I am a lawyer because I find so much of my identity in being a lawyer

David McIlroy

David McIlroy

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I am a lawyer because I find so much of my identity in the fact that I am a lawyer. To be a lawyer is to have power, prestige and privilege. We exude this from the suits we wear to work, we command it by our control of reasoning and language, we acquire it through our ability to organise. As we enter and progress in the profession, being a lawyer feeds our needs to feel significant, to be respected, and to think well of ourselves. For those rewards we are prepared to pay a heavy price in terms of our relationships (the impact of which is disproportionately high for female lawyers), our leisure time and outside interests, and at least in the short term (and in some areas of law throughout the long term) in terms of our finances.

The sense of self-worth we experience from being a lawyer is addictive. And like any addiction, it must be constantly fed but produces diminishing highs. Nothing beats the initial buzz of going into a new social situation, announcing that one is a lawyer and then listening to the murmurs as people acknowledge our celebrity status (even if those murmurs are only in our imagination).

However, as Benjamin Sells warns: the main thing we discover when we reach the top of the legal profession is that it is a long way down. The musical comedy series, My Crazy Ex-Girlfriend is like marmite. You will either love it or hate it. In the final series, there is a song called “Don’t be a lawyer” https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Xs-UEqJ85KE. The song parodies many aspects of a career in law, but highlights, above all, the emptiness and dissatisfaction which many lawyers end up feeling. It is a poor choice to invest all of your identity in the fact you are a lawyer.

Christian thinking since at least the Reformation has addressed the question of identity through the concept of vocation. The word “vocation” can be used in a general sense to mean “calling” or in a specific sense to refer to the type of work that we are called to do. Law, medicine, the army, the police, the pastorate, being an artist, a musician or a writer are all referred to as vocations in this specific sense. What they have in common is that they demand time, concentration and commitment to acquire the skills they need, and they can be long term pursuits which could last the whole of our working lives.

Where the idea of vocation is helpful is that it puts these activities into their proper place. They are callings. They are more than work done simply to earn a living. The doctor, the artist, the musician, the writer, the pastor, even the lawyer may have a sense of compulsion about what they do, a sense that it would be wrong for them to be doing anything else. This can be helpful, as long as it does not become an obsession. However, there are some days where, for me, being a lawyer is simply the worst job I can imagine myself doing (except for all the others).  Nonetheless, while you may not necessarily feel that being a lawyer is what you have to do, if you can see no point in your practice of law beyond making money, find a different career as soon as possible.

But, the work we are called to do is not the be all and end all. Just as Jesus called His first disciples, so He calls us all: “Come, follow me” (Matthew 4:19). A Christian lawyer’s first calling is to be a follower of Jesus Christ. Paul makes this point in two ways in Colossians chapter 2. In verses 11 and 12 he declares that our identity is to be found in Christ. We were circumcised by Christ, buried with Christ in baptism, raised with Christ through our faith in the working of God. Because we are in Christ, we have been released from the other things that controlled us, what Paul calls “the flesh” (sarx). Power, status, money, privilege and all the other perks that lawyers crave; these should no longer matter to us.

Paul draws out the implications of our identity being found in Christ earlier in chapter 2. In verses 6 and 7, he says: “just as you received Christ Jesus as Lord, continue to live your lives in him, rooted and built up in him, strengthened in the faith as you were taught, and overflowing with thankfulness.”

Our primary calling is to receive Christ Jesus as Lord and to continue to live our lives in him. This means that whatever else we are called to do must be compatible with and an expression of what it means for us to follow Jesus. So, I can go to work and serve my clients today knowing that God has called me to be a lawyer serving him in London today.

However, if I know that my identity is centred in Christ, practising law is cut down to size. It is simply something God calls us to do for part of our lives. We can therefore have assurance that practising law is the right thing for us to be doing at this particular time, but also openness to laying down our identity as lawyers if God is calling us to serve Him in other ways instead.

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