Called to the Courtroom

  • By: Victoria Lawson
  • Published: Nov 19, 2020 11:15AM

Taylor’s History, Global, and Political Studies program offers majors and minors that develop critical thinking, researching, speaking and analyzing skills, all of which can be used in a variety of contexts.

Even at its most basic level, an understanding of past and current issues provides a foundation upon which other disciplines can be built. Literature, art, theatre, missions, sciences, economics, communication, and many other fields cannot effectively be studied or advanced without reflecting on past failures and successes.

For Russell Balikian (‘09), studying Political Science set his trajectory to becoming an administrative and constitutional law attorney. He felt his time at Taylor gave him a competitive edge when he applied to law school, eventually getting accepted into Yale Law School, which opened the door for his service under Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas. 

Called to the Courtroom

Like 20% of other Taylor freshmen, Russell Balikian entered college as a pre-major, or undeclared, to discover his passions. 

Students in the pre-major program are able to take their time narrowing down their interests because they are not required to declare a major until their junior year. In the meantime, they sample a variety of disciplines to prepare for a diverse range of career opportunities through Taylor’s liberal arts curriculum.

Balikian thought he might pursue full-time, occupational ministry by going to seminary to become a pastor. However, a pastor from home had encouraged him not to go into occupational ministry unless he felt specifically called by the Lord to do so.

Balikian spent time in prayer and did not think God was prompting him to be a full-time pastor. But after an aptitude test suggested he may be well-suited for a career in law, he began praying about that path instead.

The more Balikian learned about law, the more he grew attracted to the field, and he felt it aligned with a calling the Lord did place on his heart—the pursuit of justice. 

He then declared a major in Political Science (which is now offered as a minor, with Politics and Law, Politics, Philosophy and Economics and Politics and Public Service as new major options). He became a double-major when he added Biblical Literature so he could continue diving deep into studying Scripture. 

“There’s actually quite a bit of overlap between being an attorney and being a pastor,” Balikian said. “You’re often counseling someone through a problem they’re going through and you’re doing it in accordance with an authoritative text. You’re seeking to make peace and resolve issues—there’s more overlap than I realized.”

Balikian also declared a minor in Legal Studies to help prepare him for law school. 

In Balikian’s classes, he discussed the role of government, analyzed political science issues, wrote papers on the electoral process, explored interest groups and their influences, and many other helpful exercises he felt prepared him for law school. 

One of his most impactful experiences during his time at Taylor was when he spent a semester in Washington, D.C. through the American Studies Program, an opportunity for students in the political science or media communications fields. There, Balikian got exposure to the 2008 presidential campaigns, interned at the U.S. Department of Justice, and was paired with a mentor.

Balikian’s mentor was a Christian attorney, and he was able to gain insight about time management and how his faith impacts his career as a lawyer. 

“Seeing Christians in law, Christians in policy, and being in D.C. thinking through deep-level issues of worldview and how Scripture bears on matters of public policy was a great experience,” Balikian said. “It really confirmed my desire to go to law school.”

Having these experiences under his belt and on his resume laid the foundation for the rest of his academic and professional career.

Becoming a Lawyer

Political Science Professor Stephen Hoffmann, who has since retired, was one of several influential professors in Balikian’s life during his time at Taylor. He said his professors were not only involved in his classroom education but also came alongside him as he studied for the Law School Admission Test (LSAT).

“My Taylor professors were very encouraging and helpful as I was going through the process of taking the LSAT,” Balikian said. “I didn’t do as well on the LSAT as I wanted to, and I remember Dr. Hoffmann encouraging me that God could still use that and to trust Him, and God did. It was great having relationships with professors who were walking with me on my journey.”

Balikian was accepted into some good law schools but still felt that he was walking by faith and not sight in this season. He ended up choosing Pepperdine Caruso School of Law in California. 

Pepperdine is a Christian school, and Balikian appreciated his time there because Taylor had instilled in him a value for Christian community. He joined a Christian fellowship and continued to grow in his faith as he studied law.

He also learned it was possible to transfer law schools. Balikian met with professors to discuss matters of calling and whether it made sense to apply to transfer. He enjoyed studying at Pepperdine and did not want to transfer unless it might open up unique opportunities, so he only applied to a few schools.

He was not accepted into several of these schools, but he was accepted to Yale Law School.

This was the opportunity Balikian was looking for, and he transferred there to complete the next two years of his law education. He graduated from Yale with his Juris Doctor in 2012.

Now, Balikian works as an administrative law and constitutional law attorney at global law firm Gibson, Dunn & Crutcher LLP. A typical day for him consists of writing briefs, researching the law, and advising clients. He and his colleagues aim to present the best arguments available to their clients in light of the law and the facts. When their cases are argued in court, Balikian and his colleagues prepare by participating in mock arguments.  They aim to synthesize the case in a straightforward, persuasive way for the court and to accurately answer any questions the court may pose. Balikian is often researching, reading or writing, depending on the stage of the litigation.

Some of the most recognizable cases he has been involved in thus far include litigation over the Federal Communications Commission's 2015 net-neutrality order, the Sprint-T-Mobile merger, the Dakota Access pipeline, the Deepwater Horizon oil spill, the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico’s debt-restructuring efforts, and the EPA’s Clean Power Plan, according to his biography on the Gibson Dunn website.

When not diving into legal research, Balikian also serves as a lay elder and pastor at his church, where he puts his Biblical Literature degree to good use. He enjoys leading Bible studies and getting to continue teaching from Scripture. Through both his law career and church involvement, he gets to seek truth from multiple angles, using both his biblical and legal giftings to serve God’s kingdom.

He keeps his faith in mind daily as he reflects on his role in pursuing justice. 

“God truly is the perfect lawgiver and judge and is perfectly righteous,” Balikian said. “We do the best we can in this fallen world to work toward that goal, and we do that with an adversarial legal system where two attorneys on different sides argue their case as vigorously as they can, trying to persuade the judge to agree with their view of the law and the facts. Working in our legal system causes me to reflect on God’s character and perfect justice—He is totally good, and we are able to trust Him completely to do what’s right and to rest in His sovereignty and righteousness.”

Civility on the Supreme Court

One of the highlights of Balikian’s career so far was his time working at the Supreme Court as a law clerk. Supreme Court clerks are appointed for a year before their term ends, and Balikian said he was incredibly grateful to God for his experience. 

Balikian worked in Justice Clarence Thomas’ chambers. His job responsibilities included making recommendations on whether the Court should hear cases on the merits, analyzing and preparing recommendations for cases being heard on the merits, and assisting the Justice in preparing his written opinions. Balikian said he loved getting a front-row seat to how the Court works and how the Justices approach their cases. 

Balikian especially enjoyed the mentorship he received in the process. He said he felt so honored that he was able to work for and learn from Justice Thomas on a day-to-day basis, as well has having the opportunity to meet the other Justices as well. 

“One thing the Justices all model well is how to be collegial and civil, even amidst real disagreements. They are still colleagues and respect one another,” Balikian said. "For example, even though Justice Thomas and Justice Ginsburg did not always see eye to eye, after every oral argument, Justice Thomas would extend his arm to assist Justice Ginsburg off the bench, and they would walk down together. We could all learn from the way they interacted with one another.”

Justice Clarence Thomas and Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg shared a personal friendship until her passing on September 18, 2020.

Advice for Future Attorneys 

From Taylor and Yale to Gibson Dunn and the Supreme Court, Balikian sees God’s hand in his life trajectory. Staying connected to other believers throughout law school and incorporating his walk with Christ in his work has enriched his spiritual life. 

“Working in the legal system really highlights how magnificent the Gospel is,” Balikian said. “Christ took our guilt upon himself by dying in our place; God is both just and the justifier. You think about the judge stepping off the bench and paying your penalty. That would be crazy in a legal setting, and it highlights God’s amazing grace towards us.”

He encourages Christian students contemplating a career in law not to hold particular goals too tightly but to trust God, work hard, and see where He takes them. He said that in his own life and career he has faced several seasons of uncertainty but has taken comfort in knowing everything will fit into God’s grand purpose. 

“Follow Christ, trust His timing. Consider Psalm 23:1—’I shall not want,’ doesn’t mean you’ll get everything you want, but it does mean that Christ is sufficient,” Balikian said. “If you’re trying to follow Him, you don’t have to know where He’s ultimately leading you.  As the sheep, you’re called to just trust the Shepherd and follow Him step by step, knowing that He knows where He’s leading you.”