An 80-year-old lawyer walks into a bar.
But this time, it’s no joke.
On Monday, June 3, Matthew Segall, at age 80, became one of the oldest, if not the oldest, persons ever to be admitted to the Washington State Bar Association.
It was a long journey for the Bainbridge Island resident.
Growing up poor in Brooklyn, Segall went on to become the first in his family to go to school. He later ran a successful law firm in Hollywood, Calif. for nearly half a century.
Now, Segall, who moved to the island in the early 1970s, will continue as an active attorney in Washington.
“It was very moving,” Segall said about the swearing-in ceremony, performed by Kitsap Superior Court Judge Sally Olsen.
“I did not realize it would bring tears to my eyes when she said, ‘You are now a Washington state attorney’ at the end of the oath. Never thought that would happen,” he said. “You know, I’m a big tough guy. I’m not going to be that emotional.”
That tough-guy persona has served Segall well in his almost 50 years of work as an organized crime and criminal defense attorney.
Segall began the Law Offices of Matthew J. Segall in 1967. (As for the middle initial “J” — “I put it in because it looks better on stationery,” he said.)
His journey to get there, though, was a long and tortuous one.
With a movie theater projectionist and full-time gambler as a father, Segall’s childhood was plagued by poverty in a New York City borough which Segall called “one of the Mafia strongholds.”
“We were poor. I knew we were,” Segall said.
“I thought people were rich if they had really good cardboard to put inside their shoes,” he recalled. “I said they must be in a rich neighborhood — they have cardboard. We had newspaper to stick in our shoes.”
Segall dropped out of high school at 17 and went into the military.
“When I found the military I thought I’d found Utopia,” he said. “I had shoes without holes, a bed without bedbugs and plenty of food.”
After an eight-year stint in the Navy, Segall became an airline mechanic for Flying Tigers, which was later bought by FedEx.
For 12 years, Segall worked in the day for Flying Tigers and took night classes at the University of Southern California, LA City College and LA State College for an undergraduate education, and the San Fernando Valley College of Law and the now-defunct Van Norman Law School for his law degree.
To Segall, criminal defense law became a natural talent for someone who grew up in a gang-ridden neighborhood.
“For me, falling into criminal defending, it was kind of easy, ‘cause it’s all thinking. It’s thinking on your feet,” he said.
“Many people have to go to the books, and criminal defense, when you’re in courtroom doing trials, you don’t have time for that — and I’ve been involved in 47 different murder trials.”
One of Segall’s notable cases involved one of the first skyjackers, Garrett Brock Trapnell, who hijacked a flight from Los Angeles to New York in 1972.
Trapnell demanded money, the release of activist Angela Davis and a conversation with President Richard Nixon. He was shot by the FBI on the JFK tarmac, survived, and sentenced to life imprisonment.
In the early 1970s Segall moved to the Northwest because all of his clients were being sent to McNeil Island Corrections Center, a then-federal penitentiary on a remote island just west of Lakewood.
Tired of staying in Lakewood, Segall drove around the area and found Bainbridge Island, where he has lived since.
While his offices in Hollywood closed in 2003, Segall continued, and continues, to offer legal counsel.
For years, when Segall gave people advice, “I have to preface it by saying they also have to get final word from a Washington-licensed attorney, and by law I must say that,” he said.
No more, with admission to the Washington State Bar.
“That piece of paper is a hard piece of paper to get. I will never let that go,” he said about the admissions certificate. “It’s been a good run and the run is still going.”
With such a storied career, one would think Segall would relish the opportunity to retire, relax and spin his yarns.
“People say, ‘Well, why don’t you write a book?’ And I say, for several reasons: Nobody will believe it and my ego doesn’t need it,” he said.
“In fact, they came for me from the Village Voice in New York to do a movie or a book. ... They romanced me, took me back to New York, and their fancy restaurants, and I said, ‘I can’t do it.’”
But Segall’s escapades have inspired a whole new crop of lawyers.
One of Segall’s ex-wives is an attorney, as are three of his four children.
Segall and his current wife, Brenna Berquam, 45, are working to get her a degree from Seattle University — in law, of course, something he says will serve her well when he’s gone.
“When you have a law degree and admission to a bar, you’re always going to get by,” he said.
While some may hold attorneys in low regard, Segall said lawyers don’t deserve the bum rap they sometimes get.
“Lawyers do a lot for people. Lawyers get a bad name, sometimes for obvious reasons, but most lawyers do a lot to help people and I’m one of those that likes to promote that recognition,” Segall said.
“There’s bad eggs in every egg box. There’s bad judges, there’s bad lawyers, there’s bad cops. But most lawyers are good people and they do a lot to help.”
When he’s not devoting his time to the law, Segall enjoys riding his Harley Davidson motorcycle and weight lifting (he said he can lift 225 pounds).
But even after admission to the bar, Segall has a bit of unfinished business.
“My ambition in life right now is to win the lottery and set up food care for (the) homeless. ... because I have lived in a car and I’ve gone without food.
“It’s a strange thing at this stage of life, but that’s what I would like to do,” he said. “And by being a local lawyer here, it helps me do a little bit more for people.”
And to hear Segall tell it, there’s always time to do a little more to help others.
“It’s never too late to do things,” he said. “That’s another reason for swearing in — it’s just never too late. Never too late to live.”