8 June 2009 | By Corinne McPartland
With all the recent layoffs, maybe it’s time to change tack altogether. Corinne McPartland meets a restaurateur, 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,” claims former Linklaters lawyer Ben Fordham as he takes a sip of his cappuccino while surveying his ever-growing lunchtime queue.
Just one year after qualifying, Fordham has taken the major step of leaving his highly paid job in the tax department at Linklaters to set up Mexican restaurant Benito’s Hat in Central London.
“I never disliked law. I thought it was fine and I liked the people I was working with, but I wanted to be passionate about something that I was doing and I wasn’t getting that from law,” explains Fordham.
The decision to switch from tax to tacos was not made overnight. Fordham had always dreamt of running his own restaurant, but turning what some people might call a pipe dream into reality only came after he spent time in Texas as part of his degree course.
“I studied law and American law at Nottingham University and it involved a year in Texas, where I met my wife and got to know Mexican food,” says 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 started off as a few ideas scribbled on the back on an envelope began to snowball into a fully-fledged business plan. Fordham eventually found himself knocking on his boss’s door with a resignation letter 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. It was hard to make the decision but I actually felt more relaxed when I was committed to a certain path,” he says.
Fordham concedes that 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,” Fordham claims. “The relationship works well because we’ve become good friends but can be very frank with each other as there hasn’t been years of history between us that could be at risk when we disagree over something.”
The pair first collaborated after being introduced by a friend and realising they were both keen on branching into the hospitality industry. The duo prepared a 40-page business plan which they 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,” says Fordham.
When Fordham finally decided on a 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,” he says.
Although he has now left Linklaters his time is still stretched, because running a restaurant is a 24-hour job and he admits he can never switch off from it. So much so that his wife has banned him from talking about the eatery when they are 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. She’s banned me from talking about it on certain nights out. It’s just that I love what I do and it’s more than just a job for me,” he enthuses.
So when the alarm 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. And excitement is by far the greatest emotion and drive,” he says.
Another lawyer who is driven by more than just a desire to succeed is Jennie Rooney, who had her first book Inside the Whale published by Random House last July.
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 University, Rooney was not sure what she wanted to do next, so signed up for law and secured a contract at Slaughters.
But Rooney had always harboured a desire to write a book and during her training contract she put pen to paper in her spare time.
“I’d wanted to write a book for years and it was always a long-term plan. 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 admits.
She claims the hardest part was actually sitting down and putting her first words on paper, followed by 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. 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,” she says.
Rooney kept her writing a secret from her colleagues at Slaughters until she knew she would finish it. At many points finishing the book seemed like a distant dream because she had to rewrite it several times before it took shape.
“I didn’t tell many people what I was trying to do until I had 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 time she qualified into finance at Slaughters. She didn’t have any contacts in the industry but decided to speak to an agent who she thought might like the style of the book, based on other titles that she had worked with. Two months later she secured a deal with Random House for two books.
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.
The book was released eleven months later in July 2008. Rooney now writes full-time and is busy with her second book. But she says it is often hard to switch off her phone and internet to do a “good five-hours-a-day” of writing.
“It’s an amazing feeling to think of people actually reading my work, although also rather terrifying. I still have to get used to the fact that there’ll be people who won’t like the finished product and then learn to let that go,” she says.
Bags of ideas
Former lawyer Jackie Cawthra, previously of Denton Wilde Sapte, was also faced with the dilemma of whether to continue carving out a legal career or follow her dream.
Like many trainees when facing qualification, Cawthra had to make a big decision: should she qualify into corporate, litigation or property, or should she design, manufacture and sell high-fashion handbags? A tricky decision.
She had always been interested in fashion and design but after studying law at Newcastle she decided to follow the sensible route and become a lawyer. But before committing to studying her Legal Practice Course 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. 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,” she says.
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 the factory to make up 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. 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,” Cawthra says.
She then managed to secure meetings with Liberty and Selfridges to see if they wanted to sell her designs, but they were not prepared to take a risk on her.
“I tried not to be disheartened but it looked like it was destined to remain nothing more than a hobby,” she says. “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.”
After this initial success Cawthra decided to leave her legal career behind her and pursue designing her new handbag label Belen Echandia, much to the surprise of friends and colleagues.
“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? I was going to start earning more than £50,000 and all the training and studying would be justified. 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 admits.
Since leaving Dentons her handbag empire has gone from strength to strength, with orders coming in from around the world and her online business flourishing.
But is it as easy as Cawthra, Fordham and Rooney make out? Did they just have luck on their side when they decided to duck out of the legal profession? It’s all down to personal belief and determination, says Cawthra.
She insists: “If you’ve got an idea you should give it a go. Take it step by step. 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.”