she said, and acknowledged that she begins each day by reciting the 23rd Psalm. “Often the conflicts [in legal work] are not over values, but how we see the facts,” said McMorrow. “The challenge is often to have a conversation about how we differ over the facts.” She encouraged students in the audience to think intently about what kinds of lawyers they want to be.

Singer discussed the need for lawyers to be confident in their faith commitments. “As young lawyers, you should have faith in yourself,” he said. “If you see something that you think is an ethical issue, you are likely to be right about that. You should feel free to talk about it and have faith in your colleagues.” He, like the other panelists, ended his remarks by offering advice to the students in the audience. “It’s important to not think of your clients as robots or profit machines. You should not assume your clients don’t have moral values.” He shared anecdotes from his experiences with clients and the realization that listening and understanding clients’ needs are of utmost importance.

Student Panel: A Look to the Future

The final panel of the conference consisted of five students of diverse religious backgrounds and was moderated by Christopher Hampson, a student of law, ethics, and religion in a dual degree program at Harvard Law School and Harvard Divinity School. Students discussed the challenges of finding accommodation for their faith practices during internships and summer work in the legal field. They also discussed individuals of various faith identities who influenced and inspired them to pursue the study of law.

The session ended with a discussion about the ways faith-based student organizations can collaborate at Harvard Law School and the way that the school could continue to support the religious diversity of its student body. “One of my favorite events is the Freedom Seder,” said one panelist. “The purpose is to celebrate and join each other in terms of working toward social justice that is inspired by the Jewish American and Black American Communities in 1969 after the death of MLK. It is a wonderful model of interfaith solidarity.” This event is organized by the Harvard Black Law Students Association with the Harvard Jewish Law Students Association and Harvard African Law Association. The 2014 Freedom Seder will be held on April 8th.

The first Interfaith Conference on Faith & Legal Work was sponsored by Harvard Catholic Law Students Association, Harvard Jewish Law Students Association, Harvard Law Latter-Day Saints Student Association, Harvard Law School Christian Fellowship, Harvard Muslim Students Association, and the Milbank Tweed Student Conference Fund.

The first two conference panels can be viewed at the website for Harvard Law School Christian Fellowship Events page.[4] To learn more about the traditions mentioned in this report, please visit On Common Ground: World Religions in America.


[1] “On Being a Religious Professional: The Religious Turn in Professional Ethics.” University of Pennsylvania. Legal Scholarship Repository.

[2] All quotes from this panel can be found in the video recording at http://www3.law.harvard.edu/orgs/cf/files/2014/03/HLS-IC1-part1.mov.

[3] All quotes from this panel can be found in the video recording at http://www3.law.harvard.edu/orgs/cf/files/2014/03/HLS-IC1-part2.mov.

[4] Harvard Law School Christian Fellowship. “Events.” http://www3.law.harvard.edu/orgs/cf/events/.