Can Lawyers Be Good Samaritans?

By Marc E. Gustafson

We’re all familiar with the story of the Good Samaritan. Some states even have Good Samaritan laws. But did you know that a lawyer played a prominent role in the telling of the Good Samaritan parable? I will tell you, based upon first-hand experience, that hearing a reference to a lawyer in church sure will make you sit up straight in the pew.

Before you stop reading, this isn’t a Bible story. In fact, it’s not a religious piece at all. So, don’t go back to Facebook or close your browser.

If you didn’t know, Jesus was adept at taking a question and turning it into a lesson. And as the parable about the man who stops to help the stranger goes, it wasn’t a saint or a sinner, but a lawyer that asked Jesus that prefatory question. He inquired, “What must I do to inherit eternal life?” And Jesus responded by asking in return, “What is written in the law?” and “How do you read it?”

Wait. What? The answer to eternal life is in the law? And Jesus is asking a lawyer to interpret the law? I know, I know. The law being referred to is religious law, in other words scripture, but hang in there with me. (As an aside, I would love to go back to that day, when lawyers were respected for their opinions on such important matter. But, alas, that is for another article.)

An obvious student of the law, the lawyer answered like a first-year law student proud of himself for memorizing the text: “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind; and, Love your neighbor as yourself.”

“You have answered correctly,” Jesus replied. “Do this and you will live.” Simple enough. Oh, but we all know simple doesn’t sit well with lawyers. We’re conditioned to find issues. To delve deeper. To develop an angle. After all, we didn’t suffer through law school and burden ourselves with massive amounts of debts for simple answers.

And apparently this lawyer wasn’t content with a simple answer. According to the story’s author Luke, the lawyer wanted to “justify” himself, so he asked Jesus, “And who is my neighbor?” Yep, he’s a lawyer. I mean, who doesn’t know who or what a neighbor is? Spotting his opportunity, Jesus used the lawyer’s question to launch into the story of the Good Samaritan.

Sitting in church listening to my good friend Pen Peery break down this parable, I couldn’t help feeling like everyone was looking at me when I heard about the lawyer’s attempt to “justify” himself, apparently feeling the need to demonstrate his mastery of the law and that he, above all others, had the answers.

And those stares are often deserved. While lawyers don’t have a monopoly on good reasoning or logic and, based upon my experience, the lawyers with the best answers don’t always have the solutions, we have certainly developed a reputation for not being short on opinions.
But I think we are more than providers of answers and proposers of theories. At our best we are finders of solutions and resolutions, and those things often exist far outside the four corners of a contract or the plain language of a statute.

You see, I have no doubt that clients come to us, not because they need our answers, but because they need our help. But what if we responded to them by quoting chapter and verse, or article and section, of the law? Would that solve their problems? Possibly, the law may be our medium, but that doesn’t mean a steadfast focus on the statutes or case law can solve our clients’ issues.

The priest and the Levite, who pass by the man who has been beaten, robbed and left by the side of the road to die, both represent religious law. They are the strict interpreters and the purist followers of the Commandments. But apparently the law didn’t have the answer here, as both the priest and the Levite passed by, even crossed the street, when they came across the man in need. You see, scriptural law at the time forbade coming into contact with a dead body, and they were apparently just following the law.

Some scholars suggest a dilemma facing the priest and the Levite was a choice between following your head (the law) and following your heart (the Golden Rule). It’s clear which path Jesus thought the lawyer should choose. There’s the law, and then there’s a higher calling. Blind loyalty to only the law, this story suggests, could lead to a disastrous result for those that need our help.

In my practice, I am frequently confronted with employees or former employees inquiring about the enforceability of a non-compete agreement. The law is clear, or as clear as the Court of Appeals can make it: A non-compete must be reasonable in time, territory and scope and must be no more restrictive than necessary to protect a legitimate business interest. Good answer for a law school exam or trying to avoid a temporary restraining order. Often a bad answer for the real world.

In the real world, I have found, employers sue former employees for a host of reasons. Has she gone out in a blaze of glory? Has he deleted megabytes of data? Did she go out and immediately start calling on the employer’s key customers? Did he disparage his former manager and the executive team? Does the company need to maintain the sanctity of the restrictive covenant contained in the employment agreements of thousands of its employees?

As a lawyer advising the slighted employer in these same circumstances, I have tried to avoid simply instructing the company on the enforceability of the restrictive covenant but, instead, counsel it on what seeking to enforce the agreement would mean for the company. This includes providing the not-always-welcomed advice that while good reasons certainly exist to enforce non-competes, that doesn’t mean the company always should. Chiefly among these concerns, besides the cost, distraction and anxiety of protracted litigation is the risk to the morale among remaining employees when employers seek to enforce these restraints.

The point is, lawyers must know much more than the law. We must follow our head but lead with our hearts. We must employ all of our faculties to avoid the time, cost and anxiety of lengthy litigation. I’ve found that this is what our clients’ so often need. Not some academic reading of the contract language but real world advice, which sometimes means turning the other cheek and doing the right thing even in the face of exacting sweet, sweet revenge.

In concluding his story, Jesus asked the lawyer “Which of these three [the priest, the Levite or the Samaritan] do you think was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of robbers?” The lawyer replied, “The one who had mercy on him.” Or, as I see it, the one who is not beholden solely to the law, but who serves fellow man, whether that is by providing counsel, demonstrating the value of leniency or working toward resolution.