Ex-City lawyer switches to CR
Thomas left law in the City to pursue his interest in corporate responsibility and sustainability. We spoke to him about how he did it, the challenges he faced and his advice for others wanting to make a similar move.
mtl: Hi Thomas, please can you start with your legal background?
Thomas: I did the joint LLB / Maîtrise law course run by King’s College London and the University of Paris (Panthéon – Sorbonne) and got a lot out of it. The transition at law school and in my training contract from law as an academic and philosophical discipline to the practicalities of the legal process was less enjoyable!
I trained at Linklaters because I was impressed by the opportunities the firm offered. It wasn’t an option for me to qualify into competition or litigation there so I left to do litigation at Davies Arnold Cooper. My time at DAC was pleasant and I had some good opportunities and exposure to decent work. However, I felt increasingly that I wasn’t suited to being a solicitor and that what really motivated me lay elsewhere because I was interested in bigger picture social and environmental issues.
mtl: Why did you settle on CR and how did you go about getting into it?
Law: King’s College London / Paris
LPC, College of Law
Training contract, Linklaters
Assistant, litigation, DAC
MSc., Sustainable Development, University of Surrey
CR Manager (UK and Ireland), global company
Thomas: I worked on a piece of litigation that has become a textbook CR case study. This made me realise that my interests lay in policy and strategy rather than litigation which, by its nature, tends to focus on what happens after the event rather than shaping events. The case demonstrated how, with the right leadership, the world’s large corporations have the resources and know-how to drive change in ways that governments with short mandates often can’t.
I knew that I wanted to keep working in the private sector and corporate responsibility and sustainability seemed a good fit. Once I decided to take the plunge, I sounded out the career move before leaving by networking and going to talks and seminars.
I left law at just under 2 yrs PQE and worked for one of the Prince of Wales’ NGOs as an intern. While I was there, I worked on an end of year report for a project that involved getting CEOs and chairmen to visit CR / sustainability projects that they had sponsored. It was an interesting introduction to the sector as I could see the types of project that the world’s top companies are involved in. It also proved to be a very useful organisation to have on my CV.
Next I worked on a project sponsored by one of the large U.S. banks for a CR consultancy, before realising that to go in at the level I aspired to, I had to go back to university to develop new skills and broaden my knowledge. I looked at the different courses available and signed up for an MSc. in Sustainable Development at the University of Surrey. The course was recommended to me by someone who had also done it at the age of 30 and who wasn’t from a scientific background either.
mtl: How did you find studying again?
Thomas: I loved it because it was an excellent course and very quickly demonstrated that going back to university was essential. It massively broadened and deepened my knowledge and opened up the opportunity to work as a consultant on climate change and sustainability strategy for one of the world’s best known consultancies while I was still studying. I spent three months working in the evenings and weekends on a one-off project which gave me tremendous satisfaction and confidence. I also gave sustainability advice to a 50 person SME based in Kingston. Both experiences were fulfilling and valuable.
The University of Surrey has run a course of this sort for around 15 years and is a market leader. Among others, the course covered environmental law, ethics, environmental auditing and management, emissions trading, environmental management in developing countries, life cycle analysis and CR. It worked out at one week of 9am-5pm classes a month, a 5,000 word essay after each of eight core modules and a 20,000 word dissertation at the end. The classes are taught by experts in their fields, with excellent guest speakers.
The fees were £3,500 and through the course I also qualified as an Associate of the Institute of Environmental Management and Assessment, the professional body for the industry. I am very privileged to have a wife who supported me through the career change in all senses of the word.
mtl: Tell us about what you are doing now.
Thomas: Once I finished my Masters, I applied for several roles, most of which required or preferred an MSc., thus confirming the sense in going back to university. Despite my legal background, languages, work experience and MSc., getting a job in CR / sustainability was no walk in the park. Although I am well qualified, this sort of career change is unusual as people usually come from science or communications backgrounds, not law.
That said, I have been fortunate and recently found a job that I am very happy with. I am the UK and Ireland corporate responsibility manager for a multi-national corporation that has a fascinating supply-chain and very large workforce. My role involves driving CR policy, supporting the operational divisions, reporting, managing the company’s charitable foundation and keeping up relationships with external organisations such as Business in the Community. It is still very early days but I feel massively excited and am now looking forward to many years of work ahead because I find the area so fascinating.
mtl: Do you have any advice for our readers?
Thomas: If you want to move into CR / sustainability, I would certainly recommend building on a legal background with a Masters degree. At the same time, try to get as much work experience as possible and be prepared for unpaid internships along the way and the long-haul in general. It has taken me two years from leaving practice to get where I wanted to be. I have no regrets about doing law first though, particularly as it has given me credibility, but I have also not once regretted leaving.
If you are thinking about a career change, try to develop as clear an idea of your goal as possible and the steps you need to take to get there. Of course, the more you know what you want to do, the harder it is to stay in law, so there’s a point at which you have to be resolute and make the move. Leaving practice has meant that I have expanded my skills and knowledge hugely and learnt about myself too. I’ve had to eat lots of humble pie, which is not always easy for lawyers(!) and I’ve had to be more patient than I anticipated.
I think that a career in CR / sustainability would suit someone who has a degree of ideological motivation but is commercially aware and believes in our ability to do things better. It is an unusual combination of science, economics, PR, business and ideology. If you are interested in the issues of the moment, then there is always lots of press coverage and you can join the CSR chicks / blokes Yahoo Groups, the World Business Council for Sustainable Development and study large organisations’ corporate citizenship reports.
CR used to be a nice aside, but it is now part of the core business activities of leading organisations, especially those with a challenging supply chain. It is a developing sector which is becoming more and more high profile. I got my job through Allen & York recruitment, so you could speak to them for an idea of current job opportunities and requirements. Although I took a 1/3 pay cut on my salary of two years ago I think the long term prospects are no less favourable than they would have been had I stayed in legal practice.
For details of Thomas’ course at the University of Surrey, click here.
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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