May 04, 1981 12:00 PM

Americans have become the most litigious people on earth,” observes Albuquerque lawyer Lawrence Eck, 37. “We are so wedded to asserting our own rights that we have neglected the weightier matters of the law: justice, repentence, love, forgiveness and reconciliation.”

With that in mind and on his conscience, Eck became executive director of the Albuquerque chapter of the pioneering Christian Conciliation Service. Its aim is to get litigants to face each other not in court but in church.

A case in point is the tempestuous marriage of David and Arleen Haidle of Albuquerque. Arleen, citing David’s alcoholism and drug use, plus what she considered inappropriate discipline of their daughter and her two sons by an earlier marriage, split after barely two years. But when David straightened himself out later, the couple remarried, only to see their second attempt also on the skids. This time, at the suggestion of their Lutheran pastor, the Haidles submitted their problems to mediation by the Christian Conciliation Service. There Eck counseled them for many months, talking and praying, separately and together. In the end the Haidles chose to renew their marriage vows.

The work of CCS reflects a new concept attracting growing attention among lawyers who find that the conventional legal system tends to aggravate rather than heal wounds. Even for the victors emerging with large settlements from bitter lawsuits or messy divorces, Eck finds that “the underlying emotions—revenge, anger, frustration—haven’t been satisfied.” In his view, money is rarely the central issue. What the injured party really wants, he believes, is an apology.

The CCS approach is based on Scripture—Saint Matthew, Chapter 18, in which Christians are advised first to try to resolve disputes directly and in private; secondly, to do so directly but with witnesses; and finally, to “tell it unto the church.” CCS keeps its procedures highly flexible. Clients may choose either mediation or arbitration, which can be legally binding or not. They may elect to be represented by counsel or speak for themselves. Even the $50 basic fee may be waived.

Eck admits that his philosophy—”People are more important than issues”—was arrived at only after many painful detours. He was born to a family of achievers in Bozeman, Mont.—the son of a college professor father and a teacher mother who became a state senator. Young Lawrence went through Montana State and received law degrees from the University of Montana and Harvard. Then he married Pam Farmer, a Montana State English major, started his family (two children: Amber Lee, now 12, and Bryan, 10), and got into trial law. Soon he was earning $70,000 a year and lived in an architect-designed home in Missoula.

Yet Eck found his life was disintegrating. “The more I represented people who were bitter, the more I became like them,” he recalls. He took to drink and drugs, spent months under psychiatric care, and even experienced the shame of a brief jail stay on charges—later dismissed—of stealing prescription blanks. In 1976, having given up on their marriage, Pam took the children to New Mexico, where her parents lived. Soon after, Eck had a near-fatal driving accident. “I remember my father by my bedside, sobbing,” he says. “I thought of how much this man must love me.” Raised a Methodist, he had not been deeply religious. Nonetheless he decided to “simply give God authority over my life.”

In 1977 Eck moved to Albuquerque to try a reconciliation with Pam. They underwent months of counseling with an Episcopal priest who was also a psychologist. That year Eck learned of the Christian Legal Society, based in Oak Park, Ill., whose idea of using basic biblical procedures for solving disputes attracted him. The group had fostered several CCS chapters but only on a part-time basis. On an $18,000 salary, Eck set up a full-time Albuquerque chapter.

Now it is staffed by more than 60 attorneys who volunteer to handle some 500 cases per year, and the program has the endorsement of the New Mexico bar association. “I’m hopeful that as the process proves itself, the judicial system will bend to include our approach.” Needless to say, Eck wouldn’t sue any imitators. “In fact,” he adds, “if everybody ripped off the idea, that would be just fine with me.”

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