Clement Vallandigham was defence counsel in a murder trial in 1871 in Lebanon, Ohio.

A fight had broken out in a bar when Thomas McGehan attacked Thomas Myers who was playing cards.

To defend himself Myers pulled his pistol out of his pocket.

As they struggled, Myers was shot with his own gun and died.

McGehan was arrested for murder.

It seemed an open and shut case.

McGehan had threatened Myers’ life before.

Several people saw McGehan walk into the bar and attack Myers.

A guilty verdict was a formality.

It was Vallandigham’s job to try to prove there was a reasonable doubt.

If he could do that, McGehan must be found not guilty.

So in his hotel room, Vallandigham plotted the defence.

What if the pistol had gone off as Myers pulled it out of his pocket?

What if Myers accidentally shot himself?

Even if he couldn’t prove Myers did it, all he needed to prove was that it was possible.

So in front of his two assistants, Vallandigham rehearsed what he planned to demonstrate in the courtroom.

He put the pistol in his pocket, then he quickly drew it out.

As he did, the hammer of the pistol caught on his coat and cocked itself.

But the pistol was loaded.

The pistol fired and the bullet went into Vallandigham’s groin.

And he died.

Several days later the story of his demonstration was admitted into evidence at the court.

Vallandigham’s death established reasonable doubt.

And Thomas McGehan was found not guilty.

Clement Vallandigham won the case, even though he was dead at the time.

Surely we all know that feeling.

Winning on one level but losing on a much bigger level.

Take pitches.

One of the clients says something stupid.

We have the soundest, most sensible argument, everything we say makes perfect sense, and we prove the client wrong.

So we win the argument.

But we lose the pitch because the client hates us for making him look stupid.

Which defeats the object much the same way as Vallandigham’s victory in court did.

It’s what’s known as a pyrrhic victory.

King Pyrrhus invaded Italy in 279 BC.

His army of twenty thousand men beat the Romans at the Battle of Asculum.

But Pyrrhus lost over seven thousand men, a third of his army.

Amongst those were his elite troops, plus his closest friends and advisors.

One of his commanders congratulated him on the victory.

Kind Pyrrhus said “Another such victory and I am undone.”

Meaning he actually lost what he couldn’t afford to lose.

So Pyrrhus was forced to retreat from Italy.

He was victorious in battle, but that victory cost him the war.

When he won, he lost.

Because it’s very hard to resist winning.

It’s very hard to bite your lip when you know you’re right.

But you have to ask yourself what the bigger purpose is.


As Mike Gold used to say to me: “The equation is always this – is what I get worth what it costs?”