A friend suggested that I interview lawyer Sean MacDonald and I’m glad that I listened. Sean’s honesty, passion and humility shines through his interview. I think that it takes a certain type of individual to take the time to defend the wrongfully convicted because in many instances the accused cannot pay the legal fees. Sean’s focus is not about money, and after you have read his entire interview you discover his love for life. He lives every day as if it’s his last, how about you? What lessons can you learn from him?
YouTube Video of David Moran Speaking About Wrongful Convictions in the US. If you cannot view the video click here.
Tell me a little bit about yourself.
I practice law in Toronto and my focus right now is wrongful convictions and basically that means getting innocent people out of jail.
What’s a typical day like for you?
My days are never typical and they depend on what’s going on and what my case load is. It can range from a day where I review transcripts, prepare submissions for cases that I am working on, or I can be on the phone with forensic investigators, or with private investigators and different lawyers across the country and around the world. It really varies. But typically my day comes back to people who are wrongfully convicted.
How do you motivate yourself and stay motivated?
I think life is a gift, I’m always motivated. I don’t have a problem being motivated. I love life and every day brings a new challenge and I like that.
If you had to start over from scratch, knowing what you know now, what would you do differently?
I don’t think that I’d do anything differently. I’ve been pretty fortunate so far, I don’t think that I’d change anything.
What’s the most important business or other discovery you’ve made in the past year?
My focus is really on social justice and the criminal justice system, so in terms of business I know that comes along with it but I do not focus on that. I’ve had many learning experiences over the last 10 years that relate to my work and my ability to get people who are innocent out of jail, for me that’s more important than the business aspect of.
What’s one of the biggest advances in your industry over the past five years?
I think the biggest advance is the general public awareness that there are times when the justice system doesn’t work and the ability to accept that as an inevitable consequence of the way things work and to recognize that the wrongfully convicted deserve justice.
What are the three threats to your business, your success, and how are you handling them?
- If I were to pick three threats, the first one would be the lack of resources for people who find themselves victims of the miscarriage of justice.
- The second would be the reluctance of governments to address these issues.
- The third threat would be the reluctance of governments across Canada and the United States to provide remedies for people who are innocent and locked in jail.
What’s unique about the service that you provide?
It’s a unique area because it combines legal theory with investigation and forensic technology. I think for me it’s unique because it’s unlike any other area. You are a fact finder and at the same time you are a lawyer.
What do you observe most people in your field doing badly that you think you do well?
There are a small group of people in Canada who do what I do and to be honest I do not observe any of them doing anything badly. They are highly dedicated and skilled, and if anything I learn from them.
Describe a major business or other challenge you had and how you resolved it.
I think every time I take a case is a major challenge. You have someone who has been investigated, charged, gone to trial and been convicted and sentenced, and winds up in a federal maximum security penitentiary. Every case is a challenge because you are working to reverse that, so I think that every case that I take is a major challenge because you are trying to swim upstream.
Every case is different, but if there was a commonality it would be the fact I roll up my sleeve and start with the first piece of paper and I begin to read to get an understanding of the facts, then I read it again and again. Once I have read every thing a few times I start to get my own facts, I hire my own investigators and forensic experts, pathologist, wound pathologist, maybe fire arms experts, ballistics experts, and stuff like that then I begin to create my own investigation, then I fold that into the original investigation and see where that takes me.
What lessons did you learn in the process?
- You have to be patient and these things never come easy
- Have faith and keep that faith
I’ve been lucky to reverse almost sixty years of wrongful incarceration or wrongful conviction time and I know on the other end how gratifying it is, and that helps me to stay patient and keep the faith.
Tell me about your big break and who gave you.
I don’t think that there was ever any one big break for me. I think it was a series of small accomplishments that came as a result of extremely hard work and having the good fortune of being around some of best in the business. I try to work very hard, to keep making gains and get better at what I do.
Describe one of your biggest failures. What lessons did you learn, and how did it contribute to a greater success?
One of my biggest failures if I can characterize it that way, was not being smart enough to begin practicing law with my father, instead of staying in Nova Scotia, I moved to Toronto and articled on Bay Street. When I think back, I lost the opportunity to learn from the smartest person I know, and moved here instead. As a result, that was a failure in a broad sense. From this experience, I’ve learned to appreciate how brilliant my father was and how much he has impacted my life.
What has been your biggest disappointment in your life – and what are you doing to prevent its reoccurrence?
My biggest heart break was losing my father, and there is nothing that I can do to prevent that.
What’s one of the toughest decisions you’ve had to make and how did it impact your life?
I think it goes back to moving to Toronto. I think that was the toughest decision that I had to make. I had an articling job on Bay Street, and I also had an opportunity to practice with my father, and I chose Toronto. If I had the opportunity to make this decision again, I probably would have stayed with my father.
What are three events that helped to shape your life?
- When I was a teenager I worked as a processor or bailiff serving court documents for a variety of lawyers including my father basically providing litigation support, and that impacted my life because I got the chance to be exposed to a court house at a young age and I got to work with different lawyers during the trial process.
- I started a private investigating company soon after. That impacted my life because it got me more involved in the trial process, and I had the ability to inject myself even deeper into the preparation of cases that go to trial, and it gave me the opportunity to be around the trial when it was happening, take statements from witnesses, go to crime scenes and take pictures, and gather evidence to assist lawyers who were conducting trials and that really impacted my life.
- The above events led to my further development, which was going to law school and getting more involved in the trial process.
These three things have shaped the way I look at my profession. I had the opportunity to have the slow and steady evolution from the time I was about 16 years old.
What’s an accomplishment that you are proudest of?
The accomplishment that I’m proudest of was walking out of the courtroom with a client in 2008, who was dying of cancer, who was exonerated from murder after 30 years.
How did mentors influence your life?
Mentors influenced my life in many different ways. I am lucky enough to work with many of the greats, and I’m lucky enough from the time I was probably eight years old to have my father as my biggest mentor. He was the most brilliant trial strategist that I have ever seen, so I had an opportunity to learn from him every single day. We talked about his cases, his theories about the cases and what he was doing, what he thought, what I thought, so I learned from him. There wasn’t a day when he was alive that I didn’t call him three or four times and talk to him about different things that related to what I was doing. I have other greats like Phil Campbell who is the best wrongful dismissal lawyer in Canada and probably in the world. I’ve worked with him, I’ve worked with James Locklear, who again is one of the best in the world at what he does so I’m very, very lucky to be exposed to some of the best wrongful dismissal lawyers in the world.
What’s one core message you received from your mentors?
I can’t say there is a core message. The way I approach it is to keep my eyes and ears wide open. I mean they have wisdom, and every time I speak to them I learn something. I guess the core message would be to listen.
Which resources (books, movies, training etc.) did your mentors recommend to you?
My father recommended a book called The Art of Advocacy written by John Monkman. It’s an old English book written by an English barrister, and it sets out the fundamentals of being a lawyer, it’s not complicated, and it’s laid out to teach lawyers the basics. My father read that book every two to three years, and he practiced for thirty-plus years.
As an Invisible Mentor, what is one piece of advice that you would give to readers?
The world is filled with infinite opportunities. If you believe in yourself, whatever goals you set for yourself you can achieve them. That’s the single most important piece of advice that I could give to anybody.
What are your thoughts on this interview? What was expected and what was unexpected? Do you capitalize on the opportunities that come your way? What are 10 takeaways? How can you apply this information? Let’s keep the conversation flowing, please let me know your thoughts in the comments section below. Many readers read this blog from other sites, so why don’t you pop over to The Invisible Mentorand subscribe (top on the right side) by email or RSS Feed.
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