Wheaton magazine

Volume 23, Issue 2
Wheaton magazine // Spring 2020
Illustration by Frances MacLeod

Serving Justice

A just society recognizes the equal standing of individuals before the law. In the Creation narrative in the Book of Genesis, humanity holds equal dignity before God. Similarly, the Constitution explicitly affirms equality. Justice—whether it is delivered via a just ruling or just contract or just decision—is to be pursued from all angles and at all levels.

Today, dozens of Wheaton alumni, led by preceding generations, serve as lawyers, judges, and clerks in courtrooms, private offices, at nonprofit organizations, and as in-house counsel at multinational corporations.

It is not surprising that Wheaties equipped with a Juris Doctor degree are pursuing justice in a diverse set of occupations. As a top-ranking liberal arts college, Wheaton students graduate with promising skill sets and are equipped to pursue justice for the glory of God. 

Trevor Neil McFadden ’01, J.D., shares that “the general ethos at Wheaton that all truth is God’s truth is inspiring. You don’t have to become a pastor or minister to glorify God.”

McFadden currently serves as U.S. District Judge for the District of Columbia. He was previously Deputy Assistant Attorney General for the U.S. Department of Justice, Criminal Division; Assistant U.S. Attorney for the District of Columbia; Counsel to the Deputy Attorney General; and was a clerk for Judge Steven Colloton on the U.S. Court of Appeals Eighth District. He is a living testimony that believers can reject the false dichotomy between a righteous vocation and a secular career. Instead, every path can be a part of one’s higher and holy calling, including nearly any job after law school.

On average, 20 Wheaton alumni enter law school each year, but the legacy of Wheaton students in the judicial and legal fields extends across decades, with 471 alumni since 2001. Notably, an overwhelming percentage of those graduates have served as clerks—a highly exclusive opportunity to work directly with a judge. As judicial clerkships provide recent law school graduates unique exposure to legal theory put into practice, they are reserved for the highest achieving students. Alumni with undergraduate degrees ranging from English to Economics, Theology to French, have experienced success in law school and thereafter. These lifelong students of the law understand their vocation as faithful pursuers of justice in a highly critiqued field. Their work is not in tension with the Christian faith; instead, it is motivated and bolstered by God’s explicit call on each of us to “act justly” (Micah 6:8).

As one might imagine, asking exactly how these Wheaton alumni found their way to the legal field reveals an eclectic set of stories.

The seed was planted in Charlie Zagnoli ’08, J.D., back in the sixth grade when his teacher commented that he gave a presentation like a lawyer. Since then, Zagnoli earned a law degree from the University of Chicago and served as a clerk for the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit before becoming an associate at a large firm, representing clients in commercial disputes, corporate governance, and transactional litigation, and securities matters.

Mariel Eben Brookins ’09, J.D., who has served two clerkships—one with the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit and one with the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit—felt her interest in a legal career was confirmed when she wrote a used car contract in William Volkman Professor of Business and Law Steve Bretsen's Business Law class.

Ed Bedard ’12, J.D., realized halfway through a Christian Education major that he could serve the Lord while pursuing his interest in the law. He switched majors to political science, attended the University of Virginia Law School, and now serves as an associate in trial and global disputes at an international law firm in Atlanta.

For Bryan Neihart ’11, J.D., it was a lecture by the Director of the State Department’s Office for International Religious Freedom that prompted “an overwhelming sense of God placing a burden on [his] heart for the persecuted church and religious freedom in general,” ultimately leading him to work at a religious freedom advocacy organization. Neihart clerked for the U.S. District Court for the District of Colorado before taking up his current role at Alliance Defending Freedom.

Other alumni experimented with alternative career paths before committing to a career in the legal field. Though she came from a household of lawyers, Jasmine Stein ’16, J.D., studied sociology at Wheaton and tried just about everything before conceding that her national successes in Mock Trial could translate to a full-time career as a lawyer. Ben Meyer ’13, J.D., realized after his first week as a physics teacher that he was in the wrong field. He originally joined Teach for America in diametric opposition to several disillusioning finance internships. As he now reflects on these juxtaposed experiences, “It’s fine to pursue radical, service-oriented professions, but at the end of the day, you should be simply seeking to serve through whatever vocation God made you to serve in.”

Meyer, along with many other Wheaton alumni in the legal field, is doing what God made him to do, prepared with a Juris Doctor degree.

The distinct paths that led each of these alumni to pursue the same degree are united by the commonality that God gave them the mind, patience, and interest to study law. While the call to “act justly” belongs to each of us, they have found the space to carry it out in various legal professions.

“No matter how much you believe in God’s provision and direction, it’s always incredible to see how God brings you through to where you are,” Bedard reflects, with a tone of amazement.

"It’s fine to pursue radical, service-oriented professions, but at the end of the day, you should be simply seeking to serve through whatever vocation God made you to serve in."

Whether law school conjures up iconic lines from Legally Blonde or gives you goosebumps thinking about the Socratic method, each of these alumni emphasized the high level of preparation they had experienced already upon entering law school.

“Wheaton, as a liberal arts school, puts a strong emphasis on reading and writing and prepares you well for law school. The professors expect a lot and demand you put in the effort, and that pays off come grad school,” Zagnoli says.

Not only have these alumni credited their academic success to Wheaton's liberal arts education, they also say Wheaton provided them with a foundation for engaging well with their post-Wheaton communities.

“I frequently found myself in disagreements with the popular opinion at UC Berkeley,” Jordan Varberg ’16, J.D., says. “But I didn’t try to be the bomb thrower. I worked to be the person finding common ground and presenting sides differently.”

Beyond law school, “Wheaton prepared me to have the perspective of faith influencing all of our lives, at all times. It’s not reserved for Sunday mornings,” says Zagnoli, thinking about his work in a global firm’s Chicago office.

Justice is administered in daily exchanges and through the nitty-gritty of contracts as well as in grand rulings. Both the everyday work of an attorney and the influential rulings of a judge fulfill the unified call—in distinctly different ways—to seek justice for people and procedures in their particular spheres.


When Judge Robert Holmes Bell ’66 reflects on his 43 years as a judge, 30 of those years serving as an active Federal District Court Judge for the Western District of Michigan, he focuses his attention on the pursuit of a just and fair ruling in accordance with the law. For whoever appeared before him in the courtroom, it was vitally important to him that litigants understand that they would be heard. “That is my duty as a judge. That is my duty as a Christian,” Bell says. 

While many countries' laws dictate that every individual ought to be treated as equal under the law, a just ruling is not always a favorable ruling. Varberg, amid his U.S. Court of Appeals clerkship, shares, “It’s the role of the court to apply the law fairly to all who come before them. Everyone is supposed to be treated the same way under the law. Sometimes, judges have to rule in a way that they personally disagree with, because it’s what the law requires.”

Varberg continues, “The job is incredibly satisfying and fulfilling. It is meaningful to help my judge as he writes opinions that clarify the law, and to participate in a small way in seeing the law develop.”

Both Christian and non-Christian judges, clerks, and lawyers are called to preserve the law. And yet, how Christians interact with people should reflect the truth of the Ultimate Law: that all people are made in the image of the Creator, and we are to pursue justice for every individual in God’s already-but-not-yet kingdom.


Brookins readily agrees that justice matters for every person at every level. “It’s hard to argue with that. Justice for the incarcerated. Justice for those wronged. But also justice for shareholders. Justice for people who experience the subsidiary effects of wrongs. We need to work for aggregate justice. We need to look out for everyone,” she confidently states.

In essence, justice ought to expand. Justice should be pursued at all layers of governance. Brookins continues, “We want people at every level of the system to go through and look at how the world is unfolding, not just anecdotally, but for the people affected by a choice or system.”

Bedard, who served as a judicial clerk for the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Georgia, also encourages the Wheaton community to think about justice more broadly. For example, “establishing fair contracts is key … all these general elements of law are crucial to establishing and maintaining order,” Bedard says. Our society requires the right and proper execution of the law for the greater economic and social landscape to function properly.

Meyer echoes this sentiment. After a judicial clerkship for the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit, he currently works on mergers and acquisitions at one of the world's largest law firms, and he spent hundreds of hours doing pro bono affordable housing work during law school. He is motivated mainly by this mentality of pursuing justice at all layers.

Meyer reflects, “While at Wheaton I saw professors faithfully working on their vocation, and I think that prepared me for finding my vocation, regardless of how visible it is, and doing it well.” 

Most people would not think about sorting through affordable housing contracts as a service of justice. Most people would not think about crafting the legal language in a merger or acquisition as pursuing justice. This type of legal work may not end up on television or in a glossy end-of-year report, but it matters. It matters because every person and every layer of justice matters.