Ex-City lawyer goes part-time on the Isle of Man - and has a novel published
Chris Ewan trained at Allen & Overy, before moving to Cains, the leading Isle of Man law firm, on qualification. He spent his first year of qualified life writing a novel in his spare time. His book is called The Good Thief’s Guide to Amsterdam and was picked to win the 2007 Long Barn Books first novel competition. The prize was for his book to be published in hardback in the UK and his novel has just been released. Chris is currently writing a follow-up title, The Good Thief’s Guide to Paris, and as a result he negotiated a part-time arrangement at Cains so that he could complete the book on schedule. We talked to him about working on the Isle of Man, writing and practising law part-time.
mtl: Hi Chris, tell us about your legal background
Chris: I did American Studies at Nottingham University and originally I hoped to pursue an academic career but finding funding was pretty tough. Instead I took a year out to decide what to do next. During this time I saw a glossy A&O brochure and began to think about law. I ended up getting a training contract with A&O and they were good enough to pay my law school fees.
Soon after I started at the firm, I began to realise that I was not really suited to the environment. I was well paid and received good training, but I had been naïve about the work culture of a large City firm. The hours were tough and the transactions I worked on were often huge. This meant that different departments did small pieces of the jigsaw on each transaction and I didn’t get to see and understand the whole picture. I liked the people at A&O and I was grateful for the opportunity they gave me - I just wasn’t cut out for City law.
I spent my last training seat in Amsterdam and shortly before finishing I decided not to qualify at A&O. Instead, I applied to law firms on the Isle of Man, where my fiancé is from, and was lucky enough to be offered a job by Cains. I know a lot of people aim to stay in the City until two or three years PQE but I felt comfortable leaving sooner so that I could try to establish my career elsewhere.
At the time I joined Cains, I had the good fortune to be offered a role in film finance, as the industry on the island had really taken off. During the past three years I’ve worked on a number of quite high-profile films, including The Libertine starring Johnny Depp and the film adaptation of Anthony Horowitz’s Stormbreaker. Working at Cains means that I could retrain as a Manx advocate, which would require me to sit a number of exams, but I currently practise as an English solicitor, something that’s possible at most Manx firms. Manx law is generally quite similar to UK law. Anyone can work on the Isle of Man once they have a work permit – and the authorities are generally pretty keen to encourage professionals to move to the island.
American Studies, Nottingham University
PGDL and LPC, Nottingham Law School
Trainee, Allen & Overy
Started The Good Thief’s Guide to Amsterdam
Started working part-time at Cains, while writing next novel
Working here is great – probably rather like working in a mini City firm but with a view of the sea. The firm offers a good range of corporate and banking work, often dealing with City firms on the other side. The environment and the hours are more relaxed and friendly than I was used to in the City. My fiancé is happy to be back near her family. She is a teacher and the Island is very supportive of state education. Our other option was to move to the Southwest, but on balance the Isle of Man was more appealing to us. Among other factors, and allowing for the differing tax rates, Cains were able to offer me a broadly comparable salary to what I would have earned if I had stayed at A&O.
I am from Somerset originally, and the Island seems familiar in some ways, with some wonderful scenery and beaches that encourage an outdoor lifestyle. The main limitation is that if you want to go away for the weekend you have to get off the Island first, though it is only an hour’s flight to the UK.
mtl: So when did your interest in writing start?
Chris: I have been writing seriously for around 10 years and I love reading and writing. I wrote a couple of novels while I was at law school and during my first year at A&O but although I was taken on by an agent, neither book was published. After leaving London, Cains allowed me to delay my start date by 6 months so that I could write a third novel. Alas, I wasn’t very pleased with the book I produced so I guess it was fourth time lucky for me. The Good Thief’s Guide to Amsterdam is my first crime novel and I spent my initial year at Cains writing it in the early mornings, evenings and at weekends.
While I was writing my novel, I saw an article about a competition for first-time novelists featured in The Guardian. The competition was set up by Susan Hill (a well-known author of some 35 novels, including The Woman in Black) and her independent publishing house, Long Barn Books. By the time I’d finished my crime novel, Long Barn Books were running the competition for a second year and inviting submissions. I sent in the opening chapters and a short while later I was asked to send through the complete book. In October 2006 I was told that I was on the shortlist for the prize and a week later found out that I’d won. The hardback edition of my novel is on sale from June 2007, with a paperback version due from Simon & Schuster in April 2008.
Along with Long Barn, I am currently in the process of publicising the book. I will be doing book signings, radio interviews and will be talking to local papers. I really hope people will read the book, enjoy it and recommend it.
mtl: Tell us about going part-time at Cains?
Chris: I am very fortunate because the book has been sold to a number of countries, including Germany and the US, and I have been commissioned to write a second volume in the Good Thief series. Nowadays, many authors only get two or three books to succeed, so I wanted to make the most of the opportunity – and I explained this to Cains. They have been very supportive and flexible and I now work Tuesday to Thursday and write the rest of the time. I have found writing the second book brings new pressures but I am on schedule. Most importantly it is still fun!
The part-time arrangement seems to be working well. I suspect that if I tried to write full-time I might procrastinate or get a bit lonely as I do enjoy the office environment. To some extent my work has been modified, for instance I tend to work on more discrete tasks rather than pure transactional work. However I have to be flexible – and on occasion I might have to work a five day week during a busy period and then benefit from equivalent writing days another time.
mtl: So, tell us about your book.
Chris: The Good Thief’s Guide to Amsterdam is a light-hearted crime caper about a mystery writer who doubles as a high-class burglar. My lead character, Charlie Howard, is writing his latest book in Amsterdam when he is approached by a mysterious American who asks him to steal two apparently worthless monkey figurines. At first Charlie says no. Then he changes his mind. Soon, Charlie finds himself in the frame for a murder and he has to clear his name, all while trying to get away with the haul of a lifetime and solving the plot problems in his latest novel… The plan is to write a series of Good Thief Guides, with the next novel set in Paris and the third set in the States. I have set up a website for the series, which can be found at www.thegoodthief.co.uk.
I have been lucky and I am delighted to be working with Long Barn Books - it is a small independent house which is giving new writers a chance. The USA book-deal, in particular, has been a bit of a coup as it is difficult for English crime authors to break into the American market.
mtl: Do you have any tips on changing your legal lifestyle, or writing a novel?
Chris: I imagine it can be difficult when you are in the City to negotiate flexible working but out of the City there are certainly opportunities. I think that offshore and regional firms are becoming increasingly aware that they can attract staff by offering a good quality of life and flexible working, so my advice would be to consider looking outside London. As for writing, finding the time to write while working is possibly the hardest thing. However, if you are committed I think you can do it, even if you work long hours – the key is to be consistent and to try to write something every day.
mtl: Thanks Chris, and good luck with your Good Thief series.
If you have a completed novel tucked up your sleeve, then you can apply to the current Long Barn Books competition (closing date 15 June 2007) here.
When Chris won the First Novel competition, Susan Hill said that she “had no hesitation in making the winner Chris Ewan’s brilliant novel, which is highly original, clever, funny, quirky and terrifically well-written.” If you’re interested in reading his novel, then you can buy it in all the major bookshops or 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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