Interview with Moretolaw's founder: Alex Dunstan-Lee
Alex came up with the idea of the site, and then took the huge step of leaving Herbert Smith (after seven years) to run it full-time. He has since joined KPMG as a senior manager in the forensic technology team and is enjoying his new career there. We spoke to him about the many big decisions he has made in the last couple of years.
mtl: Hi Alex. Three years ago you were a 4yr qualified competition lawyer at Herbert Smith. Take us back to that point…
Alex: While I had a great time at Herbert Smith and worked with lots of fantastic people (in particular, being a trainee there was really good fun), I had always questioned whether I wanted to do law forever. As I got more senior and faced the daunting prospect of the partnership track – which looked like a lot of serious hard work and uncertainty - I decided that I wanted to try something else before committing to being a lawyer for the rest of my working life.
The question was ‘what else could I do’? I had done a law degree and the only place I had worked was Herbert Smith (other than a few summer jobs in my student days), so law was all I knew. This meant that I was very nervous about making any kind of major change. To cover my back, I started the career-change process by doing some part-time teaching in competition law at King’s College London, while I was still at Herbert Smith (just for two hours a week). This made me feel more comfortable about leaving the protection of ‘Uncle Herb’, but I knew that I didn’t want to be an academic full-time.
During this period, I talked to colleagues and friends and realised that there were a lot of other (often frustrated) lawyers out there. In fact, very few seemed entirely happy with their lot. You go into law thinking about money, status, glamour (if you watch too much TV) and exciting caseloads. It is fair to say that at big City firms it isn’t always quite like that. Many go into it thinking ‘I want to be a partner’, but when they see what that means (lots of money but very, very little time) they start to question it.
The problem was that there was so little information out there about what else you could do as a lawyer. I wanted to know what solicitors did if they didn’t go on to be partners? It was obvious that there were lots of things that we could do and that our skills were valuable in other sectors, but it wasn’t clear where you could get more detailed information about this. Recruitment consultants are either focused on the legal market or other sectors, and aren’t used to dealing with career changers. And so the idea of www.moretolaw.com was born - the aim being to offer inspiration and give access to the experiences of others who have moved on in their own careers.
mtl: So how did you convert the idea of Moretolaw into reality?
Alex: I had the idea in the summer of 2005. I did a business plan and thought about it a lot. I then instructed web designers (with the help of a friend who was in IT) and spoke to Herbert Smith. I negotiated a half-time working arrangement where I only worked afternoons. I went part-time because I was still nervous about doing the site, partly because I was convinced that if the idea could make a lot of money then someone would be doing it already. Working half-time meant that I could still earn a reasonable salary while giving the idea a go. And I also had a very supportive wife (also a lawyer)!
Law, King’s College London
LPC, College of Law
Training contract and competition assistant, Herbert Smith
Decided to set up www.moretolaw.com
Began to work mornings on www.moretolaw.com
left Herbert Smith to run the site full-time
joined KPMG’s Forensic Technology team as a senior manager
Herbert Smith was also very supportive of the part-time arrangement and of the concept of Moretolaw (after all, it wasn’t anti-City firms or anti-law). I worked part-time for five months. Once the site was up and running and I had tested it, I knew I had to do it full-time. By this point I had arranged advertising on the site that covered my start-up costs.
mtl: How did you feel about saying goodbye to law and running Moretolaw?
Alex: I think that the real fear hit me in 2005 when I decided to give the idea a go, so by the time I actually left Herbert Smith I knew that it was the right thing to do for me. It was still emotional though as I had been there for seven years and felt a great affection for the place, but my only real doubts were about money. I also kept lecturing upon leaving Herbert Smith as a way of ‘keeping my hand in’ so that I could go back to law if things didn’t work out.
It was only after I left that it became clear why law hadn’t been quite right for me. Being a lawyer in a big City firm is very reactive. You wait for work to be dished out, then you do it and you fill in your timesheets. What I enjoyed about running Moretolaw was that it was much more proactive. It was my responsibility to go out and grow the business. Thinking about commercial strategy in this more positive way and going out and doing presentations and meetings to develop business, seemed to be much more suited to my natural way of thinking, rather than doing a job focused on risk management.
However, there were down sides to running Moretolaw. It was a lot harder than I had expected. Hats off to anyone who runs a successful small business. It is tough. I had help and support: a friend who helped with editing, another who provided some content and another who helped me with the IT side of it. As soon as the site went live I also had offers from other lawyers who I had never met before to help out.
But everything was really down to me. I was responsible for getting the content and design right, meeting tight deadlines, drafting articles and proof-reading, not to mention trying to raise revenues through advertising, And of course all the form-filling and administration that goes with running a small company. It was great experience seeing all aspects of the business but it was as hard as being a lawyer at times – harder, in some ways. The upside was the flexibility, which was tremendous. The downside was the pressure of getting it right and generating cash.
However, it showed some very promising signs early on and started to generate some money. It also received some tremendous feedback from other lawyers. I remember one e-mail the site received late at night from a lawyer at a big City firm after the first few months which praised the site and said ‘this is the only thing keeping me going right now’. I thought – wow, I have really hit a nerve. The site was mentioned in an article on the front page of the FT (about lawyers’ salaries and lawyers looking for more than just money out of their jobs) in June 2006 and that really helped the hit-rate. It was very rewarding.
mtl: So what prompted you to move on from running Moretolaw?
Alex: A number of things changed. First, my wife became pregnant at about the same time as I began to work on the site full-time. We were living in central London which was perfect for running the site but not perfect for a family. That meant we would need to raise a mortgage for a house somewhere. Second, it had quickly become clear that the reader numbers would have to increase for a significant number of advertisers to want to be involved and this made me unsure about the long-term financial viability of the site. I was fairly sure that there was some money to be made but I thought it might require further investment and I had got cold feet about putting any more money into it. Third, I was finding working from home quite a challenge – it was sometimes isolating and my motivation levels were falling – for the first time I realised that the structure of having to go into an office to work was a good thing.
But I had always told myself that I would give the site a year of my time, whatever happened. The main factor for moving on was that my job involved interviewing lawyers who were doing other things and I was therefore exposed to new options that I hadn’t come across before. Within 3 months of working on the site I had three informal job offers. The first was from a recruitment agency and the second was to help set up the Competition Authority in Armenia. This was actually a great opportunity and was really well-paid but unsurprisingly my pregnant wife was not so keen! But it was the next opportunity that I ended up taking.
mtl: So, what do you do now?
Alex: I had been told about an ex-Herbert Smith lawyer who was working at KPMG, doing “something in technology”. It didn’t sound terribly interesting to me at the time (big City institution – been there, done that, I thought) but I interviewed him for the site and the nature of his role sounded very attractive. He was responsible for growing KPMG’s forensic technology business, which at the time was a (relatively) small service line and managing a fairly new business but with the comfort of a large organisation and strong brand behind him… and a good salary. The nature of the services meant that a legal background would be very valuable. In fact they were growing so quickly that they were looking for another lawyer but didn’t really know where to find someone with a legal background, with a measure of entrepreneurial spirit and who was prepared to try something new….bingo.
I took some persuading because I really did want to see what would happen with Moretolaw. However, at around the same time someone else said they would be keen on taking over the running of the site so I knew it would survive, at least. KPMG gave me the opportunity to do what I enjoyed doing with Moretolaw but with fewer of the disadvantages. I was persuaded.
So, I now work for the forensic technology team at KPMG. My ultimate role is to grow the business. I’m judged on the amount of work I bring in and the relationships that I develop. The team provides sophisticated technology solutions to lawyers, investigators and corporates in the City and across the globe who need to manage information in a litigious or regulatory environment. We offer a selection of tools, services and support to aid electronic disclosure, for example, so that our clients are able to handle large chunks of data efficiently and get value out of that data.
Since joining, my role has developed from doing very little other than business development to being involved in the management of the team of 80 people across Europe and in the commercial strategy of the business (which I really enjoy). We have huge growth targets over the next three years, which puts us under pressure, but it is the kind of challenge that suits me.
The job is hard work, as I think is the case anywhere in the City if you want to work at a senior level. However I have more control over my life. I have moved out of London and now live in West Sussex (and we now have two babies!). I get a train home at about 6:15pm almost every day which I would have found difficult as a lawyer. I can also easily work from home and do so regularly. I do have to travel internationally about once a month but that is manageable. I see the children most days. KPMG is renowned for being user friendly and recently won the “The Sunday Times Best Big Company To Work For 2008” award (for the second time in three years).
From a financial point of view I have been lucky in that this industry (forensic technology) has seen a lot of growth and there simply aren’t enough experienced people to recruit from. I came in to the firm at about the same level as I would have been paid at Herbert Smith. But because demand is high for people with experience in this industry and because I have done well so far, it has climbed at a faster rate. I would say that professionals in the “Big 4” accountancy firms are generally paid a little less than their magic circle equivalents. However the structure is not as rigid as it is for lawyers and if you do well you can move up the ladder more quickly.
mtl: Do you have any tips for Moretolaw’s readers? What have you learnt in the last two years since you left law?
Alex: If I started all over again (pre-university) I would think harder about what I really enjoy doing on a day-to-day basis and what at the end of the day makes me think that I had a good day. Saying that, as money is a driving factor for me, I might have considered banking if I had understood the potential rewards, so that I could have earned more in a short space of time and then gone on to do something else.
But I think a good rule is that if you do something you enjoy you are more likely to succeed in it. However, there will be frustrations with any job and you will have to work hard if you want to do well anywhere. The difference is that if you enjoy what you do, you don’t mind working hard at it.
Running a small business is a fantastic experience and I certainly felt more confident going into KPMG because I had done it. I had proved that I could work in another environment outside law. However, it is very hard work, so give it careful thought if you want to go that way.
If I hadn’t left Herbert Smith, I don’t think I would have understood why law wasn’t right for me because I had no comparison. I wouldn’t have learnt that I liked business management and development. The best way to find out about what else is out there [mtl: apart from reading Moretolaw!] is to talk to people and get some sort of comparison. I went to KPMG because of another ex-Herbert Smith lawyer who persuaded me and showed me why the job was different and how it could suit me. I would never had done it if it hadn’t been for that individual contact who was able to give me the benefit of his experience
mttl: Thank you Alex for talking to us about your career.
Alex still has limited involvement in Moretolaw but it is now run by other ex-lawyers.
If you are interested in what Alex now does at KPMG and would like to speak to him about it, then email firstname.lastname@example.org and we will put you in touch with him.
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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