So you want to be a criminal lawyer...

What I am most Grateful for In Practicing Criminal Defence: the Paavo Nurmi Method of Being a Lawyer

Criminal defence lawyers love to complain. I would be lying if I didn`t say I like doing it too from time to time. All of us need this kind of release every once in a while. The grind. The long hours. The stress. The low pay in the sense of the input not matching the output and compared to other types of lawyers. But the other day one of my colleagues flipped the script when he asked me what I was most grateful for when it comes to practicing criminal defence. I had not actually thought about this question and it got me thinking. His question made me remember something I saw when I was a kid watching my first Olympics.

In 1988, I watched my first Olympics in Seoul, South Korea. I still remember the most exciting moment for me. I was watching the American broadcast as the commentators touted the great American heavyweight Riddick Bowe who was facing Canadian Lennox Lewis in the gold medal bout. After listening to some typical American bravado, Lennox Lewis proceeded to beat up Riddick Bowe around the ring for three rounds. Lewis had his hands in the air and flashed a big smile before the bout was officially over. The American commentators were mostly silent. I have loved the Olympics ever since.

At that same Olympics, I saw something less exciting but that always stuck out in my mind just as much. There was a flashback feature on an all-time great Olympian, Paavo Nurmi, who had the very fitting nickname "the Flying Finn." Nurmi ran distances from 1,500 metres to 10,000 metres and was dominant for more than a decade. He won an astonishing 9 gold medals and 3 silver medals over three Olympic Games. The feature I watched talked about how Nurmi would always run with a stopwatch. I remember the archival footage of Nurmi looking at his stopwatch as he finished a lap, which left an impression on me because I thought it was so bizarre at the time. Nurmi did not look at what the competition was doing during his races and whether he was ahead or behind. He had a race plan and stuck to it and tried his best to beat his own best times for his race plan. He ran with a stopwatch to see how he was doing according to his race plan. He used this method to become one of the most successful Olympians ever. 


As silly as it looked to me as a six-year old to see Nurmi running with a stopwatch and ignoring the competition, I now think he was a genius. Nurmi knew something that I didn´t as a law student and young lawyer that I wish I had known.


Law school has a very funny way of making students constantly feel like they are involved in a competition. First-year exams happen at the same time and everybody knows how much those five or six exams are going to impact the future. Law students are always studying and talking about studying at the same time. After exams, law students are always talking about their grades. Then a small number of law students get first-year summer law jobs at firms and even though the majority do not get first-year law jobs, you cannot avoid finding out who is working where and measuring yourself against other students. Then applications for second-year summer jobs happen at the same time. Then on-campus interviews happen at the same time and everyone is always talking about who got how many interviews. Then in-firm interviews happen at the same time and everyone is always talking about who interviews where and then where everyone ends up working and gauges who is successful, less successful and not successful in the process. Then summering at a law firm happens at the same time. Then articling happens at the same time and everyone finds out who is successful, less successful and not successful in getting an articling position. Then hire back at the firms happens at the same time and the process repeats. Many people get very enmeshed in this process.  Lawyers tend to be very type A people. If there is a competition, they think to themselves, then they have to win it. I was one of the worst offenders in this kind of thinking when I was a law student and for years after I became a lawyer.

You may think that this competition-like process ends after articling is finished, but the cold truth is it does not. As Peter Thiel, the founder of eBay and one of the original investors in Facebook, always recounts about the day he decided to quit his Wall Street law firm, he looked around the firm and realized that the competition he had been involved in for so many years of his life in getting the Wall Street law job never ends. Thiel did not want to spend the rest of his life in a competition, so he quit. The psychological hold that this competition-like process has on lawyers caused many of them to ask him after he quit how he did it. His answer was simple: ´there was the door. I walked out.´

The never-ending competition can really get lawyers down and make them crazy. I believe it is one of the main reasons why many lawyers struggle with mental health and addiction issues. It took me years to realize that this competitive way of thinking about comparing outcomes with people going through a similar process is not only very unhealthy, but utterly stupid. For me, practicing criminal defence has been the best teacher I could have ever dreamed of in teaching me not to compare myself to others.

One of the greatest examples I could provide about how practicing criminal defence taught me not to compare myself to others is my experience representing clients at the sentencing stage of a criminal case. If you are doing your job properly as a defence lawyer, the sentencing process forces you to drill down deeply into a person´s circumstances. Any time you do this exercise, you realize how impossible and even ridiculous it is to compare two human beings. It is always interesting to bring precedents and compare what other judges have done in different situations, but no two cases and no two people are ever alike. Circumstances are always different. It is conceptually silly to take two human beings and ask for the same outcome on sentence as a matter of principle. As the Supreme Court rightly said in R v. Ipeelee:

The interaction between ss. 718.2( e) and 718.2(b) - the parity principle — merits specific attention. Section 718.2(b) states that ´a sentence should be similar to sentences imposed on similar offenders for similar offences committed in similar circumstances´. Similarity, however, is sometimes an elusory concept...In practice, similarity is a matter of degree. No two offenders will come before the courts with the same background and experiences, having committed the same crime in the exact same circumstances.

Criminal defence has also taught me the folly in making judgments about a person´s life experience based on superficial factors that I can see. I get to know my clients and ask a lot of personal questions about their lives and their experience that I would never ask anyone else. I am often shocked by what I hear, especially from people that I imagine have perfect lives at first blush. I have met clients that I thought had everything going for them when I looked at them: wealth, good professions, beautiful families, etc. When I found out more about their background and their circumstances, I was often shocked by the kind of pain they were living with or the life experience they had. This has taught me to never make judgments about what other people´s circumstances are like based on how it appears to me by looking at them or, even worse, their social media. Criminal defence has taught me that perception is not only often not reality, it is sometimes the exact opposite of reality.


Once I internalized that circumstances were never truly alike between human beings and that perception is often not reality, I realized how utterly stupid and pointless it is to compare my outcomes to the outcomes of others. It is a totally irrelevant factor to me what the outcomes of others are. Worse still than how stupid and pointless it is, this stupid and pointless exercise has the power to make me feel depressed and frustrated.


I did not exactly walk out of a physical door like Peter Thiel did, but I did find refuge from this competition-like process when I became a defence lawyer and realized that it is impossible to compare circumstances and outcomes with other people. You never know what the circumstances of others are or why certain outcomes occur by looking at superficial factors. It is pointless and self-destructive to even think about it.

When I was asked what I am most grateful for in practicing criminal defence, I started thinking about this process that took me years of practicing, learning and maturing. Had I continued to think and act like I was in a competition that never ends, I have no idea where I would be in life or if I would even be alive. Thinking this way can literally make you sick and kill you. I was very lucky to learn through my cases and experience in criminal defence the folly of comparing myself to others.

Paavo Nurmi was right to run his races with a stopwatch and try to beat his best times and just ignore what everyone else was doing. He became one of the most successful Olympians of all time this way, but even if he hadn´t, his method was right. The only thing that matters in life to me is that my own outcomes are improving. Everything else is completely irrelevant and uninteresting to me. I try my best to live my life looking at my own stopwatch. My clients, my cases and my experience have taught me that. Living life this way allows me to focus on my own improvements and achievements and be happy and grateful for them.

Law can be a competition that never ends if you allow it to. Practicing criminal defence saved me from allowing this way of thinking from having any psychological power over me and taught me to just walk out the door, like Peter Thiel said. This process changed me from a sick person to a healthy one. It is the thing I am most grateful for in practicing criminal defence.


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