My career story: “I left law on qualification to launch my own art gallery”

Ashley Cordwell trained at CMS but after qualifying this autumn, he has set up his own art gallery in Petworth, West Sussex.

Ashley Cordwell

What’s your background?

I studied law at Durham. It wasn’t really something I thought I would pursue as a career when I started, but as I went through university I thought it would be a really good option for me. I applied for training contracts in my final year and was offered a place at CMS Cameron McKenna.

I was meant to start my training contract in 2012 but I asked if could have a year off, and I went and lived in France for a year, studying at Poitiers University. Then I asked if I could defer for another year, this time living in Seville. Generally CMS were quite happy with that – when I asked to defer the second time it seemed to be a simple case of moving me to a different spreadsheet – it wasn’t a big deal. So I eventually started in 2014.

What was your training contract like?

I started out in corporate, it was the department that took the most trainees so the thinking was to throw myself in at the deep end and get to know the firm. We do a secondment in our second seat, and I toyed with the idea of going Mexico, but in the end I decided to go to Bristol to do real estate. My dad is an architect and it was something I related to – dealing in bricks and mortar.

I really enjoyed my time in Bristol and went on to do planning for my third seat. I was thinking of qualifying into that. Then I did construction disputes for my final seat, and it was halfway through that that I started thinking I might actually start an art gallery instead.

That’s quite a switch… what brought the decision about?

I felt I would have been shoehorning myself into a department rather than joining one I was really in love with.

My reasons were probably a bit more personal than most. My mum passed away toward the beginning of my final seat, and she was a real role model to me in business as well as everything else. It had never been my plan to qualify and then leave – I always thought I’d be a lawyer for five to 10 years at least. But I just thought, why not do it now, why am I waiting? I’d learned enough generally that I thought I could go into business myself so I just went for it.

Why an art gallery?

It’s a good question. The main reason is both my parents had worked in the art world and growing up I was always around that. The nature of paintings and original art really interested me as a project: every piece is unique and you get to deal with some great people in artists and art dealers. That’s what gave me the idea, and from a business viewpoint actually it’s not a saturated market.

Has your legal training helped at all?

It’s been pretty useful so far. The premises we are renovating is a listed building and in a conservation area. When I was working in planning I was always like, “Why do people buy these buildings?” But if you want something in the centre of a place like Petworth, where the gallery is going to be, it’s probably going to be listed. So we have applied for planning permission, which I have done myself. My dad is the architect so between us we make a pretty good team!

Is your legal career definitely a thing of the past? Do you regret the time you spent training for a profession you’re now not joining?

I have my practising certificate for this year – although obviously I hope that everything is successful with the gallery!

I don’t regret it, because I’ve learnt a lot. I certainly feel more confident in my abilities having spent the last two years in law. I don’t think I would have taken this leap when I was coming straight out of university when I was young and naïve – or even more young and naïve that I am now! 

How did your lawyer colleagues react?

The response has been quite mixed – from the incredulous to the envious and supportive. Out of my peers who are now qualified, I think I was the only one not to carry on with law. They are eagerly awaiting the opening weekend, and I’ve sent them all an invite. I think there are certainly a few people further up the ladder who thought, ‘What are you doing – you’ve studied for how many years, and you’re chucking in a decent salary to go it alone.’ I’m hoping to prove them wrong!

Do you have any advice for trainees in your situation?

If they’re thinking of starting their own business, don’t be under any illusions. I’m certainly working longer hours now than I was in a law firm. There can be a whole host of problems and the buck stops with you.

I’ve had some interesting challenges! I had the police visit the other day. I’d met with some art dealers in a car park – we couldn’t use the gallery because it was still a building site – and a member of the public saw us and called the cops…

The Forest Gallery in Petworth opens on Saturday 26 November.