Amy Uelmen, director of the Institute on Religion, Law and Lawyer’s Work
Photo by Ryan Brenizer

Amy Uelmen knows a thing or two about balancing the demands of a law career with faith, family and friends.

Before joining the Fordham School of Law in 2001 as director of the Institute on Religion, Law and Lawyer’s Work, Uelmen worked primarily in product liability and commercial litigation. So difficult was it to get away from working 11 hour days, she turned her experience into a paper, “The Evils of ‘Elasticity’—Reflections on the Rhetoric of Professionalism and the Part-Time Paradox in Large Firm Practice” (Fordham Urban Law Journal, 2005).

It’s one of the many topics that fall within the bailiwick of both Uelmen’s personal research and that of the institute.

While the institute addresses how faiths of all stripes inform lawyers’ decisions, Uelmen has drawn from her involvement with the Focolare—one of the relatively new spiritual movements in the Catholic Church—to talk about issues that confront Catholics. They include hot-button topics such as abortion and the death penalty, she said. But in many ways, she sees that the day-to-day issues are more difficult for those who take their faith seriously.

“When you see that work is neither your god nor your identity, what then comes into the picture is a different way of thinking about how your life should be ordered,” she said. “There needs to be time for relationships and prayer and exercise, just to lead a healthy existence, and also to pay attention to your family and social commitments. This is a tough one, because in many firms there’s a system in place that treats lawyers as mechanized billing machines.”

This is not to say that “culture war” issues do not come up at all in practice, she said. But she believes there are many more instances by which Catholic teaching can shape a student’s ethical outlook as a whole.

“My own work experience has brought me to challenge students to ask themselves not just, ‘What kind of lawyer am I going to be?’ or, ‘Am I going to follow the rules?’ but, ‘What kind of person do I want to be?’ How that question is answered has consequences,” she said. “The work that we’re doing at the institute speaks to the idea that religious values can often be a resource for people in answering that question.”

Together with her co-author and the founder of the institute Fordham law professor Russell Pearce, in “Religious Lawyering in a Liberal Democracy,” (Case Western Reserve Law Review, 2004) and “Religious Lawyering’s Second Wave,” (Journal of Law & Religion, 2005-2006), Uelmen argues that lawyers have an obligation to be morally responsible, and religious values can be a resource to help lawyers fulfill this obligation.

“It’s a live wire discussion, but we think that the ‘religious lawyering’ conversation, as it’s dubbed, is making some headway in helping people to see that we can re-imagine professional life,’” she said.

Uelmen is not afraid to tackle touchy issues, either. Informed by Focolare spirituality’s efforts to draw connections between faith and everyday life, and to build bridges among people with different perspectives, she has written extensively on ways in which unity can be achieved, even for divisive issues such as abortion. In “‘It’s Hard Work’—Reflections on Conscience and Citizenship in the Catholic Tradition” (Journal of Catholic Legal Studies, 2008), Uelmen compares the Voter’s Guide for Serious Catholics (2004) with the recent document issued by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, Forming Consciences for Faithful Citizenship (2007).

She critiques the “Serious Catholics” guide for its failure to capture the Catholic tradition’s nuanced analysis of the connection between moral principles and their practical application in the political sphere. In contrast, she said, the bishops’ recent guide balances the need to acknowledge real evils with a nuanced approach to how principles play out in real life.

The goal is to use dialogue to truly honor a richly varied Catholic tradition. In her Catholic Social Thought survey course, Uelmen said her students have managed to have civil and productive conversations even where they disagree about difficult issues such as abortion.

“I think there are very few people who are really ‘pro-abortion.’ Often, those who are setting out the pro-choice argument are deeply concerned with practical and economic questions that people who are struggling with unwanted pregnancies face, she said.

“On the other hand, those who articulate the pro-life perspective remind us that principles are important, and that the law can serve as a vehicle for expressing those values and educating society to what is right. Both dimensions are crucial. But what often happens is that the two sides talk past each other.”

Think of the two perspectives as tools to take on a hiking expedition, she said.

“You need a compass, otherwise you risk losing your sense of direction. But you also need a topographical map, because even if the compass points you in a certain direction, you need to know if that path might end in an impasse due to a rockslide.

“One way to move beyond polarization is to acknowledge that we need both the compass and the map,” she continued. “We need each other, because both perspectives are necessary to get us safely to our goal.”

As for the future, Uelmen is exploring how the relationships of love and gift in the Trinity might serve as a social model which can inform legal theory. Following her essay, “Toward a Trinitarian Theory of Products Liability” (Symposium: Catholic Social Thought and the Law, 2004), she is now considering how this model might shed light on formulating a legal “duty to rescue”—the legal obligation to come to the aid of a stranger in need.

“Most people agree that there is moral duty, especially when the rescue doesn’t put you at risk. I believe that the current lack of a common law legal duty is grounded in an overly individualistic notion of freedom,” she said. “Grounded in reflections on Trinitarian theology, I’m working on how to re-imagine the concept of freedom so as to include deep bonds of responsibility toward each other.”


Patrick Verel is a news producer for Fordham Now. He can be reached at [email protected] or (212) 636-7790.