I am a lawyer because the law is what I spend my time doing

David McIlroy

David McIlroy

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I am a lawyer because the law is what I spend my time doing. Practising law is like constantly revising for exams; there are always deadlines to meet. The relief of completing a deadline is immediately replaced either by the next deadline or by worrying about finding the next client.

It feels as if the law never sleeps. How many times do I pick up my smartphone in the evening or at a weekend, just to check if I have been sent an email by a client? How many of us look at our emails at least once a day even when we are on vacation?

Commitment to doing our best for our clients is praiseworthy; obsession with our obligations at work to the detriment of our focus on God, our family and our neighbours is not. In fact, by never switching off from our work, we do not serve our clients as well as we should. We are paid to make wise and correct decisions; our ability to do so can be severely impaired by exhaustion and by trying to do too many things at once.

In the Old Testament, the need to rest, to spend time with God and with our families was so important that it is one of the Ten Commandments. Before immediately rushing to the questions about whether and how the commandment “Remember the Sabbath, to keep it holy” (Exodus 20:8, NKJV) applies to us today, let’s spend a few minutes thinking about what the Sabbath commandment meant.

First, the Sabbath commandment meant there was a work-free zone, there was a set time each week into which the pressures and demands of work were not permitted to enter. This reflects a basic human need: the need to rest. We know that we need sleep and without it we will die. Studies show that many aspects of our health and well-being are affected by whether we get enough sleep and by the quality of our sleep. But as well as sleep, we also need time when we are awake but not thinking about work: we need to switch off. Many lawyers find this impossible to do without chemical stimulus. Alcohol is a common way of drowning out the noise of the law rather than switching off from it.

Second, the Sabbath commandment created a shared time for rest. The Jewish Sabbath is centred around the household. The Sabbath is a time when relationships are prioritised over projects, when eating and fellowshipping together is recognised as the most important task after worshipping God.

Third, the Sabbath commandment is a declaration that we are not called to save the world. To observe the Sabbath was to make a conscious choice to “down tools” for one day in seven. It was to acknowledge that we are not asked to spend every single waking moment trying to solve the world’s problems and that, if we tried to do so, we would fail.

Senior lawyers find this so difficult. We know that we can draft documents better than anyone else in the firm, we know that if only we were chairing the meeting the right decisions would get made, and we know that we are indispensable to winning new work, to running important cases and to checking that everyone else in the firm has done what we have asked them to do.

When Peter Marshall, chaplain of the U.S. Senate, suffered his first heart attack, a friend asked him: “What did you learn during your illness?” He replied: “I learned that the Kingdom of God goes on without Peter Marshall.”

To make a deliberate decision to stop and to rest is to acknowledge that we are not Superman, that we are not Flash Gordon, that we are not Jesus. Observing the Sabbath is a declaration that Jesus is the one Lord and Saviour, not us.

All of these reasons for resting still apply to Christian lawyers today. How should they be implemented: by taking Sunday as a day of rest or by adopting a more flexible schedule taking rest at other points in the week?

Paul says in Colossians 2:16-17 “Therefore do not let anyone judge you by what you eat or drink, or with regard to a religious festival, a New Moon celebration or a Sabbath day. These are a shadow of the things that were to come; the reality, however, is found in Christ.”

Each of us is accountable to God for whether we build enough God-honouring rest into our schedule. We have to come to a concluded view on what is best for us, given the relationships God has given us and the work God has called us to do.

The starting point is that we should take one day off in seven. If we have family ties, that day off should align with the time taken off by other members of the family, so far as possible. For the Jews, rest, relaxation and religion all take place primarily in the context of the family home. We would do well to follow their example.

For those who reach the conclusion that observing the Sabbath is no longer a binding commandment, any deviation from the principle of one day off in seven should result in more rest not less. The Old Testament teaches that as well as giving one-seventh of our time to rest, we should give away one-tenth of our money. Many Christians treat the Old Testament rules about tithing as not binding. If that is you, do you cheerfully give away more than one-tenth of your income or do you grudgingly part with much less than one-tenth? In the same way, if you don’t keep one day of your weekend free from work, does that mean you are actually taking much less time to rest overall?

Robert Murray McCheyne was highly gifted by God. Having graduated from Edinburgh University aged just fourteen, by age 23 he was leading a church of over one thousand. Yet he burnt himself out and died at just 29. Amongst the last words he wrote were: “God gave me a message to deliver and a horse to ride. Alas, I have killed the horse and now I cannot deliver the message.”

Being a lawyer is not just how we spend our time, it is how we spend ourselves. Dedicating time to worshipping God, to being with our family and to outside interests is essential to keeping the right perspective on the work we are doing and on ourselves. 

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