You realise it’s not about being present in an office, it’s about being in a place where you are comfortable to focus. That could be anywhere in the world.
Stress is part of the job for most solicitors. But intellectual property lawyer Matt Ward regularly faces life-or-death decisions that he says keep it in perspective.
Matt Ward was snowboarding in Japan when he heard a boom that “sounded like dynamite”. The ground beneath his feet dissolved as the side of the mountain – an area about 500 metres wide – let loose and began churning its way to the bottom of the valley.
Avalanches weigh more than 500 kilograms per cubic metre. According to the European Avalanche School, avalanches can quickly amass hundreds of thousands of tonnes and hit speeds up to 320 kilometres per hour. Ward had no way out and by the time it stopped he was “entirely convinced” his time was up.
“You get the time to process those thoughts, and you quickly decide, ‘Am I comfortable with my life choices? Am I happy with what I’ve been doing? If this is the end, how do I feel about it?’,” he says.
“At that point, I was definitely having a good day, I was happy, I was doing what I love. I think I was surprisingly relaxed and content and willing to accept whatever the mountain was going to give me.”
Fortunately, he washed up near the top and was able to dig an airway that saved his life.
Ward is a patents and intellectual property lawyer who has spent the past 18 months building his own practice, Forward Intellectual Property, at the Sydney Start-Up Hub. It follows 15 years in a corporate firm where he had been “knocking on the door of becoming partner” when it became publicly listed.
When I meet Ward near Wynyard Station, it’s clear he is not your average lawyer. He comes straight from his office wearing jeans, sneakers and a long-sleeve t-shirt with a backpack and a big smile.
Getting caught in an avalanche would likely be enough to put many people off snowboarding forever, but Ward laughs as he says it’s “par for the course, to an extent”. He grew up on Sydney’s northern beaches but has been bagging peaks since his family visited North America when he was a young boy.
It took just one trip to Whistler – a popular ski resort near Vancouver – and he was hooked.
Ward splits his time between his office in Sydney and various ski towns around the world where he indulges his passion for riding big mountains. He is a certified heli-ski guide with the Heli Ski US Association and has dropped out of helicopters on top of some of the world’s most remote mountain ranges – including on three of Alaska’s “Big Five” descents. Sheer, rugged and with pitches of up to 60 degrees, these are the type of lines usually reserved for sponsored athletes and Warren Miller ski films.
This year, Ward has spent three weeks skiing in Alaska and eight weeks in Japan. Next month, he’s planning to visit Chile to explore the Andes backcountry. Even when he worked in a corporate practice, he disappeared for weeks at a time with the blessing of his managing partner.
Ward works while he’s away, of course. He ventures into the mountains from about 9am to 3pm each day, but since there’s not a lot else to do in the dead of winter, he says it’s “really easy to make time” to knuckle down after skiing. In fact, he says it’s often easier to work without the distractions of being in an office.
“I came to a realisation a few years ago when I spent almost two months in Alaska,” Ward says. “Because of the limited time you spend skiing, and with the bad weather days and everything else, I actually billed out more that month than any other month of the year – to which my old employer said, ‘You should spend more time over there!’
“At that point, you realise it’s not about being present in an office, it’s about being in a place where you are comfortable to focus. That could be anywhere in the world.”
Ward, who studied mathematical physics and law at Macquarie University and has a master’s degree in intellectual property from the University of Technology, Sydney, is measured and methodical in his approach to his various pursuits. His lifestyle reflects a series of deliberate choices made over the years to create a life he is excited about living. He admits that he thrives in high-pressure situations but maintains he’s not a thrill-seeker.
“When you’re younger, you want to push harder and hit more terrain parks and learn new tricks and everything else,” he says. “As you get older, you realise you’re looking to progress in different ways.”
“[On big mountains] it’s really just about progressing the way you can work with the mountain, and a lot of that is developing respect for the conditions and respect for what the mountain can do to you … It becomes more like a chess game than a video game at that point.”
Chasing Alaska’s “Big Five” is part of that. The towering peaks are among the world’s most intimidating, but Ward plans to visit them every year until he is no longer physically able.
“I guess the more experience you get, the more respect you have for the mountain and the more you think about every choice that you’re going to make. You have to make sure that if something bad does happen at least you can look back and be comfortable with the choices you’ve made.”