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Leading expeditions to the polar regions makes me a better in-house lawyer

For nearly 15 years, David Sinclair has been leading expeditions to the Arctic and Antarctic. Such experiences – seemingly a world away from corporate legal life – have offered him practical guidance for in-house legal work.

user iconJerome Doraisamy 07 May 2024 Corporate Counsel
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Speaking recently on The Corporate Counsel Show, Islands & Ice Travel director David Sinclair, who is also an experienced legal counsel who has worked for BHP, Newcrest Mining, Orica, BlueScope, and Energy Australia, reflected on how his horizons have been broadened – literally and metaphorically – making him better placed to serve in in-house legal roles.

In 2005, he skied across the Greenland ice cap and, at that point, his love affair for the polar regions “really blossomed”. Two years later, he landed a gig as a guide and photographer on an expedition to the Norwegian Arctic. He’s been returning as an expedition leader ever since and – in his own words – is “fairly addicted to it”.

“Once you’ve been there, you spend the rest of your life figuring out how you’re going to get back,” Sinclair said.


“It’s hard to explain to someone who hasn’t been there. The solitude, the clarity, the beauty … you become a little bit addicted to these experiences, and you chase them.”

On a trip last November, he and a group were able to visit an emperor penguin colony: “It was such a privilege and thrill to experience that – I can never get that in my day-to-day job.”

“We live in an increasingly complex world, and [travelling to the polar regions] has really broadened my horizons as much as any in-house career would,” Sinclair said.

When asked how and why he decided to wear multiple hats and run such expeditions as a business owner while working in-house jobs, he responded: “I don’t measure opportunity cost in dollars alone.”

“Some people think I’ve left a lot of money on the table by not pursuing, you know, a career in the upper echelon of the legal profession. But for me, the opportunity cost of not doing some of the things that mattered to me and things that I loved [was more important].”

Founding his travel company, Islands & Ice Travel, is the “culmination” of his love affair with the polar regions, Sinclair reflected, and he detailed how he wants to deliver authentic experiences and connect people with nature in ways they otherwise don’t get to.

Such an approach helps him to ultimately be a better legal professional as well.

“In my job onboard ships, leading expeditions, I’m responsible for a team and for the guests, delivering on their expectations and exceeding them, reporting to shore-side head office, etc. Change is a constant, and I love that working environment,” he said.

“I’m not afraid of change. I actually think change is great. It’s an opportunity to improve, to go out and achieve something.”

This realisation about himself has been key to his development as a legal counsel, Sinclair explained.

“Legal roles can be relentlessly negative, which is a function of us lawyers constantly looking at the worst-case scenarios and trying to avoid them,” he said.

“Working on a ship, I find practical ways to mitigate risk. I’m not going to do it through a contract. So, that’s been really helpful to think about the contract as a last resort. But it’s also one of the reasons I set up Islands & Ice Travel, because I wanted to do something in my career to achieve a best-case scenario, take a risk and try and achieve a positive outcome rather than spending my life trying to avoid negative outcomes and allocating risks.”

This “very much helps” him, he continued, to bring a broader and more holistic perspective as an in-house lawyer.

It allows him, Sinclair said, “to actually look at practical risk rather than theoretical risk, in liability clauses and things like that, and actually build clauses about operational matters so that can deal with problems and try to avoid disputes”.

For example, he pointed out, having worked for Orica – which produces and supplies explosives, blasting systems, mining chemicals and geotechnical monitoring solutions – he is attuned to thinking about such matters while onboard a ship and leading an expedition.

Sinclair deduced there are “a lot of similarities” between leading trips to the polar regions and acting as an in-house counsel, given how considerations like risk management, identification, and mitigation.

“They’re actually quite complementary careers, and it’s been lovely to have dual careers where I can step out of one and into the other and stay fresh in both,” he said.

“I’m really grateful to all the employers I’ve had in the legal industry who’ve allowed me to do that and carve that path.”

The transcript for this episode has been edited for publishing purposes. To listen to the full conversation with David Sinclair, click below: