Ex-Freshfields lawyer finds that the best job is snow job
This week we speak to Isobel Rostron, a former Freshfields lawyer who took unpaid leave in order to do a ski season but never made it back to the City. Instead she ended up writing ski guides, learning to become a ski instructor and is now the managing editor of www.ultimate-ski.com, a new website for skiers and boarders. How did she get here?
mtl: Hi Isobel, start at the beginning.
Isobel: I studied Law at Exeter, went to the College of Law in York, took eight months out and joined Lovells (then Lovell White Durrant) in March 1997. On qualification I went to Freshfields to do litigation, as I thought there were good opportunities to do a mix of work in Freshfields’ single litigation department.
As City law goes it was a good experience, but by four years qualified I needed a break from the City lifestyle, to get some perspective on whether I wanted to stay in the legal profession. I was a keen skier and had always wanted to do a ski season, and it seemed the right time. I thought a break would inject some new enthusiasm into working as a lawyer and so I persuaded Freshfields that I would come back after six months.
mtl: And Freshfields were ok with that?
Isobel: Yeah, they were fine. I walked into that meeting thinking, ‘I’m ready to resign if they don’t go for this’, but they went for it – six months unpaid leave - which gave me peace of mind as I went off to ski, knowing I had a job back at home.
The ski season was great. I worked as a resort manager at Flexiski in Verbier in Switzerland, a top-end ski holiday operator. I got accommodation, food, a lift pass, some pocket money and a fair amount of time to ski. In fact, quite a bit of time to ski as I got my first level BASI qualification as a skiing instructor!
Halfway through the ski season, I had the idea of writing resort-specific guide books for skiers, to be called the Snowmole guides. There was nothing like it out there – a number of general guidebooks about skiing existed but none about individual resorts. I suggested it to the guy who was working for Flexiski in Chamonix, an English teacher also taking some time out. He agreed it sounded a good idea and we decided to form a partnership to write and publish the guides - I wrote a guide to Verbier and he wrote a guide to Chamonix.
At first, I had the notion of going back to Freshfields and writing the guidebooks on the side, but that clearly wasn’t going to work – they were both full-time (and then some) jobs. It had to be one thing or the other. A good job at a top firm in the City, earning very decent money, or doing something I loved for probably very little, not knowing where it was all going to end up.
Graduated from Exeter in Law
College of Law, York
Joined Freshfields on qualification (litigation)
Ski Season (Resort Manager for Flexiski)
2003 - 2006
Founded the Snowmole guides - published books on individual ski resorts
Managing Editor of ultimate-ski.com
In the end the decision wasn’t difficult as putting together the guidebooks combined everything I loved - skiing, being in the mountains and writing. It was too much to give up. So, in June 2003, I didn’t go back to Freshfields but instead holed up in a flat in Baron's Court to write and design the first two guidebooks. We decided to self-publish, which isn't as unusual as it sounds as most travel books are self-published. It allowed us to keep control over the idea, the content and the timetable, and to ensure that we would be the ones making the money if they sold. All very confident - given that neither of us had any experience in writing or publishing, or selling and marketing!
There were a lot of steep learning curves, and many people took a lot of time and effort to advise us. There was a lot to do setting up the business, not only in producing the books, but also finding distributors, entering into contracts and all the tax and accounting elements. And when it's your own thing, it's much harder to shut down the computer at the end of the day - knowing if you don't do it, nobody else will.
The first two titles were published in October 2003 and we went out to potential stockists promoting them. That involved a lot of cold-calling and knocking on doors. A number of stockists were receptive – Snow and Rock, the ski equipment suppliers, and also WH Smith - as well as the ski industry generally. And we persuaded Ellis Brigham to let us sell the guides on their stand at the Ski Show at Olympia. However, most potential retailers wanted to see a bigger range of books before they would stock them. So, we took the not-so-difficult decision to write six more guidebooks on six more resorts (Courchevel, Méribel, Zermatt, La Plagne, Les Arcs and Val d'Isère), which would mean spending a month or so in each!
We split the resorts between us, three each, and headed back out to the Alps. We didn’t have much money so it was a case of seeking accommodation where we could find it – sometimes the tourist board would offer us a roof over our heads, sometimes we were sleeping on friends’ floors. But it was great fun, driving around the Alps, talking to everyone we could talk to about the resort and what was good about it. I just loved being in the mountains again, breathing in that fresh air. And I still managed to fit in a lot of skiing - it was part of the job after all!
Overall, however, my hours were worse than being a lawyer at that time, trying to prepare three new books for publication. However, we managed it and published all six in August 2004, which meant that we had eight in our range. Stockists then took us a lot more seriously. We soon had our books in Waterstones, Ottakar’s and on Amazon, and before very long we were making a small profit.
mtl: Very well done. So what next?
Isobel: Well, we knew we had to keep the idea fresh, and ahead of the competition, so I started looking around for other related titles and decided to write another book on skiing, this time for weekend skiers. At the same time we put together a website to promote the books. There was also the question of keeping the existing guidebooks up to date. That isn’t as complicated as it sounds because you can ask the tourist board for updated information and get them to do much of the work! We had also built up a lot of good contacts so it was easy to ring them up and ask about any changes in the resort.
We were also approached by a ski performance coach, Warren Smith, who produced instruction DVDs for skiers, and wanted some handbooks to go with them. He asked us if we could help, and we agreed to edit and produce them for him.
I was then approached by Ultimate Ski in April 2006 who were looking for someone to edit information on French and Swiss ski resorts and manage their new website. I had been coming round to the view that the internet was an important resource for skiers and boarders for finding out about resorts, when deciding where to ski, so it seemed a great opportunity to make use of all the research I had done, and work in a new media. The site, www.ultimate-ski.com, is due to be officially launched this September (2006), which is very exciting. It combines information on the best ski resorts worldwide as well as sections on off-piste and heli-skiing, weekend skiing, and travel products - basically a one-stop shop for everything ski!
mtl: Sounds good. So you are doing something you love, that’s clear. But how does the cash compare?
Isobel: It doesn’t, really. The margin on the books is pretty low and editing generally is not well paid compared to the salaries of my peers at law firms, some of whom are now up for partnership.
Looking back the money was probably what kept me there for as long as I stayed, though I always knew that I wanted to be doing something more creative and that allowed me to get more involved on a commercial level as well.
Most of my lawyer friends who are still left in it do little other than moan about it, whereas I never have anything to complain about. Not ever.
mtl: Do you think you would ever move back to private practice?
Isobel: No. I don’t even think about it. This is the perfect job for me. I’m earning enough to live (and ski) and doing something I thoroughly enjoy and that’s what matters. Now that I spend half the year dressed in Goretex, somewhere in the mountains, I find it very hard to imagine going back to wearing suits and working in an office.
mtl: Where will you be in ten years’ time?
Isobel: I’ve no idea. But that’s part of the fun. I'd much rather take life as it comes, rather than look back when retiring in 30 years and think "what did I do with my life?" I think I’ll definitely be doing something related to adventure travel, both participating and writing about it.
mtl: Sounds appealing. Do you have any advice for lawyers thinking about leaving the law?
Isobel: I think that part of the problem is that it is not until you leave and pursue something different that the unexpected opportunities appear. When I decided not to go back to Freshfields people kept saying how ‘brave’ I was, which just shows how nervous people are of leaving the certainty of their legal career. That’s understandable, but it’s a shame as so many have never tried anything else and never really had the chance to see what else is out there.
I have no regrets about having started out in law. Being trained as a lawyer is a fantastic discipline, leaving you with skills that are usable in any number of businesses and industries. It carries considerable weight, and having a name like Freshfields behind me, to which people can relate, is a real advantage.
Leaving the law is not for everyone, of course, and you have to think about what you really enjoy. If your priorities are financial security and career certainty, you may be better off sticking with it.
A lot of people said to me, 'if it doesn't work out, you can always go back'. That may be true but I think that to really make something different work, particularly if it’s entrepreneurial, you’ve got to think that you can’t go back – otherwise the security of it stops you from really pushing yourself as hard as you can.
mtl: Indeed. Isobel Rostron, thank you very much for speaking to us and good luck with your new career.
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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