Ex-lawyer moves into international development
Katie Frith qualified as a finance lawyer at Mayer Brown LLP before leaving at one year PQE to manage the launch of Advocates for International Development, an organisation which helps provide access to justice in the developing world. She now works as the business manager of Social Development Direct, a social development consultancy company which specialises in providing expertise on the social and political dimensions of international development. We asked her what prompted her career change and how she went about it.
mtl: Hi Katie, please can you start by telling us about your legal career.
Katie: I studied Combined Social Sciences at Durham and enjoyed some legal work experience when I graduated. I decided to convert to law and thought that it would be a good platform from which to move into other things if I didn’t enjoy it as a career in itself.
I wanted to go to a firm which had some balance and wasn’t too pushy, so I chose Rowe & Maw rather than applying to Magic Circle firms. It seemed like a good option and the people at my interview were very down to earth. Between accepting a training contract and starting work, the firm merged with a US firm, so I actually started working for a totally different organisation. I was thrown in at the deep end for my first seat, so the rest of my training contract seemed quite calm in comparison! I enjoyed most of it, it was good experience and the other trainees in my intake were great.
When it came to qualification I wasn’t convinced about what to do. The seat I had enjoyed the most was employment law but there were very few jobs for NQs in this area at the time. I started the interview process but was not sure that this would be a long term move and so it didn’t make sense to change firms. At that stage, a partner in the finance department persuaded me that I had nothing to loose by giving qualified life a go and getting some good experience while I decided whether law was for me - so I joined the finance department at Mayer Brown.
mtl: What prompted your decision to leave after a year?
Katie: I enjoyed the year post qualification and was very fortunate to work with good people. I was well supported and learnt lots. My decision to leave was based on a combination of hours that were too long and too unpredictable and the fact that I had no real affinity with what I was doing.
I initially looked at a range of charity jobs involving overseas development work, but I realised that I didn’t have the right experience and it didn’t build on what I already knew.
Combined Social Sciences, Durham
Teaching in India and a ski instructors’ course in Canada
CPE, College of Law, Guildford and LPC, Store Street
Training contract at Mayer Brown
Finance assistant, Mayer Brown
Coordinator and Company Secretary, A4ID
Business Manager, Social Development Direct
In the end, my exit from private practice at one year PQE arose from becoming involved with Advocates for International Development on a pro bono basis through Mayer Brown. The partners I worked for were very good at allowing me the flexibility to take on this type of work. A4ID was starting to gain momentum so there was a need for someone to work full-time to coordinate the build-up to its formal launch. The timing was perfect and I was suddenly able to use my legal training in an area that I felt excited and passionate about.
mtl: So tell us about leaving law to go to A4ID?
Katie: My role was one of project management as the coordinator and I was also the company secretary. I helped see the organisation through from its initial formation to its official launch. My work included developing relations with the charities and law firms, establishing working groups, getting volunteers on board and formulating structural policy. I got involved in fundraising and formulating the media strategy. I also helped set up a training programme to give volunteer lawyers a background in international development.
For the first three months I was unpaid as the orgnaisation didn’t have any money at the start. I then worked a further two months, which took the organisation up to its launch. At that point the idea was that the more interesting strategic work would be handed over to the various volunteer working groups and an administrator would be employed to keep things ticking over in the long-term.
When I left A4ID, I was given the opportunity to go back to Mayer Brown but decided that it would be more valuable to have some time to think about the future without being consumed by work. I went back to Jersey and temped as a lawyer at the firm I’d worked at before my training contract (Voisin). Mayer Brown and A4ID had been so busy that it was really good to have the space to do a 9-5 job and think about career options. The people at Voisin were excellent to work for and I really enjoyed being back there for a few months.
It was quite difficult to jump careers, especially persuading people that I had transferable skills even though I lacked relevant experience, so I tried to use contacts as much as possible. I looked at charities and project management work. I found out about Social Development Direct through a friend who worked there. They are a consultancy company that works for both government and non-government organisations advising on the social dimensions of international development. They needed an administrator, but were also looking at developing the job into a new general management role. I took the job with a view to seeing how it evolved.
mtl: What does your job involve now?
Katie: Having started out as an administrator, the role quickly evolved into being a business manager and we recruited someone to take over the general office administration. I really enjoy being involved in all areas of the company. I am responsible for managing the Corporate Services team as well as contract management, business development, financial planning, human resources and overseeing business and finance functions. I provide programme support to the projects and facilitate communication and professional development opportunities across the team of technical staff and network members.
I am not involved in doing the actual research and neither could I be as I don’t have the background and would have to start from scratch to get into such a specialist world. I like being involved in it to the extent that I get a general feel for what is going on and I like working with people who are passionate about what they do and for a company that has integrity. I feel that I am building on my skills as a lawyer but in an exciting environment that I have an affinity with.
I enjoy having an overview of the company and how it works and seeing the whole business cycle. The team is great and everyone is very supportive of each other. There is lots of knowledge sharing, team work and mutual support and it is not as competitive as being in a law firm. The company is built on strong values and I have a lot of respect for the way it works. At the moment the role is developing and changing fast, so I am still seeing where it will go, while learning a lot all the time.
mtl: Do you have any regrets about the course you have taken?
Katie: No. At points I wondered whether I should have stayed at Mayer Brown until I was sure what I was going to be doing in the long-term but I am now really glad I have had this year of trying new things.
Law has also helped me more than I expected. I realise how important the transferable skills have been, especially project and contract management experience from the transactional work. Also, having a profession increases your confidence to put yourself forward for certain jobs and also gives you something to fall back on if you need it.
mtl: Do you have any tips on career change?
Katie: Don’t be put off if you don’t immediately have success in applying for other jobs. Recruitment agencies might not be willing to give you a chance so use all the contacts you can. Instead of feeling under pressure to find the perfect job when you move out of law, realise that this might be hard and it may take you a few attempts. All experience is useful somehow and you will be increasing your skill set.
mtl: Do you have any advice on getting into the world you’re now in?
Katie: If you want to get into development work or a charity, then take on as much pro bono work as possible while you are still a lawyer. This will help not only with experience but will also bring you into contact with people in those sectors.
For a job like the one I am doing, small companies or charities are probably best as they can give you the flexibility to carve out a role for yourself. Try talking to people in the organisation to find out whether there is scope for roles and responsibilities to develop.
mtl: Thanks for talking to us Katie.
If you would like more information on SDDirect then click here.
If you would like to get involved with A4ID then 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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