Ex-Bakers lawyer gives fair trade a fair go
Greg Lovell started his career with four years in PR. In 2003 he decided to retrain as a solicitor and joined Baker & McKenzie to do his training contract. After qualifying into the IT/Commercial department in 2007, he left the City a few months ago to run www.thisfairearth.com, a website that he has set up to sell ethical and sustainably-sourced products. He has just launched the site and we spoke to him to find out how he is feeling at this point.
mtl: Hi Greg, please can you tell us about your PR background and why you switched to law?
Greg: After studying English at Sheffield, I left university with no clear idea about what to do. I really enjoyed studying but didn’t want to do a postgrad course at that point, even though I had already thought about law. Instead I went traveling for 18m and when I came back I fell into PR, rather than it being a great dream of mine. I worked for Firefly Communications, which was a fantastic place to be. I made lots of friends and met my wife there. I landed on my feet as it was a great environment, the company was growing quickly due to its technology clients and I enjoyed the work.
mtl: Sounds ideal. Why did you convert to law?
Greg: After a couple of years there I was involved in a spin-off online PR division which felt like a start-up. It was a really interesting challenge as I got to see a new business from the beginning and I enjoyed the excitement. However it was badly timed as it was just before the start of the dotcom crash, so it never really got off the ground as budgets were being cut.
I therefore returned to mainstream PR for another year, but I found that the company had changed. I was also getting older and had started to wonder what I wanted to be doing in my late 20’s and 30’s. I had dealt with some legal issues through the PR work and really enjoyed them, so I looked at what it would take to transfer to law at that stage. I did a lot of research and felt that I would be transferring to something with more of a business focus than a PR agency could have. I made some applications to firms that didn’t mind career changers and was offered a training contract at Baker & McKenzie. I went off to do the GDL and LPC and took on some freelance PR work to pay my mortgage.
mtl: So far so good. How did you find the legal sector?
Greg: I really enjoyed the academic side of the GDL, as well as being out of an office. I started my training contract in 2005 and thought that Baker & McKenzie was a fantastic place to work. I had a good intake and seats in banking, IT / commercial, corporate, disputes and a 3m secondment to a client which was interesting.
However, even as I was approaching qualification, I began to think that I was not entirely sure I was going to take to being an associate there. Although I loved the firm and the people and I didn’t mind the hours being long, I didn’t really think it was going to be the panacea that it might have been. I looked at some in-house roles connected with other interests that I believe in, but they were not easy to come by at NQ level. In the end I didn’t apply for a job on qualification, but had my mind changed by the head of the IT/Commercial department. He said he knew I was looking at other things, but I should give qualified life a go and nobody expected me to stay forever.
English Literature, Sheffield
PR, Firefly Communications
GDL and LPC
Trainee and IT/Commercial assistant, Baker & McKenzie
Resigned from Baker & McKenzie
Incorporated This Fair Earth
Left Baker & McKenzie to set up This Fair Earth
This was a very helpful conversation, so I qualified there in September 2007 and joined a great team. It was a nice environment but I couldn’t really connect with the work. I was working hard and really wanted to care about it. Instead I found it rather faceless and hard to engage with it or the clients as I never saw the outcome of the work we did.
mtl: How did you make the jump from well-paid City assistant to entrepreneur?
Greg: I had loose ideas of what I wanted to do from my second seat onwards, but I was frightened of setting up my own business, even though I had lots of support. However, when I qualified at 31, I knew that I needed to make a decision as if I wanted to leave, it had to be before kids and a huge mortgage, when I would suddenly be tied to my City salary. So, I felt that an opportunity was there but not for that long.
While still a trainee, I decided to have some career counselling and chose a programme with Career Energy. They helped me look at my motivations, what inspires me and how I could find career fulfillment, through talking about scenarios and doing exercises. Everything came down to the fact that I wanted control over my work and that owning a business would give me this. I also wanted to believe in what I was doing.
It was an expensive process but it spanned a year, including meetings, discussions and support and proved to be a fantastic sounding board. A careers consultant won’t tell you your dream job as only you can find out what to do with your life. However it is helpful to have a guide and I wouldn’t be here now without that process as I wouldn’t have had the confidence to leave law.
For years I had been really interested in green and ethical issues and was always fired up about e.g. the exploitation of workers by large multi-nationals. I thought that there had to be a way of bringing this interest together with starting a business. There are a lot of ethical online stores, but they are often clothing retailers and I didn’t want to sell clothes. I investigated the market for around four months looking at what was out there and found the sector was growing quickly.
I found a real gap for high quality but ethically sourced products outside clothing. What was available tended to be traditional items that wouldn’t appeal to people in e.g. large cities who want high quality products but who also have an ethical conscience. I looked into suppliers with strong ethical policies and decided to focus on either fair trade products from abroad or local suppliers who have a real eye on their own environmental footprint.
I found a lot of interesting companies and talked to them. I then looked at the cost of setting up an online retail website, I did a business plan, looked at the risks and how much money I needed to put in, how much time it would take to develop and tap into the brand and how much commitment I really had. I decided I could afford to give it a go and behind me I had the comfort blanket of being a solicitor.
I resigned from Baker & McKenzie in February 2008 and have been developing the site and sourcing products for about five months now, with the last two months being full-time, when my notice period ran out. Law has been very helpful in terms of paperwork and I am not frightened by forms and tax issues. I’ve had lots of control over the site and how things are uploaded. I developed the brand and the logo with a designer and the web designers built the front end on to their own shopping system.
I’ve been busy promoting the site to ensure that people who are on the internet find it quickly. Offline PR is great e.g. getting into glossy magazines but for the effort to get a one-liner I don’t have the resources so I’m concentrating on online PR at the moment. I have to make sure that any potential online customers searching for e.g. “ethical gift” or “organic toiletries” will find me and that when they are on the site I can convert the search into a sale, partly by making the buying process pleasant, secure and straight forward. I’m confident in the site and think that it compares well to its competitors as I think I have the right blend of sustainability and quality in the branding.
mtl: What have you found difficult so far?
Greg: So many things are tricky when you are starting out and the learning curve has been steep, with some things being very daunting. I spent the first few weeks turning around to ask someone’s opinion but there was nobody to ask. I’m used to an environment with an infrastructure and having people to bounce ideas off, so it has been hard to get used to being by myself. I’ve realised that there is nobody to validate my ideas and if I don’t make a decision then nothing happens. I struggled with that at the start, but it was a confidence issue and I have to back myself. I now love the fact that I can make all the decisions myself.
I have done a conservative business plan for the first 12 months. If I meet my targets, I won’t make much money but it will be fine to live on. We’ve moved to Bristol, where the cost of living is cheaper. I’m trying not to pay too much attention to the doom and gloom in the media. At the end of the year I will see whether it is a sustainable long-term business. If it goes wrong then I have lost the opportunity but I would probably try and do something in the environmental or fair trade sectors, using my legal skills. I can’t see myself going back to law per se, though it is good to have it on my CV and gives me stability if I need it.
mtl: What are your plans for the site?
Greg: At the moment, the site is broken down by ethical area and we stock photo albums, journals, frames, candles, household gift items, organic toiletries, bathing products and jewellery, with an average price of £15-£30. I would like to think of this as the start of something bigger and would love to encourage producers by connecting more closely with the suppliers and by building strong relationships. I want to champion small scale local producers in the UK and find more products that are unusual but ethically sound.
I’m starting off by doing everything myself and as I progress I will bring in more products and outsource aspects of the business that don’t need my input. I would also like to highlight certain parts of the world and speak directly to suppliers there. All the time I want to stay true to my motives by doing something I believe in and feel strongly about it i.e. sell fantastic quality products that don’t do the planet any harm. It is exciting and I’m looking forward to the possibilities. In the meantime I am taking advantage of being in the West Country, where there is already a bigger focus on these issues. For example, Bristol is labeled “the fair trade city”. I am meeting lots of people and getting the brand out there.
mtl: Any tips for readers thinking of going out on their own?
Greg: The hardest thing was waking up and questioning my decision to stop working at a top firm and instead say goodbye to the great salary. I wondered if I was recklessly throwing away security. But I had courage in my convictions and the support of my wife, who also agrees that it is more important to be happy at work than just earn a big salary. I take the view that nothing can be that hard and it must be possible to work out how to do things, especially as other people are doing it. This industry has been open and friendly so far and people are very supportive and helpful. I am approaching the producers and suppliers that I meet with both humility and self confidence – I am sure I can do it but I also ask for help when I need it.
mtl: Thanks for your time Greg.
Click here to see Greg's new site, This Fair Earth.
Click here to see Career Energy's website.
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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