Ex-City lawyer takes on pro bono charity role

Martin Curtis trained at Herbert Smith before moving to Addleshaw Goddard as a litigator on qualification.  He left private practice at three years’ PQE to work for a pro bono brokerage charity called LawWorks, where he now runs several projects.  Although he no longer practises law, he is still on the roll and volunteers as an advisor at Toynbee Hall Free Legal Advice Centre in East London.  We have included his profile in the “law” section to give you another example of how you can work within the legal world.


mtl:  Hi Martin, can you start by telling us about your legal career?


Martin:  I found studying law interesting and felt that it was a versatile degree that would keep various career options open to me.  At the outset I didn’t know what I wanted to do when I graduated but by the end of my second year I had a job offer from Herbert Smith, which was a great position to be in.  I had the next few years set out before me which was good from the point of stability but in retrospect was a very early career decision to make. 


I had a brilliant training contract and got the seats I wanted, including six months in Tokyo.  However, the best legal experience of my training contract came from going to the firm’s pro bono clinic in Whitechapel. Rather than dealing with the usual admin that a trainee handles, I gained real responsibility in the course of the casework I took on.


At the end of my training contract, I wasn’t offered a job in either litigation or employment; the areas that I wanted to do. Although I was open to a career change I hadn’t found anything that I was ready for, so I applied for legal jobs elsewhere and went to Addleshaw Goddard in Manchester to do commercial litigation.  Manchester is a great city and its proximity to the Lake District, the Peak District and Snowdonia was a definite bonus. 


It was a steep learning curve during the first year after qualification and I learnt a lot.  It is hard to move firms at that point – a lot is expected of an NQ that is not home-grown, and I’d also just had six months of travelling before starting (including, as it happens, a spell helping out Patrick and Colette Bergot!).  However, I knew I didn’t want to do it forever.  Solicitors have quite a predicatable career path, credit crunch aside, and I didn’t want to reach 60 and realise that law was all that I had ever done.


mtl:  So how did you make the change and what do you do now?


Martin:  At three years’ PQE I looked again at what to do.  I faced the same problem of finding out what else was out there.  Initially a job at the Law Society came up that involved coordinating pro bono work.  Through that I found out more about the pro bono charity, LawWorks.  They had a couple of project management roles on offer, including running a new project to get students and law schools doing pro bono work.  As I’d personally had such a positive learning experience doing pro bono work as a trainee, I thought that it would be great to help make more of that available to students as well.  I liked the aim of the project and that has naturally provided me with the motivation to apply myself to the role.



Career timeline



LLB Law, University of Durham



LPC, Nottingham Law School



Trainee, Herbert Smith



Commercial Litigation, Addleshaw Goddard



Project manager and now Head of Projects II for LawWorks



I joined LawWorks in October 2007 and it was a big change.  Moving back to London and almost halving my salary may not seem the most economic decision to have made, but I’ve loved the change of work. In some ways I was lucky as I didn’t have a mortgage or anything like that so it was a move that I was able to make.


The move from a big law firm to a small charity meant losing the support network of e.g. a secretary, reprographics department, etc!  Now I work in a small open plan office of about 15 people.  It’s also a different way of working.  Time recording must be the bane of any lawyer’s life so I wasn’t sorry to leave that behind, but by contrast I am now in an environment where funding is not easy to come by and it is still hard to reconcile that despite being really busy, I don’t make the charity any more money! 


I started here as a team of one and was warned that it could be lonely.  There is also the responsibility that comes with this – it can only be my fault if it doesn’t work out. The aim of the project is to encourage, assist and monitor student pro bono work across the UK.  I work with students and law schools to help them set up activities.   I also work to put law schools in touch with each other online or at various dedicated events.  I capture what is going on nationwide, map who is doing what and will produce a formal report on this.  I am still working on that project but my job has grown as I now oversee some other projects as well.


mtl:  Do you have any advice for readers about making such a big change?


Martin:  That’s a tricky one.  The pros of my move are that I am now involved in a job that I believe in and I am doing something that I think is more worthwhile for society as a whole.  If that’s important to you then make the move, but what comes with it generally are a lower salary and lower hours but not necessarily lower stress!  I can speak positively about my experience at LawWorks as I’m surrounded by professional, committed and well-motivated people who clearly all believe in the cause they are working for.   How many lawyers can say that of the firms they work in?


I wouldn’t do anything differently if I had my time again.  A few years of law gave me real life business experience, as well as some great friends.  I certainly didn’t hate my career but just knew it wasn’t what I wanted to do forever.  There would have come a point where I would have become reliant on the salary as a result of a mortgage and/or children so I think I made the move at the right time.  I see myself staying in the voluntary sector now though the predictability of my legal career has been replaced by a total lack of it in this one.  I really don’t know where I’ll be in a few years time. 


Although I had done some volunteering when I was younger, I didn’t have a great understanding of the charity sector and it was the legal angle of the job that allowed me to make the move.  Having now gained this experience, it’s possible that I could now move elsewhere within the sector … 


mtl:  Thank you Martin.


LawWorks aims to help law students and solicitors get involved in pro bono work  It also  helps people and communities obtain the free legal advice that they need.  The charity offers a consultancy service to firms and law schools for setting up new pro bono projects and also brokers casework, matching up the people who need the help with the lawyers prepared to provide it.  To find out more you can visit their website here.


If you know any other lawyers who have gone and done something interesting or unusual with their lives or who have a great work/life balance then please get in touch.





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