Focus: Career changes, Pastures new
20 April 2009 | By Corinne McPartland
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With all the recent layoffs, maybe it’s time to change tack altogether. The Lawyer meets a restauranteur, an author and a handbag designer, who all said farewell to the law to follow their dreams
According to statistics only about 2 per cent of people decide to take the gamble and quit their jobs to pursue a lifelong ambition,” says former Linklaters lawyer Ben Fordham.
Fordham is among that 2 per cent. The one-year-PQE lawyer left his highly paid job in Linklaters’ tax department to set up his own Mexican restaurant, Benito’s Hat, in Central London.
“I never disliked law. I liked the people I was working with but wanted to be passionate about something that I was doing and I wasn’t getting that from law,” admits Fordham.
The decision to switch from tax to tacos was not taken overnight. Turning what some people might call a pipe dream into a reality only came after Fordham spent time in Texas as part of his degree course.
“I studied law and American law at Nottingham University, which involved a year in Texas where I met my wife and got to know Mexican food,” explains Fordham. “I noticed the gap in the market in London a couple of years ago and felt that opening a Mexican restaurant could be financially viable as a concept.”
What initially started off as a few ideas scribbled on the back of an envelope slowly snowballed into a fully-fledged business plan. Fordham eventually found himself knocking on a partner’s door with a resignation form in his hand, ready to leave a “solid” career to pursue his dreams.
“I knew that I wanted to do it so it wasn’t scary, although I had a run of sleepless nights leading up to my resignation,” he recalls. “It was hard to make the decision but I actually felt more relaxed when I was committed to a certain path.”
Fordham admits his legal training has come in handy, especially as his business partner works in private equity. “Our legal and finance skills have been a good combination,” he says. “The relationship works well because we’ve become good friends but can be very frank with each other.”
The pair first collaborated after being introduced by a friend and realised they were both keen on branching out into the hospitality industry. The duo prepared a 40-page business plan, which they then put to banks and potential investors to raise the money needed for the project.
“Our combined professional experience was very useful in that we were able to prepare the financial model, look at risk factors, list investment highlights and explain the passion behind the project,” Fordham says.
When Fordham finally decided on premises in Goodge Street at the end of 2007, the plan had begun to turn into a second job for both him and his business partner.
“When we got the place I had to regularly start meeting with suppliers and contractors, taking the odd day off as holiday as and when I needed it and otherwise working for an hour or so in the evenings and half a day at the weekend,” says Fordham.
Even now he has left Linklaters he says his time is still stretched. So much so that his wife has banned him from talking about the eatery when they are on an evening out together.
“I’m always looking for ways to improve and whenever we go out for dinner I’m looking at how other places are doing things. It’s just that I love what I do and it’s more than just a job for me,” Fordham enthuses.
So when the alarm bell goes off in the morning does Fordham spring out of bed rather than hit the snooze button like the rest of us?
“I still sometimes get that feeling that I don’t want to get up for work but I feel that I’m doing something that I really care about,” he says. “And excitement is by far the greatest emotion and drive.”
Another person driven by much more than just a desire to succeed is Jennie Rooney, who had her first book, Inside the Whale, published by Random House in July last year.
What is remarkable is that she wrote it in her spare time over 18 months, while completing a training contract at Slaughter and May.
After reading history at Cambridge, like many students Rooney did not know what she wanted to do next, so she signed up to do law and then secured a contract at Slaughters.
Like Fordham, Rooney had always harboured a desire to do something else entirely. In her case it was to write a book, and during her training contract she decided to start putting pen to paper in her spare time.
“I’d wanted to write a book for years and it was always a long-term plan,” she says. “However, I’d put it off as it was an intimidating prospect. Six months into my training contract I realised that if I didn’t try it then, my life would only get busier and I also needed some sort of creative outlet from the City.”
Rooney claims the hardest part was actually sitting down and putting her first words on paper and then trying to fit her writing around her commitments at Slaughters.
“I worked in my lunch breaks, a couple of evenings a week and at the weekends,” she says. “The hours during my training contract weren’t too bad and despite a few busy periods, work never really took over my life. I also spent six months in the Paris office which I really enjoyed, particularly as being there gave me more time to work on my book.”
Rooney admits that at many points finishing the book seemed like a distant dream because she had to start the book several times before it began to take shape.
“I didn’t tell many people what I was trying to do until I’d been writing - and rewriting - it for about six months,” she says. “Only then did I start to tell my friends about it as I felt that I’d got to a stage where I knew I would finish it, was enjoying the process of writing and had started to hope it might get published. Until that point I assumed they’d think I was being ridiculous.”
Rooney finished Inside the Whale and began looking for an agent at around the same time as she qualified into finance at Slaughters. She did not have any contacts in the publishing industry but decided to speak to an agent she thought might like the style of the book, based on other titles the agent had worked on. Two months later Rooney secured a two-book deal with Random House.
Rooney says that handing in her notice was not a difficult decision because she knew it was the right move to follow her heart.
“Although I enjoyed working with intelligent people and found the work difficult and challenging, I wanted to do something more flexible. Writing was - and is - my dream and the only thing that I ever really wanted to do, so there was no comparison or difficult decision to have to make,” she claims.
Bags of ideas
Former lawyer Jackie Cawthra, previously at Denton Wilde Sapte, was also faced with the dilemma of carving out a legal career or following a dream.
Cawthra had always been interested in fashion and design but after studying law at Newcastle decided she should follow the arguably more sensible route and become a lawyer. But before committing to studying her LPC at the College of Law, Cawthra took a year out in Spain, sparking her professional love affair with designing handbags.
“I’ve always had a bit of a passion for a well-made handbag but found that, in the UK, there were two options: highly expensive designer-label bags, where you’re paying for a name, and the standard black and brown bags, which were everywhere,” she explains. “In Madrid, on the other hand, it was handbags galore - all different shapes, sizes and colours. My year there really stoked my passion for the well-designed bag.”
So while Cawthra was a trainee at Dentons, handbags became her hobby. Her time in Spain had given her some contacts in the fashion business and, most importantly, at a factory that made handbags. And, after some persistent pestering, she got a factory to make her designs.
“I had no design experience whatsoever, but I was able to work off their standard design templates and sketch out how I wanted to tweak them,” Cawthra says. “I had to pay them to make the bags, of course, but we’re talking about a few thousand pounds, so I was able to use money from my trainee salary rather than having to borrow anything.”
She then managed to secure meetings with Liberty and Selfridges, but they would not take a risk on her.
“I tried not to be disheartened but it did look like it was destined to remain nothing more than a hobby. Then one day I walked past a shop on the King’s Road and introduced myself to the owner who agreed to sell them, and before long they were flying off the shelves,” she says.
After this initial success Cawthra decided to leave her career in law and pursue designing her new handbag label, Belen Echandia.
“It was difficult. No one really got it. I was about to qualify as a lawyer at a great firm in the City - what more could I want? On the other hand, I’d worked so hard to get my handbags on the shelves and the few that I had produced had sold quickly. I didn’t want to give that up,” she says.
Since leaving Dentons Cawthra’s handbag business has gone from strength to strength, with orders coming in from around the world.
But is following your dream really as possible as Cawthra, Fordham and Rooney make out? Apparently it is all down to personal belief and determination.
“If you’ve got an idea you should give it a go,” Cawthra insists. ”Ultimately, you’ve got to believe in yourself. Sorry, it’s corny, but true. You’ve got to be incredibly persistent and never give up.”