Charity pays off for ex-A&O lawyer
This month, we interview happy lawyer Clare Bennett, ex-Allen & Overy, who has wangled a job as a lawyer at a global HIV/Aids not-for-profit organisation based in New York. She’s working for a great cause, she is getting paid for it and she is in one of the finest cities in the world. We want to know: how did she do that?
(Clare is in the middle)
mtl: Hi Claire, what are you up to?
Clare: Well, I’m working at IAVI (International Aids Vaccine Initiative) and the work they do here is amazing and rewarding and now I get to be a part of that.
mtl: How did you get from A&O, London to IAVI, New York?
Clare: Well, I studied Law at Oxford. It’s the usual story: didn’t really know what else to do, thought the law sounded interesting. Applied to all the big firms, went for A&O as the people seemed great. And they were great and I loved the first few years. I did six months of my training contract in A&O’s New York office and fell in love with New York. But I had to come back to qualify and I joined the general banking team in London (now called Global Loans) and, though the hours were crazy at times, I didn’t mind. I was working with the best people, the best clients and the best banking team in the City. But then I was sent on secondment to ABN AMRO (in London) and I realised something.
mtl: That there was life on the outside?
Clare: Something like that. I discovered new opportunities that I hadn’t thought existed. It’s easy to be blinkered in private practice, thinking that there is only one route through – working extraordinarily hard and hoping for partnership. I started to wonder how that was going to work long-term if I had a family – I’d not seen any lawyers make the high-flying lawyer/Mum thing work particularly well. Of course, ABN AMRO was hard work but it was different. The whole place was open plan and the people seemed really relaxed and I just felt incredibly appreciated – people were always thanking me for my work.
mtl: Hmm, gratitude. Goes a long way.
Clare: Quite. But despite how much I enjoyed my time at ABN, being a banker or going in-house at a bank did not appeal, and by now the lure of New York was getting stronger every day. I was just about ready to resign from A&O when they offered me a two year secondment back to their New York office, which I snapped up.
mtl: Great. But how does a hotshot banking lawyer of New York’s financial district end up at an HIV/Aids not-for-profit?
Graduated from Oxford (Jurisprudence)
LPC at Nottingham Trent
9 months travelling in Africa and India
Training seat at A&O, New York
Qualified into General banking at A&O, London
Secondment at ABN AMRO
Moved to A&O, New York
Joined IAVI in New York
Clare: I just got talking to someone at a dinner party one night. I was saying how the banking work wasn’t really floating my boat anymore and how I really wanted to do something a bit more meaningful with my life.
mtl: Ah, yes, that conversation. A drunken-lawyer favourite.
Clare: Yeah, I wasn’t expecting it to go anywhere. But the person I was talking to mentioned that a friend of hers was General Counsel at IAVI and was looking for an assistant lawyer. However, they were looking for a US qualified lawyer (which I wasn’t) and someone with pharmaceutical/IP experience (which I hadn’t). I didn’t think I had a chance but this person mentioned me to the General Counsel, I sent my CV off and, three interviews later, I had the job.
mtl: Just like that. But what about having to know IP law, the uncertainty of your ongoing career, pay cuts and all the other scary things we’ve heard about the other side?
Clare: Well, it was scary, at first. I had to read up on a bit of IP law but what we do here is so varied – from general corporate work, tax issues, to construction contracts in Africa (I may be going to Uganda next month for some meetings) – and it’s really about issue spotting, problem solving and project management.
If we need help, we’ll run it past an outside specialist. People really appreciate what I do – I get a totally different response to my work than you get at law firms, where hard work is taken for granted. The pay cut? Well, I earn a lot less than New York lawyers (who really do work insane hours) but, depending on the exchange rate, it’s not far off what my A&O salary was when I left, though it won’t go up much. I get by, that’s for sure. And, somehow, the fact that I am really happy in my job means I spend less. Ongoing career? I’ve been here a little over six months and I love it so much that I can’t see myself leaving – even if I ever go back to London I would want to work for IAVI from there.
mtl: So what does IAVI actually do?
Clare: IAVI is a global not-for-profit organization working to speed the development of a vaccine for use throughout the world to prevent HIV infection and AIDS. IAVI's work focuses on four areas: accelerating scientific progress; mobilizing public support through issue advocacy and education; encouraging industrial involvement in AIDS vaccine development; and working to assure global access to a vaccine.
Having raised over US$0.5 billion and spent over US$200 million dollars by the end of 2005 on HIV vaccine research and development, IAVI is one of the largest AIDS vaccine research and development programmes in the world. We are a massive organisation, our headquarters are in New York and while we have offices in Amsterdam, Nairobi and New Delhi. IAVI also works globally through partnerships with 23 countries - local governments, non-governmental organizations (NGOs) and companies - and is currently conducting clinical trials in the U.S., Europe, Africa and Asia.
We work with wealthy donors to help service communities in need, and with some of the most interesting scientists in the world, and all races and ages. It is incredibly varied and the best part is that everyone really believes in IAVI’s mission. HIV has already claimed more than 25 million lives and another 40 million people are currently infected. Drug treatment is expensive, difficult to access and becomes ineffective over time as the ever-evolving virus become resistant. Finding an effective vaccine is critical and will save tens of millions of lives. It is amazing to be a very small part of that effort.
mtl: It does sound amazing. We’re a bit jealous. All that and you get to be in New York, too.
Clare: Yes, that part is great, I still love the place. It is just so much easier than London – I live close to Central Park and there is no serious commute involved. I can call up friends on an ad hoc basis and go out for a drink very easily and all the best bars, restaurants and shops are concentrated in a relatively small area compared to London.
Even when I worked late (which I don’t do anymore – I tend to be out of here around 7pm), everything was open and I could still meet up with people. It’s also a real service culture, which is great if you’re lazy like me. For example, someone drops off my groceries, someone picks up my dry cleaning - you can get all the rubbish jobs done for you.
mtl: We like the sound of that. So how can other people get the deal you’ve got?
Clare: Well, luck has played a big part. I don’t think getting into charities/not-for-profits as a lawyer is easy, and there aren’t many out there where the pay compares well to private practice other than the big players such as the UN or the World Health Organisation. The best thing is to start trawling the respective websites and see what they have on offer. Of course, I’m one of only two lawyers here (my boss started his career at Shearman & Sterling and worked in-house for AMEX – something of a change!) and lots of charitable organisations don’t even have lawyers – but that may change. The only thing I would say is get involved with a charity or not-for profit on a pro bono basis to start with, focusing on issues that you are passionate about. I sat on the board of trustees of The Globe Centre back in London’s East End, a provider of services and support for people living with HIV/AIDS, their family and friends, before coming out here, and that demonstrated a long-standing interest in this field. Apart from that, my advice would be just to keep talking to people about your options, and be focussed about what you want – sooner or later it will come.
mtl: And what if we just want to work in New York?
Clare: I think the best way is to come through a major City law firm or some other big corporate body. If I had applied for this job from the UK I don’t think I would have got an interview. It is best to just get here and then you find that the job market is pretty fluid – people change jobs all the time.
mtl: Well, that’s encouraging, at least. Be sure to let mtl know first if you’re looking to expand your team…
Clare: Will do! Stranger things have happened.
mtl: Indeed. Clare Bennett, thank you very, very much for speaking to us and good luck with everything.
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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