Alumni Profile: Jonathan Mullen ’99
by Brian Beise
Jonathan Mullen ’99 is an attorney with Finger & Fraser in the lowcountry town of Hilton Head Island, South Carolina, where he practices primarily transactional law. This includes business transactions, some areas of municipal law, and what is known as “dirt law”: representing developers, buyers and sellers of real estate. Among the firm’s clients is the town of Bluffton, a neighbor of Hilton Head Island. Jonathan is aware of his work representing more than just himself. He sees trust and reputation as vital, and knows a decade’s work can be torn down in an hour. He seeks to accomplish the ends dictated by his clients without straying from the values of his faith.
Jonathan majored in history at Covenant, with Professor Paul Morton as his advisor. His appreciation for America’s law-writing history and process led quickly to an interest in law school. This was before Covenant’s pre-law program was created, so Jonathan transferred to James Madison University. “I started out at Covenant, transferred over to JMU, and then transferred back,” he says. “It was a strange road, but ultimately I decided Covenant was where I needed to be.” It was after this second transfer, back to Covenant, that he met his future wife, Rachel Powell ’00.
He finished his degree in history and went on to earn his law degree in 2003 from Regent University. Although his intentions had been to enter politics, perhaps eventually becoming a lawmaker, he found that transactional business was something he was good at and consistently enjoyed. He has thrown himself into that area of law but keeps an open mind about the future. Recalling his year teaching in France just after leaving Covenant, Jonathan muses: “I’m flexible to whatever the Lord’s got for me. Having said that, I don’t see any reason why I should leave this firm at this point in my career.”
On his work for Bluffton, Jonathan expresses care and a desire for integrity. “We derive our goals for the client based on the client’s needs and desires,” he says. “One thing I personally try to do is make sure we do things the right way, and make sure we don’t take short cuts. We’re being comprehensive in the work we do for them, setting a good precedent of agreements involving the town, and making sure the laws we get on the books are sustainable and appropriate.” Noting the high character and good reputation of the firm owners, Finger and Fraser, he continues: “As a believer, I take a slightly different tack at times, but we often end up in the same place.”
The real difficulties for Jonathan come when a client loses sight of their original goal and goes for blood. “The classic example is in a business ‘divorce’,” says Jonathan. “Much like a marriage divorce, these are often very messy, and personal feelings become a big part of the decision-making process for clients. This is understandable, but many times it becomes so personal that the goal morphs into the financial ruin of the former business partner. One minute it is a relatively simple business breakup and the next minute it is a real mess driven by bitter feelings.”
Jonathan recalls going to court to enforce a settlement agreement on a business breakup. “It was a slam-dunk case, and we received what we were due under the terms of the agreement.” His clients were not satisfied, however, and wanted to push the case further, damaging the other side as much as possible. Jonathan has found that often this leads to a difficult conversation with his clients, in which he advises them against heading down a destructive road. If a client persists, he lets them know he will reconsider representing them. “I strive to make it clear I am concerned about them and their interests, but I am not willing to sacrifice integrity in my profession for a possible win through their destructive decisions.”
Through all this, Jonathan thinks of the gospel. He advises as best he can, and sometimes is unable to go down the path his client chooses. “I’ve had to step away from a theoretical side of the faith, and I’ve seen how it applies in life,” he says. “My profession is one that’s not insulated from the world or daily struggles and issues that arise. In every interaction with staff, other attorneys and clients, I have to protect the reputation of the gospel as it is displayed in my own life.”
While he is intentional about maintaining his professional reputation and gospel witness, Jonathan also feels it is important to allow his clients to see his shortcomings. “There are a lot of people who just try to cover their tracks. You’ve got to show humility and be able to admit you’re wrong and move on from there and make it right. In my profession, there can be a lot of big egos. Although I strive for excellence in my practice, I do not want my pride to shroud the gospel in my life.” He goes on to describe his professional goals for the foreseeable future: continue to find ways to improve his practice, and do good work at home and at work.