A Talk With Attorney Phil Fargotstein As He Begins The Next Chapter In His Life

One of Fennemore’s finest attorneys is retiring, and as of August 31, 2021, Phil will begin the next chapter in his life.

As Phil looks forward, we had the honor to talk with him for a quick look back at leadership, and lessons learned from his distinguished career in the legal profession.

The United States Naval Academy; Harvard Law School; and many years of service to our clients here at Fennemore. As we bid you a “fond farewell,” talk about your greatest memories in the legal profession.

My greatest memories as an attorney relate to the people that I have been privileged to serve and serve with.  I attended law school as an active duty Marine officer in the mid-1970;’s during the last days of the Vietnam Conflict (since it was never a declared war).  I found that while many of the undergraduates I encountered saw the military as the symbol of an unpopular conflict,  many of the other law students did not know and were sincerely interested in why a Marine was attending law school and what judge advocates did.

I then served a total of six years as an active duty judge advocate and 19 as a reserve judge advocate.  I  joined Fennemore on April 1, 1981 (which in hindsight was prophetic). and have been here ever since. While at Fennemore my greatest memories are of the many attorneys who served as my mentors over the years such as Phil Von Ammon, John Everroad, Jim Johnson and Roger Mitten.  They took a young judge advocate and taught him how to be a civil litigator. 

I have also been privileged to assist clients in events that continue to impact Arizona, such as the permitting for natural gas electric generating station in Gila Bend and serving as the court-appointed representation of two death row inmates relating to their federal habeas cases.  It has been a varied career including criminal prosecution and defense, medical malpractice defense, and environmental law.  They say that in the average career an attorney will practice in three areas of the law.  I guess that makes me average.

Your work in Natural Resources began on a Marine base in the ‘70’s and continues to this day. What’s your hope for Arizona – and the world – as many of the issues that your practice group is involved with trend daily? (Climate change; water shortage on the Colorado river; sustainable growth)

My initial involvement with environmental issues began in 1977 as the environmental law specialist for a Marine Corps air station in California.  At that time federal facilities were not required to comply with state environmental mandates, only federal.   President Reagan changed that, which has resulted in more effective regulation of military facilities, including Arizona. 

I see the same changes occurring with respect to industry and business today.  I think there is and should be an appreciation of how the issues interrelate. Having lived in the desert since high school, water has always been a critical issue.  The old saying that whiskey is for drinking and water is for fighting is as true today as it has ever been. The recent history-making restrictions imposed on Lake Mead and the Colorado River due to the ongoing draught is the most recent example.

The issue of “Global Warming” is another example of the inter-relationship between the issues.  Global Warming became Climate Change and while it has influenced the drought in the west, it has also influenced hurricanes impacting the southeast US and most recently the northeast. If I have one hope for Arizona is that for everyone to recognize that everything has a price. The solar cells necessary to generate electricity, the electric power lines needed to transmit that electricity and the electric vehicles that are the future require manufacturing, and as part of that process raw materials. 

I would encourage everyone to focus on “sustainability” as the key to the future that will allow the proper balance between developing new technologies to reduce pollution and Climate Change, but at the same time, allow for the wise use of natural resources as needed to make that new technology possible.  (I will now get off my soapbox.)

What would you tell your younger self – or a 1L in law school contemplating a career in the legal profession?

When I graduated law school I thought I knew exactly what I wanted to do, be a career Marine officer.  Little did I know that once I began doing courts martials, I would find that what I really wanted was to do litigation, which eventually took me off active duty and back to Arizona where I spent my high school years and my remaining legal career with Fennemore. 

Looking back if I could tell a younger me one thing it would be that there will always be future changes, and don’t be afraid to change the focus of your efforts. Never stop growing as a lawyer or as a person because it is that growth and change that makes it all worthwhile.  And as you experience change, don’t waste time on regrets or second thoughts, rather focus on what is ahead and not what is behind. (I think I just stepped back on my soapbox).

Who is your hero – or the person who has had the greatest impact on your career and life?

The person that has most impacted my life is without a doubt my wife, who has supported my efforts and took the lion’s share of responsibility for raising our fantastic children.  She has put up with me for all of my time at Fennemore, including my ongoing commitment to the Marine Corps Reserve that required 19 years of monthly absences from the home.  I will forever be grateful for her support. 

With respect to who has had the greatest impact on my development as a litigator, I would without a doubt point to John Everroad, who took me under his mentorship from day one at the firm when we spent four hours in his car when I drove with him to Tucson for a deposition.  We had an understanding that comes from both of us being Marines.  Of course, he did let me know on that first day that he would always “outrank”  me by two levels regardless of how I progressed in the Reserves.  He was a great mentor and taught me how to not only prepare cases for trial but also how to treat the court, witnesses and other counsel.  He was also a great friend and my wife and I spent many visits with his family.      

Talk about your biggest failure. What did you learn? And how did you pick up the pieces and move forward?

I don’t see failures as an attorney, only opportunities for lessons learned.  The adversary system of litigation by definition is based on two sides competing and an objective third party (either judge or jury) determining which side is entitled to the judgment.  (Note I did not say which side is correct, only which side wins). That being said my greatest lesson learned is that life sometimes gets in the way of the best plan. 

I was appointed to assist a prisoner on death row in his federal habeas corpus case and based on the efforts of our team we uncovered information that gave our client a very strong argument for reversal of his conviction, as well as changing certain practices by the Attorney General’s office and the courts.  After filing the appropriate pleadings and while the judge had it under advisement, I was advised by a fellow prisoner that our client was experiencing health issues. He passed away shortly thereafter due to an inoperable brain tumor. Our disappointment was that a person who in our opinion was entitled to a new trial would not get that chance due to circumstances beyond anyone’s control. The years of work to identify and present the issues to the court were in some respects wasted. I take some solace, however, knowing that the strength of our work gave our client hope before larger forces intervened.

What’s the best – and worst – piece of advice that you have ever been given?

The best advice I ever received was from my mother who supported and encouraged me to pursue my dream of attending the Naval Academy.

The worst but loving advice that I ever received was also from my mother who tried to convince me not to go into the Marine Corps upon graduation from college. 

In this pandemic age, what are you currently reading; listening to (music or podcasts); and watching/streaming?

I have to admit that I am a Star Trek, Star Wars and Picard fanatic and will spend hours enjoying episodes even if though I have seen them before. The recent addition of the series Picard on streaming service has opened a whole new universe of entertainment.

I also enjoy listening to country-western stations such as KNIX whenever possible. Even though I am considered by some to be an “oldie but goodie,” I just can’t get into listening to music from when I was a teenager. I have also renewed an interest in bicycling, which helps clear my mind and helps me cope with what some call pandemic boredom.

Talk about this exciting new chapter in your life – including trips to D.C. and Ireland!

After I stop practicing law, I intend to start the next chapter in my life starting with travel.  This will include a two-week trip to Ireland for my son’s wedding to a lovely Irish lass whose family is from Westport. We will be in Ireland for about two weeks with time in Dublin, on the east coast, and Westport on the west coast and multiple stops in between.  

After that, there is a planned two-week trip to Alexandria, Virginia to visit my daughter and her husband and their newborn little girl which will be our first grandchild.  That will be followed by other trips to San Francisco to visit my son and his wife after they get back from their honeymoon in Greece.  All in all the next six to12 months will be very busy, but totally enjoyable.

After that, I am sure I will find things to do since my lovely wife has already advised me that I cannot just lay around the house.  Who knows, maybe tutoring math to students like I did with my own children in high school, or volunteering at various Kiwanis-sponsored events or other community service organizations.  My mother taught me that the more you are blessed, the more you should give back.  Using that as the standard, I need to give back a lot.

Okay, and last, but not least, you and your family are hosting a lavish dinner party. Name the three people – from any time in human history – who you would invite.

This is an interesting question, but assuming we can all speak the same language here goes:

Abraham Lincoln

Catherine the Great

Neil Armstrong

Bon voyage to the AMAZING Phil Fargotstein – and thank you for inspiring us and the next generation of attorneys and allied legal professionals with your wit and wisdom.

Phil’s passion for the environment is evident in this interview, and our forward-thinking natural resources, energy and environmental law team is here to ensure that industry and businesses successfully navigate the ever-changing regulatory climate.

For more information, please visit: https://www.fennemorelaw.com/services/practices/natural-resources-energy-and-environmental