The trial date was less than two weeks away. After several hours of extended negotiations, the efforts of three neutral mediators failed to bring about a settlement. Our clients were a retired couple who had sold their land to a developer who had plans to construct a shopping center on the property. According to the agreement they'd made at the sale, the developer took possession of the property and made payments over a period of several years before making final payment and receiving the deed. Shortly after the developer received the deed, however, he sued the couple for more than half a million dollars, claiming the land was environmentally contaminated.
Litigation can be an ordeal for anyone, but my client's difficulties were compounded by health problems. The developer was a man of considerable financial means. In contrast, our clients could ill afford the expensive and protracted litigation. The proceeds from the sale of the property represented their life savings and retirement security.
The lawsuit was all the more difficult because our clients had considered the developer a friend. When the developer was having cash flow problems, our clients extended the time for payment for several periods of time. But now, everything had changed. The trust that once had existed was no longer. Our clients viewed the lawsuit as a challenge to their integrity. They knew that they had done no wrong and refused to offer any funds in settlement. Quite understandably, their response was, as someone once said, "Millions for defense, but not one cent for tribute." The parties were on a collision course.
One of the goals of the legal system is the principled, fair, and peaceable resolution of differences within society. So a lawyer has a dual responsibility to his or her client and the judicial system. Abraham Lincoln, who practiced law before becoming President, reminded the legal profession of this obligation, saying that "As a peacemaker the lawyer has a superior opportunity of being a good man." Lincoln was well grounded in the Bible, and I find support for his statement in the beatitude: "Blessed are the peacemakers: for they shall be called the children of God" (Matt. 5:9).
It may come as a surprise that some lawyers actually pray for and about their clients and cases. As a practicing lawyer for more than 35 years, I regularly pray about my cases and clients. Every lawyer soon learns there may be a vast gulf between the "law" and "justice." The wider the gap, the greater the occasion for prayer, because prayer is always an appeal to a higher law. Mary Baker Eddy, the founder of this newspaper, well knew the difference when she wrote, "... let human justice pattern the divine" ("Science and Health with Key to the Scriptures," pg. 542).
I view each occasion for prayer as an opportunity to understand better and prove the truth of the Biblical promises which attest to the higher law of Love. What came to mind in this instance were Paul's famous words, "faith, hope, and love" (see I Cor. 13:13). Paul then makes that grand affirmation that rings through time: "the greatest of these is love." That passage was the key that unlocked the deadlock in this case. It provided a unique resolution, restored harmony in the troubled lives of the litigants, and proved the ageless truth of Scripture.
As a result of prayer, the idea came to suggest to our clients that they offer a modest amount in the settlement on the condition that the settlement proceeds be paid to a charity of the developer's choice. Our clients consented. The developer's lawyer didn't like the idea because the funds wouldn't even cover the developer's attorney fees. But the developer thought it a "brilliant idea" and selected his church as the recipient of the funds.
While previously our clients had been unwilling to pay anything in settlement, they wanted to resolve the matter and put it behind them. They're happy knowing that the money will accomplish good for others. The case was settled, and the developer hugged one of our clients. The judge said he had never seen nor heard of a similar arrangement.
In a benediction shared in a church of one of the parties, a parishioner turns to those on either side and says, "Let there be peace and let it begin with me." That day both parties made peace.
(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor