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uOttawa Common Law Bulletin - "Perfect Symbiosis"


”I had little to do with planning any of my professional experiences,” says Professor David Paciocco, “The last thing I expected to do was criminal law, let alone criminal defence work.”

Over the years, Prof. Paciocco has worked on everything from tax evasion cases to terrorism and war crimes cases. He has participated in homicide cases and regulatory prosecutions, assisted in constitutional challenges and been retained by large firms to work on administrative files requiring criminal law expertise.

“Needless to say, my practice has been broad-ranging,” he says. “What the cases I work on tend to have in common is that they raise constitutional questions or require unique, interesting or complicated arguments, often on evidentiary issues.”

Serendipity has certainly played a role in Prof. Paciocco’s career path, but he owes much of his success to his keen understanding of how to communicate complex legal issues. He has parlayed this ability into dual careers as an advocate and a law professor and, in the process, found a relevant and beneficial balance between teaching and advocacy. 

When he is not presiding over a classroom or grading papers as a Professor in the Common Law Section—where he teaches Criminal Law, Evidence and the Law of Trusts—Prof. Paciocco is counsel to the firm Edelson Clifford D’Angelo, where he provides legal and strategic advice to the firm’s lawyers, primarily where complicated legal issues arise. He also conducts appeals and occasionally handles motions in complex cases where intricate legal argument is required.

“Appellate advocacy requires uncommon interest in the law,” he says. “Most importantly, appellate advocacy requires an ability to find the most evocative component of your case—the human dimension that can attract empathy or sympathy—and communicate it using the language of the law.” Similarly, he notes, trial lawyers, above all, need to be able to understand people. Knowing how to interact with people and understanding what makes them tick is the key to success in the courtroom.

Fortunately, with scores of students passing through his classrooms each year, getting the chance to interact with people is never a problem for Prof. Paciocco. “I attribute my success as an advocate to my teaching experiences,” he says. “Teaching is about communicating understanding. So too is advocacy. The skills I learned by my early failures in the classroom are the skills I now trade on in court—organization, logic, simple language and attention to the audience.”

Prof. Paciocco describes his decision to become a law professor as an accident, though not an unwelcome one. He originally anticipated setting up a practice in his hometown of Sault Ste. Marie, but his wife favoured a more adventurous path, living abroad before settling down. She won the day and Prof. Paciocco ended up at Oxford. “That experience bankrupted me,” he says. “We had no money to come home and do the bar exams with, which at the time took a year of study. I learned that if I taught for three years I would not have to do the bar, so I applied for teaching jobs. I thought teaching would be a short-cut to a small town law practice, not a career.”

Ultimately, he opted for the best of both worlds, splicing together his careers as a law professor and an active legal practitioner.

 As legal counsel, Prof. Paciocco has worked on defence teams for numerous high-profile cases, including the 1980s Red Cross tainted blood scandal, the freedom of the press case of Ottawa Citizen journalist, Juliet O’Neill, and most recently, the successful defence of Ottawa Mayor Larry O’Brien over allegations of bribery in the 2006 mayoral election. “I was exhilarated after the O’Neill verdict and after the verdict in the prosecution of Mayor O’Brien,” he  says. “Those cases involved tremendous preparation and meant a great deal to good people.”

While his success in his practice is undeniable, Prof. Paciocco insists he never envisioned himself as an expert in criminal law, let alone doing criminal defence work. As with his teaching career, he owes his entry into the field of criminal law to happenstance. His passion, when he began his career, was for the law of evidence. As the Charter entered the picture in 1982, however, he saw a change coming. As more and more cases shifted to the criminal domain, he felt his lack of knowledge of criminal law concepts and practice would impede his scholarship, so he offered to teach criminal law to strengthen his evidence law expertise.

“Before long, I was hooked,” he says. “The drama of a criminal trial is unparalleled. Nowhere else is there more at stake. And nowhere else is it more important to know the law. I found that criminal law satisfied my thirst for adventure and relevance, and gave me a creative outlet for my legal skill set.”

To students and young lawyers considering careers as advocates, Prof. Paciocco has this piece of advice: “It is easy to blow a strong case with poor advocacy. Judges can only work with what the lawyer gives them. Do not become an advocate unless you are prepared to work as hard on your client’s file as you would want your lawyer to work on your file if it was your life, liberty, family or fortune on the line.”

Through hard work and some fortuitous accidents, Prof. Paciocco has found himself with two successful careers, which have complemented each other well. “Being a teacher and an advocate is perfect symbiosis,” he says, “and I am privileged to have the opportunity to do both.”

Common Law Bulletin - original story

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