A real mensch – the Honourable Mr. Justice Michael Moldaver
I had the good fortune of listening to Mr. Justice Michael Moldaver of the Supreme Court of Canada last week. He gave the Milvain Lecture at the University of Calgary’s law school – I understand he spent a few days giving the third-year law students feedback during their advocacy course. He spoke candidly about his life and experiences as a criminal lawyer and a judge.
Here are some highlights:
He talked about the stresses and pressures of being a criminal lawyer, as well as being a judge. He stated that “judges who care” are under a lot of stress. He spoke about some of his low points as a lawyer, and the second-guessing he subjected himself to after some of his losses.
He learned that trials are brutal, and “there’s no certainty in the courtroom”. He took pride in avoiding trial wherever possible, and working out plea arrangements with the Crown – his cases would only go to trial approximately 2% of the time.
He was accused of being more of a social worker than a lawyer during his lawyering days, and he took pride in this.
He spoke of how success as a lawyer is not measured by money or number of wins, but by how one “plays the game.” How integrity, respect, and hard work should be the trademark of a lawyer, and should be the benchmark with which to measure success.
He mentioned that every lawyer can do great things, and that he’s not referring to arguing landmark judgments in the Supreme Court. Rather, little wins like helping the “little guy” navigate the complex legal system. He said that one of the most meaningful mementos he has at home is a small statue he was given by a client, a woman he defended in a murder case, in which he was successful. She had a defence of self-defence against her abusive husband. He made very little money off of Legal Aid for that trial and almost no fame or celebrity, but remembering the difference he made in that woman’s life makes that statue priceless to him.
During the Q&A session, he talked more about the stresses and learning curve he underwent as a judge at different levels of court. In response to my question about how he handled the stresses as a lawyer, he said it helped to be honourable and reliable in his dealings with the Crown and police (and rarely going to trial).
He made the interesting point that he never accepted major cases where he didn’t believe his client was innocent or at least was possibly innocent – he felt he wouldn’t do a good job of advocating if he didn’t believe in the client’s innocence. He mentioned the importance of being “comfortable in your own skin”, regardless of what others say.
It was an honour to hear insights and advice from one of this country’s most respected legal minds. Thank you, Mr. Justice Moldaver.