Careers: Meet the Transformers

The lure of the law can kick in at any stage of life. We speak to four individuals who have made a radical switch to a legal career

Want to know what is one of the fastest-growing areas of recruitment in the legal market? Career changers.

The number of people making a change of career mid-stream is on the up. In 2009, 14 per cent of students enrolled on the graduate
diploma in law conversion course at the University of Law were career changers. Three years on and this figure has risen to 20 per cent.

Indeed, career-changers now account for more than 16 per cent of those on the bar professional training course at the University of Law while 8 per cent of its legal practice course students come from another career.

Television shows such as Suits and The Good Wife could be sparking the idea for change, resonating as they do with viewers and helping to humanise lawyers in the eyes of the public. Suits’ Harvey Specter, The Good Wife’s Alicia Florrick and the memorable (for all the wrong reasons) Saul Goodman of Breaking Bad are all a long way from Judge John Deed’s wooing of Middle England’s middle-aged masses.

Insiders know of course that the legal industry is rarely as glamorous as it is depicted on the small screen. But as one career changer at a recent event held by The Lawyer’s student title, Lawyer2B, quipped in answer to why he himself had decided to make the career change: “Lawyers are no longer the great evil; that’s now corporations and big business”.

His witticism no doubt belies the complex reasons behind his decision to try and make the switch from research scientist to barrister but he did hit on one key fact. The legal industry is attracting candidates from ever-more diverse backgrounds, all keen to break into law. Here is just four of them.

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David Rowntree

Criminal solicitor at Kingsley Napley and former Blur drummer

I’ve always had a bunch of careers running in parallel. There was a time when I was an animator and a musician. I used to do animation for fun. There’s an awful lot of sitting around involved in being in a band and you find things to do to fill the time. I used to take my laptop around on tour and as the band wound down the animation picked up. A lot of people have asked if I did the milk carton animation for the Coffee and TV music video but in fact the milk carton wasn’t animated – it was a man in a milk carton suit. 

I did a few things for Channel 4 but animation had a natural life-span as it turned out, and it was something that was far more fun to do on an ad hoc, small project basis.

About that time a friend of mine who is a partner at East End law firm Edward Fail Bradshaw & Waterson had just had a case come in with a lot of electronic evidence. She knew I was technical and asked if I’d go in and make sense of it for them. I turned up there intending to work one day a week and never really left. One of the paralegals left and I started working full time. I took the police station qualification and worked there for a year. 

I ended up clerking the trial I’d prepared the electronic evidence for at the Old Bailey. It was a four-handed murder case and, even given some of the highs and lows of my music career, it was one of the best times of my life.

Criminal world

For everybody who loves criminal law, the first trial they attend is a magical experience. And this was a crazy trial, like you see on TV. Witnesses would break down on the stand while recounting their stories. It was a dream. And we won the case, so that was fantastic. I knew I had to do it for a living. 

I ended up training at Kingsley Napley because it’s on the edge of the City. I thought I’d give other types of law a go because I wondered if all law was that
fascinating. I surprised myself – there was something in it all. With all the departments I sat in I could see how you could do that for the rest of your life.

Right at the beginning of Blur, in around 1990, our then manager took all our assets and put them in his wife’s name. We were bankrupt. Our manager had – I’m embarrassed even now, decades later, to admit it – turned up on a Friday night with chequebooks and got us to sign blank cheques. 

Up to then I’d taken a back seat when it came to the business side of things, but I started turning up to all those meetings and asking questions. We then came to an agreement whereby nobody in the band would sign a document unless it had my signature on it. 

That was why I got to know lawyers and how I got to work at Edwards Fail.

I’m coming to the end of my first year of qualification now, so I’m just coming to the point where things I started are finishing. I’ve had a couple of good results so far. When you see a case through you get quite close to the client and see them through a time of crisis, so it’s incredibly satisfying. I’m just starting to see the fruits of my labour.

I can never seem to do things in moderation; I don’t know why, but I throw myself into stuff. 

Action station

I so enjoyed the police station – it’s a time when you can make the maximum difference to a case. It’s exciting – when it goes badly it is the worst of all times and when it goes well you come out feeling you have really achieved something. Having done music and law, I don’t think I could be as fulfilled as I am now if I had to go back to doing only one. They exercise different muscles.

The band have long since given up being surprised at what I do. I’ve spoken to Damon [Albarn, Blur lead singer] about it a couple of times and I think he likes the fact I didn’t go to the City; that I’ve got stuck in trying to help people. I know he’s very proud of what I’ve done.

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Jennifer Bethlehem 

Freshfields corporate partner and former A&E nurse

I went to school in South Africa and in my last year my father got a brain tumour, and I knew it was terminal. When my father died, my mother had three children to put through education so I decided I’d do something where your education was paid for.

I have three aunts who are nurses. Before I knew it they’d pulled all sorts of strings to get me an interview and I started doing my nursing training. I was terrified of blood and fainted the first time I was shown round the hospital.

So I wasn’t your typical, ‘this is what I’ve always wanted to do’ type of nurse, but when I started doing it I loved it. I loved working with the other nurses, meeting patients and feeling I’d achieved something every day.

After I did my nursing training I worked in accident and emergency and that’s where I met my husband. He went to live in the UK and when I came to the UK I worked here, there and everywhere. While I was working as a nurse I did a part-time degree in politics, history and philosophy at Birkbeck College. That was fabulous and then I came to the point whereby, although I loved my job, I couldn’t see myself being 60 and still doing it.

I’m not saying you don’t have to think when you’re a nurse but it’s a practical way of thinking and I enjoyed intellectual problem-solving. 

Also, I got tired of being treated as if I was an idiot when I was a nurse – unfortunately, many people have preconceptions about what nurses are like. The fact you can speak about the philosophy of Kant was not what they thought you were all about.

As you move up in nursing you become less involved with patients – you’re just a manager, really. I thought, ‘If I want to change, I need to change now’. 

I’d always been interested in law so I went to study the subject. I finished the politics, history and philosophy degree in May and then, in September, started at Kings College doing law.

Training gap

I got a first in my law degree but found it difficult to get a training contract. As soon as people knew how old I was they were sceptical. I was 31 but a career change wasn’t something the legal industry seemed ready to embrace. 

You get forms that ask you to describe one difficulty you have overcome in your life and when I look back, I think, ‘Is it difficult to tell somebody they’re not going to live? Is it more difficult to scrape somebody off the tarmac? Or is it even more difficult to go to someone who has jumped in front of a train?’ Where do you start?

I found it difficult to convey the kind of person I was and when I went to interviews people were sceptical about how I’d fit in. That’s the bit I found difficult. The Clifford Chances, the Freshfields Bruckhaus Deringers and the Linklaters – I didn’t get interviews with that type of firm. 

Then I got an interview at Nabarro and I’ll always be grateful to them for giving me a chance. It was a great firm and I enjoyed my time there, but I really wanted to do cutting-edge corporate law and knew I’d have to go to another firm.

It was the time of the Guinness trial [four businessmen were convicted of manipulating shares in an attempt to assist a takeover bid] and the Forte hotels takeover. These kind of things were very much in the news at the time. I was fascinated and wanted to see what it would be like to be a corporate lawyer.

When I came to Freshfields I thought, ‘this firm is the crème de la crème – I’m going to be running to catch up’, but the moment I started working here I just loved it. I love coming to work.

People often ask me if I feel less fulfilled in my work now – I don’t. In any job you can try to be a person who contributes, cares and gives more than they take. I don’t feel I was once an angel and now I’m selfish.

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Ellen Gallagher

Solicitor at Goodman Derrick and former English National Opera head of music administration

My last job was as head of music administration at English National Opera (ENO). I managed the music department of around 120 people, including the orchestra, chorus, music library and repetiteurs. It involved repertoire planning, scheduling, contract negotiations, personnel issues, recruitment and budgeting. I was in that role for nearly six years, and was music resources manager for three years previously. 

Before ENO I worked at Chandos Records as A&R administrator. I organised all aspects of the recordings including dealing with artists, agents, producers, engineers and venues.

My first job after university was at Opera North as assistant music librarian. The ‘assistant’ was eventually dropped. I had to sort out the music for all performances, which would often involve rewriting it. If a principal singer couldn’t sing one of the arias in the key it was written in I’d have to rewrite all the orchestra parts in a manageable key – 99 per cent of the time the audience wouldn’t even realise.

I had a specialist music background and funding in the arts is always precarious. Although I had a fairly safe position I was conscious  I may have difficultly persuading people in other sectors I had transferable skills.

My roles at ENO and Chandos involved a number of legal issues and I wanted to learn more about the law. I only anticipated completing the Graduate Diploma in Law, but I got hooked and carried on with my studies. I hadn’t planned a complete career change when I started studying but found that the more I learned about the possibilities that are opened up by a solid background in law, the more I wanted to pursue it as a profession.

Early on I wanted to keep my options open so I studied part-time around a full-time job and performing; I also play the violin. I did the GDL at De Montfort Law School by distance learning and the LPC at the College of Law, Bloomsbury on the weekend part-time course. It took me four years to complete my exams. I thought that finding 15-20 hours a week to study would be easy but it was much harder than I’d thought. 

Risk taker

Giving up a senior position in the recession to start a training contract with no guarantee of a job at the end of it was difficult. Thankfully everything has worked out well, but it was a huge gamble. 

The change was not so hard. Goodman Derrick looks for something a bit different in its trainees, so I’d say my colleagues all have similar qualities – I’ve just had a little longer than some to put my skills into practice in the workplace. I’m level-headed and used to dealing with a wide range of people, including some of the superstars of the classical music world, so I have a pretty confident manner. 

Most clients don’t want to hear about the minutiae of the law but how to solve a problem. I try to consider the practical realities for my clients and apply the law plus commercial common sense when advising. Having a high-pressure job has certainly helped in this – I knew what I was looking for from an adviser when I picked up the phone. 

I’m also lucky to be at a firm where I can take responsibility for my career and where good ideas can be followed through if they are in line with the firm’s broader goals. In fact, I’m currently organising and chairing a seminar for members of Women in Film and Television on music rights.

My life has not changed as much as I thought it might. I play the violin and still perform regularly in my own time. I lead the Covent Garden Chamber Orchestra and play with a number of other orchestras and ensembles. I thought working in law might be less dramatic after years of working in the theatre, but the courts are not so different.

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Elizabeth Smith

Joint head of personal injury at HowardKennedyFsi and former fashion editor

My first job was on an international fashion and textile magazine called The Ambassador. My wonderful mother thought you could only make a good marriage if you became a secretary, and in those days it was very important to make a good marriage so she sent me off to do a trilingual secretarial course as my A-levels were in English, French and Spanish.

I was secretary to the promotions editor at The Ambassador and was fortunate because within about four weeks she got fired. I was nearly in tears at the idea I was going to lose my job, so they made me editorial assistant, with no experience whatsoever.

I then became assistant fashion editor at IPC’s Flair magazine. It was a disaster. I spent most of my time at Vogue House reshooting fashion set-ups and eventually realised I was talented at writing copy but not so good at fashion shoots. So I stayed in the office and wrote everybody’s copy, they did my shoots.

I left when I got married and set up a fashion PR consultancy called AA Promotion with a friend. In those days, fashion PR was casual. You had your clients, you hoicked clothes round the fashion offices and how good you were frankly depended on who you knew. We did well but it was not particularly time-consuming or brain-exercising. In between I had babies. Then the nursery expanded into the office and we decided to stop. 

For a few years I was just at home, until I couldn’t bear it any more. I volunteered to work two days a week for free at my local Citizens Advice Bureau (CAB). I worked there for six years unpaid, in a fairly deprived area of London. By the end I had become interested in law so I went back to university and read the subject. I discovered I’d found my calling and wanted to practise. I fell in love with it.

I was quite mature by then and was the first-ever trainee for Olswang. Then I got headhunted in the middle of my articles (now training contract) and went off to Payne Hicks Beach to finish them. Afterwards I moved on to a small, multifaceted firm in Lincoln’s Inn called Monier-Williams where I was the only litigator. So I was newly qualified running a litigation department and, while I got some good cases, it wasn’t going anywhere. 

Trade up

I then moved to a tiny boutique practice in the City called Douglas-Mann & Co, who were trade union lawyers. I had an interview with their senior partner who was wonderful and said he really wanted me to work for them, and would make me a partner in six months. And he did. I never looked back. 

The first case I had, on the day I joined Douglas-Mann, was for Roy Kinnear, the comedian and actor who was on That Was The Week That Was. He went off to do a film called The Return of the Musketeers in Spain with Oliver Reed. They called for him to thunder across a bridge on a horse and he couldn’t ride. They refused to get him a body double and as it was an old, cobbled bridge, the horse stumbled and he died. That was my first-ever personal injury case. Douglas-Mann then merged with Howard Kennedy in 2008 and that’s where I am.

I took to personal injury because I love working with people. All my life, as a journalist, a PR and even at the CAB I was interviewing people and personal injury involves people. You have your claimants and witnesses, and you spend a lot of time negotiating with the other side. It’s very much people law as opposed to mortgage or shipping law, where you end up looking at documents all the time. 

So I can’t really say I decided to be a personal injury lawyer – more that that’s just the way things turned out, luckily.