7 Questions on Firefighting and Practicing Law with Paul Chessin
by Matthew Crouch
Paul Chessin is far from just another lawyer putting out fires. He works as an Assistant Attorney General in the Colorado Attorney General’s Office litigating in the Consumer Credit Unit of the Consumer Protection Section. His scholarly achievements include ranking as a magna cum laude graduate in Physics from Harvard College and graduating from Harvard Law School. Before joining the AG’s office, Paul clerked for a Colorado appellate judge, took a 6-year hiatus from the law and worked as a professional ski patroller for a major Colorado ski resort. He has practiced corporate & commercial litigation in the private sector in several law firms in New York and Colorado.
Denver Docket: When did you first realize that you wanted to be an attorney and a firefighter?
Paul Chessin: It didn’t really happen that way. I was already an attorney when I took up firefighting. A number of years ago, I decided to take a hiatus from the practice of law. I became a professional ski patroller. As you might imagine, the summers are slow for ski patrolling. So, I was looking for something to keep me busy, where I could maintain my medical skills. A friend of mine on the ski patrol, who was a volunteer firefighter, suggested I volunteer for my local fire department. I looked into it and I found that I enjoyed it.
DD: What is the thrill of doing both careers?
PC: The thrill? Well, the thrill of firefighting is easy. Do you remember as a child, seeing a fire engine go by with its lights and sirens going? It’s just as thrilling sitting inside that engine as a firefighter. But you can’t lose sight of the job you’re called on to do, or the fact that, when we get called, it means someone is having a bad day. I don’t know if "thrill" describes a legal career. I am a litigator, and that can certainly be exciting at times, such as appearing in court. Your pulse can certainly go up (I am reminded of the old curse, "May you live in exciting times.") But for me, being a firefighter and an attorney provides a pretty good balance. Both are mentally challenging, and in both you are learning something new all the time. Unlike the law, firefighting has a sense of immediacy, in that what you do has an immediate effect on the situation and its outcome. With litigation on the other hand, the law and the wheels of justice can turn very slowly. Firefighting also is physically challenging, and that provides a good balance from sitting at a desk in an office all day long.
DD: What is the hardest challenge you face with careers as diverse as these?
PC: Time. I think the biggest challenge is the time. To maintain my status with the fire department, I have to put in time both in volunteering and showing up, and also in training and keeping my skills up. Being a lawyer, of course, has great demands on my time, as well. Of course, my legal career comes first and I make firefighting fit into the time available. But because firefighting means a lot to me, I put in the effort to make sure I have the available time.
Do you remember as a child, seeing a fire engine go by with its lights and sirens going? It’s just as thrilling sitting inside that engine as a firefighter.
DD: Have you found that what you learn in one career transfers into the other?
PC: Yes — both the law and firefighting involve problem solving and using analytical, critical thinking to solve the problem. To me, problem solving is problem solving, whether in the legal field, in dealing with a sick or injured patient, or putting out a fire. The tools you use may be different, but fundamentally they all involve cognitive skills.
DD: Which do you have more control over — your cases or a fire?
PC: In both there are things you have control over and things that are not within your control. For example, in wildland firefighting, the weather plays a major factor. The weather can be very unpredictable and it can make your best laid plans go haywire. And you can’t control the weather. What you try to do is anticipate, such as, "What happens if the weather does this or that?" You try to prepare the best you can for those eventualities. It’s the same thing with the law, especially in the litigation context; there are things you can’t always anticipate. Obviously, there are certain things that are not in your control. For example, opposing counsel is not in your control, and the court is not in your control; but again, you try to anticipate what might happen and prepare the best you can.
DD: Do you view yourself as a thrill seeker and if so, how does that affect your work?
PC: No, I don’t consider myself as a thrill seeker. I don’t jump off buildings or BASE jump or anything like that. I don’t heal fast anymore. But I do like challenging myself within reason. I think challenge is part of what makes you grow as a person. That is one of the things about the law — it can be very challenging. Firefighting is also very challenging and, in addition to the mental challenge, there is also the physical aspect that can be challenging. We’re back to the "thrill" thing again. Firefighting is not nearly as glamorous as you would think. For the 10 minutes of the "thrill" of, say, putting out a fire, there are three hours of clean-up afterward. You’re tired, hungry, cold and wet, but you have to put all of that aside, and wash the hose, make sure the engine is fully stocked and ready to go again, and all of that related stuff. But that’s all part of the job.
I like Newton’s laws because of the elegance of their simplicity. They explain so much about the world around us, and so many other of the physical laws derive from those simple laws.
DD: What is your favorite law and why?
PC: I don’t have a single favorite law; I have four: Newton’s laws of motion, Murphy’s Law, the law of unintended consequences and the law of diminishing returns. I like Newton’s laws because of the elegance of their simplicity. They explain so much about the world around us, and so many other of the physical laws derive from those simple laws. We experience Murphy’s Law on a daily basis. An example is something as simple as a computer crashing when a brief is due. In firefighting, you are told to go with plan A but to have a plan B, C and D ready to go just in case, because Murphy’s Law can bite you when you least expect it. The law of unintended consequences is very important. For example, it can reveal itself in legislation. How might a law, or a contract provision, or a judicial decision, be interpreted, or how might it apply to a situation? That may not ever have been contemplated at the time the law, contract or opinion was written. The law of diminishing returns is best explained by a mentor of mine who once told me, "Better is the enemy of good."
Matthew Crouch jostles daily with the law and its applications to modern civilization as he knows it. In his spare time, he endeavors to genetically modify his thoroughbred sea monkeys to allow the development of opposable thumbs.