Ex-A&O lawyer gets high (naturally)

This week we speak to Alex Shirley, previously of Allen & Overy, now running his own fitness enterprise, Natural High, based in Sydney, Australia.  The sun never stops, he does most of his work outside and he loves it.  How did he get here?


mtl:  Please can you tell us a bit about your legal career and how you ended up doing what you are doing.


Alex:   I studied Law and European Law at Nottingham University because I thought it sounded interesting.  I wasn’t very career-orientated at the time but a career aptitude test I took at school had suggested I should study theology, philosophy or law at university.  From a practical point of view, out of those three career options, it wasn’t difficult to predict which would win.  I applied to a few firms, got the training contract at A&O and gave the reality of life as a solicitor no thought whatsoever.  I spent some time in Oz in between law school and A&O, first as a paralegal and then in the Sydney fish markets – a great experience.  I loved the outdoor life in Australia and when I returned to London I couldn’t stop thinking about going back.  I had a good time at A&O but the lifestyle wasn’t for me.  About 6 months before I qualified I applied to firms in Sydney.


mtl: How easy was it to get a job out there?


Alex:  It was pretty easy. English lawyers are viewed quite positively by the Australian firms. I used a recruitment consultant in London and they lined up interviews with a couple of firms within a few weeks. One was with a firm based in Melbourne and the other was with Freehills, one of the top-tier law firms in Sydney. I was made an offer by Freehills after just one short telephone interview. That was that and I moved straight out here.


mtl:  So how does the lifestyle of a commercial lawyer in the City compare with the lifestyle of one in Sydney?


Alex:  In some ways it is even harder in Sydney because you have to spend all the hours in the office while all you want to do is get outside to the beautiful weather.   The lifestyle for lawyers in terms of hours is no better than in the City.  I had spectacular views of Sydney Harbour from my office, which only made being inside looking at corporate agreements even more frustrating.  I decided to stick with it for a year for points towards my permanent visa.


mtl:  And then you decided to break free…..


Alex:  Exactly.  I had always been interested in fitness and played a lot of sport so I thought about becoming a fitness instructor.   I handed in my notice, took a few courses and then got a job at a fitness studio on Bondi Beach.  I did that for a year, which was great as it gave me the experience that I needed and time to study and to think about setting up my own business, which is what I planned to do from the beginning.   Getting started and completing the studying was hard work but, because I was genuinely interested in it, I found it so much easier than studying law.


mtl:  But wasn’t there a big capital outlay and therefore big financial risk in setting up on your own?


Alex:  Not really.  Other than paying for the education, there are no large overheads.  Marketing is by word-of-mouth and I do most of my classes outside – in Centennial Park in the centre of Sydney – which means I don’t need a studio.   That’s the beauty of the weather out here – keeping fit is a totally different experience to what it is in London.  Executives will come out to the park before work, at lunchtime or early evening and we will do a full class outside.  I will also go to the offices of some clients and take classes in rooms they provide – for example I do a pilates class at an IT company and a boxing class at an investment bank.


mtl: And there’s plenty of work?


Alex:  Yes, I’m extremely busy.  I try to give people a personal and informative service, explaining the science behind what we are doing and why we are doing it and people seem to like that.  It’s a great mix of people – lots of lawyers, some of the top barristers in Sydney.  It’s almost like a counselling role with some clients – and we talk about how to help them feel better generally through exercise.  I’ve spent a lot of time educating myself about the biological and physiological aspects of what I do so that I can offer clients a thorough service, taking any injuries they have into account, for example.   I’ve been going for two years now and it’s time to expand.  I’m setting up a new scheme called ‘Basecamp’ which is a fitness holiday (like Bootcamp in the States) giving clients a specific goal.  For the first trip we will be taking a group to go trekking in the Himalayas.  If anyone reading this is interested in taking part in Basecamp (even if they live in the UK) they should contact me here: alex@personaltraining.net.au.


mtl:  Just so that we can compare your busy life as a fitness guru to your busy life as a lawyer, give us a brief outline of your average day.


Alex:  Ok.  I get up at 5am, eat breakfast and then drive down to the park for a 6am session.  I’ll then do three or four hours of classes, and I may have a few corporate sessions.  After lunchtime my days are pretty varied.  Sometimes I sort out my admin, sometimes I have some evening classes or I may have some massage sessions, which is another aspect of what I do.  On those days I might not finish until 8pm.  But on other days I’ll go for a surf at 2.30 in the afternoon. 


That’s the great thing about having your own business - flexibility.  I generally take Fridays off to look after the baby, for example.   On the other hand it can be very busy, having to look after every aspect of the business yourself.  It became a bit of an obsession in the first year – I couldn’t stop thinking about it.  I have to make time to separate myself from it, otherwise it takes over everything.  Now that I’ve got things more under control, it works really well for the family.


mtl:  So do you ever think you’ll come back to the UK?


Alex:  It seems unlikely right now.  Amber and I both love it here.  She came out with me, leaving her HR job at UBS in the City and managing to find a better HR role in the Sydney office of UBS - so that worked out pretty well.  It was hard leaving all our friends but Amber grew up in Singapore as an expat and her parents live in Bangkok and I think I end up speaking to my family more often than I did when I was in London.  Having been here for a number of years we finally got citizenship last week, so we won’t be thinking about leaving soon.  I don’t think I could leave the sun, sea and sand behind, anyway.   I love being outside for most of the day and wearing shorts all year round.  I won’t be able to run around doing intensive exercise classes forever and as I get older I may have to employ people, or I may develop the massage, physio or nutritional aspects of what I do, which is fine by me as I find all of that really interesting.


mtl: It sounds as though you embody the notion of a great lifestyle. Any final words of inspiration for lawyers out there?


Alex:  I suppose I would advise people to do something they are really interested in.  Whatever you do is likely to be hard work, but if you find it interesting then you won’t mind.   Oh and live near a nice beach if you can.


mtl:  Thank you very much for speaking to us.


You can find out more about Alex’s venture at www.personaltraining.net.au.  Don’t forget to get in touch with Alex if you like the sound of a challenging trek in the Himalayas, guided by Alex himself.   Contact: alex@personaltraining.net.au


If you know any other ex-lawyers who have gone and done something interesting or unusual with their lives then please get in touch.


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