Soka Gakkai International
Buddhism in Action for Peace
History & Philosophy
Stories and reflections on the Buddhist approach to life
What area of law do you practice, and why did you become involved in it?
Joëlle: I practice three areas of law: criminal, rental and commercial. Before I began working as a lawyer at the Brussels Bar, I studied European and International Law, and dreamed of becoming involved in human rights. Gradually, I started to realize that human rights is actually an integral part of every legal case, particularly in criminal law.
For the last three years, I have also assisted in a law class at the main university in Brussels. I enjoy being in contact with the younger generation.
Birgit: My main occupation is the practice of family law, but I also defend clients in criminal law cases. My clients are mostly children or victims of domestic violence or even sexual abuse.
In the beginning, family law was not my favorite field. However, I had more and more clients asking for help in this field. Through my personal experience of my parents marrying and divorcing each other twice over, I well understand what families go through when parents separate.
What aspect of your work do you find most rewarding?
Joëlle: I like all aspects—meeting clients, pleading in court, doing research in libraries, participating in negotiations, doing expert appraisals, writing the minutes of proceedings, thinking about strategies. They are all part of the same challenge: how to solve a situation in the best way, how to alleviate somebody's suffering, how to restore someone's dignity.
Birgit: My clients are often in financially or socially very difficult positions. In some cases, the youth welfare office has decided to take away their children despite the fact that they take good care of them. In other cases, women have been oppressed by violent or addicted spouses. When my efforts have helped improve the situation of children and realize justice for a parent, I feel very happy. And when I am able to help my clients stand upright again, have hope again, giving up their role as a victim or leaving behind the role of an offender, this is the most rewarding for me.
What is the most difficult position you have found yourself in at work?
Birgit: The most difficult for me are situations where I feel powerlessness, because the judge, the authorities, the institutions or experts involved are indifferent, ignorant of the truth or lack the hope or courage to take a decision; or because lawyers influence the court using dirty, sometimes illegal methods.
In one instance, my client was so threatened by her former spouse, supported by his lawyer, that she wanted to withdraw the action. In such a situation, I pray to bring forth wisdom, power and courage. Many times, I realize that I have to open my heart toward my opponents or some of the parties involved—this is the beginning of change. If through wisdom and dialogue I am able to reach the hearts of parties involved, we can always find a solution which is good for all. This is a real victory for me.
related article Firefighting by Amir Reza Caspian and Kwok Keung Ng Buddhists working in the fire services in the US and Hong Kong discuss their work and how Buddhism influences their approach to it. Joëlle: A couple of years ago, I defended a young man who was clearly innocent, but was involved in a drug trafficking case because of his girlfriend. Despite my best efforts, he was convicted and spent four years in prison.
I was deeply affected by this. A senior colleague encouraged me greatly, explaining that however hard our work may be, we need to treasure every victory, engraving it in our hearts, to help give us hope for the future. I also understood that my responsibility is to do my best as a lawyer and to have no regrets. I understood that as a lawyer I am not a magician, and that the person I assist or defend also has his or her own causality.
What has your work taught you about the importance of dialogue?
Joëlle: In my work, there is continuous dialogue: first within myself, then with the client, with the other lawyers, with the judges. In reality, not everyone wants to have a dialogue, in which case one must be quite resolute whilst remaining respectful.
Birgit: I really believe in the power of dialogue. Lawyers are masters of words. But sometimes we fight with words as if they were swords. Then dialogue turns into war. In these cases, taking a break or simply listening carefully to understand the other party is a very important aspect of true dialogue. I make great efforts not to fight with my words but to use my verbal ability in a peaceful way.
How has Buddhism changed or affected the way you approach your job?
Birgit: Without Buddhism, I would not be able to muster the courage to do my job. As Nichiren Daishonin says in his writings, "A sword is useless in the hands of a coward." Buddhism has helped me discover that even in the worst circumstances there can be a hidden win-win solution. My Buddhist practice helps me find hope and courage and inspire my clients with my hope and courage.
Joëlle: In the law faculty of a university, you study the content of law and how the judiciary works, but in fact you learn nothing about concrete problems and how to behave as a lawyer in many different situations.
I would call my Buddhist faith and training my "University of Life," and that is what I now consider as being of the greatest importance to my work. Before I began working as a lawyer, a senior in faith who had been a lawyer for many years gave me very simple advice when I was facing dilemmas over the cases I was being assigned: "Above all, it is important to deepen your understanding of what this work is about, and of yourself, without forgetting your original inspiration." She was perfectly right. Gradually, by encountering all types of situations, I was able to deepen my understanding and also realize that every experience I was confronted with, even the worst, could be used to create value.
How do you see the mission of lawyers in society?
Birgit: Lawyers should proclaim the truth and fight for justice, where this is necessary. We should bring humanity and fairness into court. We should support our clients' aims without being unfair to the other people involved. We should exert ourselves to find—ideally together with the other parties—a solution that is best for all involved. We should aim for lasting peace between those involved, or lasting protection for our client if the first aim is impossible.
Joëlle: You can work as a lawyer for many reasons; it can be a very cynical world. Personally, I see my mission as a lawyer as I see my mission in every field of my life: I try to restore the human dignity of the person in front of me, and I try to help this person give the best of him- or herself as a human being.
[Adapted from the July 2012 issue of the SGI Quarterly]
From Trauma to Drama
by Gerrit Versteeg, Netherlands
Only One Yes
by Clayton Surrat, USA
The Power of Friendship
by Peninah Achieng-Kindberg, UK
Fighting for My Daughter: Finding My True Mission
by Rachel Aspögård, Sweden
A Fierce Determination to Live
by Jharna Narang, survivor of the 26/11 Mumbai attacks
Creating a World Where All Belong
by Sinéad Lynch, Ireland