Ex-City lawyer joins wine trade

Katy Thorniley left Nabarro at 2 ½ yrs PQE without a firm plan of what to do next.  After taking the summer off and discounting the idea of an in-house role or going to a smaller firm, she followed up on her interest in wine.  She spent a couple of months learning the ropes at Oddbins, took several courses, sold wine for a French chateau and a year later secured a job which she really enjoys at a wine company


mtl: Hi Katy, tell us about your background in law. 


Katy: I studied law at Newcastle, filled out my application forms along with everyone else because I thought I might as well give it a go and trained and qualified into the public sector department at Nabarro. 


Before I even started, I wasn’t convinced I would like it and in reality I never massively enjoyed it.  This was partly because of the large corporate environment and partly because I found the work quite negative – it seemed to be more about covering your back than anything else. The work/life balance wasn’t great either.  Things improved on qualification but after 2 ½ years and quite a few staff changes in my department I had enough and left.


mtl: So what did you leave to do? 



Career timeline



Law, Newcastle



LPC, College of Law, Guildford



Training contract, Nabarro



Public Sector assistant, Nabarro



Sales, Bibendum


Katy: I guess I was slightly unconventional in that I left without having anything else set up to go to.  At that point I hadn’t decided to leave law completely and instead just took the summer off.  A few months later I looked into working for a smaller firm, moving out of London or going in-house, but none of the roles I saw really appealed to me.  It seemed that they would all involve more of the same and I would have started them all with a negative attitude, which obviously wasn’t the right approach.  It became clear that I had had enough of law, so I began to look at other things. 


I had always been interested in wine and had worked for a wine dealer for six months in my gap year and had also done a two month placement at Moet et Chandon in Epernay.  I thought it would be easier to find a sales job given my professional background, but the wine trade is competitive. It was a bit of a shock to phone around and find that there were no options.  Instead, I spoke to friends who recommended Oddbins.  It wasn’t ideal to have to serve customers on 11 hr shifts but I enjoyed learning about the wines and the experience re-enforced the fact that I wanted my career to go in that direction. 


After three months at Oddbins, a friend of a friend put me in touch with someone who had bought a chateau in France.  He needed someone to sell and market his wine for him.  I did that for the next six months and it involved working from home and being free to take the job in the direction that I wanted. This was totally different to working in a law firm, and although it was great I felt that in a new career I needed colleagues to learn from.


Through another friend of a friend I then heard about my current job at Bibendum.  I now sell wine to caterers, party planners and events organisers.  I’ve been here four months and I love it.   So, I got there in the end, a year after leaving Nabarro!  I now have a job I want to do, for a company that I want to work for. Instead of plotting ways to escape my job, I can see myself doing it in ten years and my heart doesn’t sink at the prospect.  In fact the only negative (and indeed the only thing I miss about law) is the salary and I’m sure it’s why so many people find it hard to leave. 


mtl: What does your day to day work involve? 


Katy: Apart from getting to drink lots of nice wine, I look after my accounts, including giving tastings and advice on food and wine matching and recommendations about wines. I deal with all of our products from house wines right through to the most exclusive and expensive wines.  I also prepare individual lists for my clients tailored to their needs.  Finally, I have a business development role in trying to win new business for the company. 


My days often involve being out and about at meetings and tastings, which is something I enjoy. I was never a fan of sitting behind a computer for five days a week.  My weeks are therefore broken up and I never find myself just waiting for the weekend anymore.


In the wine industry, jobs do come up frequently but it is always helpful to make the most of any contacts that you do have. Some companies are very traditional but I am lucky because Bibendum is dynamic, young and un-hierarchical.  I love wine and can never know everything about it so my brain keeps ticking over and I am always learning…


mtl: Given your experience of a complete career change, do you have any advice for our readers? 


Katy: As hard as it may be financially and from a status point of view, I think it is important to be open to starting at the bottom in a new career so that you really learn the ropes. Before Oddbins even, I began by doing courses run by The Wines and Spirits Education Trust, many of which were self-taught.  I am now midway through my Wine Diploma, which I am sponsored to do by my employer.  It is recognised within the trade and is often a requirement for more senior roles.


I think if you know law isn’t for you, you should just get out and if you are even slightly motivated, you will find something else to do.  Otherwise, you will put it off and as the work is so demanding you won’t have the time to devote to job hunting and may end up getting stuck.  I have a slight regret that I didn’t leave earlier – I listened to people who said that I needed two years PQE on my CV.


I wasn’t stressed about leaving with nothing to go to.  Some people would find it hard not to know what they are going to be doing, so maybe for them it would be better to arrange something in advance.  You have to be patient.  It took me a year to get where I am.  However I never got to the stage where I regretted taking the plunge.  It is good to try different things.  If you don’t like law, you might as well try something else as you can always move again.  Don’t be scared about moving, taking time off or thinking about what you want to do with your life... 


mtl: Thanks for your time Katy. 


Click here to read about Bibendum.


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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