Work/life balance can be an elusive goal to attain within the legal profession. For years lawyers have cited a lack of work/life balance as one of the profession’s most prevalent issues, with one US law firm going so far as to launch an ill-considered April Fools’ joke that only served to highlight the problem. With long hours, conflicting deadlines, and high expectations from both clients and colleagues, it can be easy for a lawyer to sideline any passions that extend beyond their career. However, for Phillip Segal – the Sydney barrister who climbed Mount Everest – the two are far from being mutually exclusive.
An established criminal defence barrister currently based out of Sydney’s Samuel Griffith Chambers, Segal commenced his career in Indigenous legal advocacy in the 1970s. During this time, he experienced Apartheid through a two-month work placement in South Africa and Zimbabwe (then known as Rhodesia), and applied the knowledge he acquired in-country to his work at the Aboriginal Legal Service. As a solicitor advocate conducting criminal trials exclusively for the defence in the Supreme and District Courts, Segal was thrown in the deep end.
“I turned up at court on 19th May 1975 having never done a criminal case in my life and there were 100 cases waiting for me on that list day,” Segal told Insights.
Despite this trial-by-fire initiation, he quickly rose to a senior role, and was admitted as a barrister in 1996. Segal asserts that progression is something a lawyer should take seriously.
“A standard of excellence is required of a barrister, nothing less,” Segal said.
“They say ‘the buck stops here’, so personal responsibility is always taken and cannot be delegated. You own every word and there’s no-one to blame but yourself.”
Beyond the shift in professional perspective, Segal said the career advancement changed him as a person as well.
“Emotionally and physically it is very demanding to undertake a criminal trial – for both the client and the barristers,” he said.
“It is great to win: the buzz lasts 24 hours. Losing: the effect is for life.”
Segal fondly recalls one particular defendant. Upon being exonerated after spending 15 months on remand, the client asked Segal to drive him back to gaol to collect his cigarettes.
“You should have seen the faces of the prison officers at Grafton Gaol,” he said.
“My client left there in the morning in a prison van to take him to Lismore District Court for a trial by jury. He was a maximum security prisoner. He came back in the afternoon in his lawyer’s Porsche and marched up to the 4-5 metre high front doors of the gaol and asked to be let in! To say their jaws hung open might be a way of describing it.”
Segal’s career trajectory is not uncommon among successful career lawyers. However, his ascent of professional peaks was accompanied the conquest of physical peaks – commencing with rock climbing in western NSW, before advancing to mountain ranges in New Zealand, the European Alps, and finally to the Himalayas and Mount Everest. On his first expedition to the Himalayas in 1979 (the second venture in 1989 was hindered by the closure of the Tibetan border after the events at Tiananmen Square), Segal became lost in the wilderness in what he confesses was a near-death experience.
“I was lost alone in the Langtang region for a week and without food in a true ‘survival experience’”,” he said.
“I really thought I’d die and was thinking of how much I’d miss the bowl of fresh fruit that always stood on my grandmother’s dining table, but I persevered by following river gorges down stream knowing that eventually all rivers lead to civilisation.”
To prepare for the challenge of Everest, Segal spent a gruelling six months hiking the slopes of Coffs Harbour and the Snowy Mountains with a rucksack full of rocks. While his training regime coincided with a growth period in his criminal defence career, Segal says he was able to schedule his preparation on weekends; before and after work; and work breaks.
“Career is not separate from my life,” he said. “It is who I am. It is my persona, my identity. Mountain climbing, defending the innocent (everyone is innocent until proven otherwise), being a devoted husband and father – they all exist side by side.”
For other ambitious lawyers who are looking to pursue their passions while advancing their careers, Segal offers simple advice.
“Find a supportive partner,” he said, “and find a way to unify your interests with your job. My Everest friend was also a defence lawyer. He said there are 3 basic principles to criminal defence practise:
- People only get convicted on evidence
- The best evidence is no evidence.
- Treat all evidence as prima facie inadmissible.
This remarkable prescience was later to be enacted in s.55 of the Evidence Act, long after Bruce Miles first conceived and verbalised it. Were it not for our shared interest, I wouldn’t have heard it first.”