The solicitors who quit the City to work in sexy areas of law

Avatar photo

By Katie King on

Get a TC, get some money and then get out to do crime and media work


As a law student, you’d be forgiven for thinking it’s commercial law or the highway. I certainly did — but as someone completely uninterested in swanky City law firms, I hit a wall.

As training contract deadlines loomed, I found myself devising a master plan: take on the City for a couple of years, qualify, then go practice somewhere, and something, else.

To me, it didn’t seem like a ridiculous proposition: get a TC, get some money, and get out. Sure, it’d probably be a dull couple of years, but it’d set me up financially and give me the chance to go on and practice in another area in the future.

My City dreams lasted all of five minutes, and I didn’t even bother applying — but I wonder how many people with the same mentality as me did, and succeeded.

It’s only when I started working at a high street firm after uni that I realised there was a major flaw in my plan. Wide-eyed, 19 year-old me thought that law was law — once you’ve qualified then the world is your oyster.

But speaking to solicitors made me realise that law is hugely compartmentalised, and it’s not all that easy to jump from one practice area to another. Trapped in their specialist area box, I met lawyers struggling and failing to find work away from the firms that they had qualified in, or at least that firm’s practice area.

So, was my second year naïve law student idea as ignorant as I now think it is — or is there a market out there for people who train up in one area, and then go into another?

First of all, it’s worth noting that there is a wealth of successful “career change” stories out there.

Legal Cheek caught up with Martin Underwood, head of career strategy and consultancy at career aspiration agency Life Productions, and was relieved to find that my master plan was not novel. He told me:

Most young lawyers starting out are not able to resist peer pressure, the herd instinct, the allure of money, prestige and security.

And succumbing to this sheep mentality doesn’t mean you’ve dug yourself a hole you can’t get out of.

Underwood continued:

Many lawyers at various stages of their professional lives change practice areas and make amazing turnarounds on the way to extremely satisfying careers.

Legal Cheek spoke to ex-magic circle solicitor Mohsin Zaidi who recently made a move out of the City and into swanky criminal set 6KBW, where he is currently a pupil.

Having previously qualified into the litigation department of Linklaters, Zaidi took a year out to act as a judicial assistant to Lords Sumption and Wilson at the Supreme Court. Being exposed to top-notch advocacy from the likes of 6KBW’s David Perry QC — who represented the government in the Tony Nicklinson right to die case — drove Zaidi to apply for pupillage.

When asked about his decision to pack in his career at Linklaters, Zaidi mused that going on to study at a top criminal law chambers — one that has just increased its pupillage award by 150% — certainly eased his post-resignation nerves. He himself admitted:

“The decision was a difficult one made easier because of where I was going.”

Regardless, neither Magic Circle solicitor nor criminal barrister is a title easily come by, and it’d be wrong to dismiss Zaidi’s confession that the move was “difficult”. Being self-employed is risky. Had Zaidi been less enthusiastic about the work on offer at 6KBW, he is unsure he would have ever made the move.

Much like Zaidi, it was also passion that spurred on Halina Wielogorska’s career change. In 2010, she decided to leave Hogan Lovells on qualification and forge a career for herself at an independent record label. Wielogorska — who now works at boutique entertainment firm Clintons — explained that the post-2008-crash legal market into which she joined was one shrouded in uncertainty. Lovells, as it was then known, had no choice but to curtail trainee retention. She explained:

My intake knew by their 3rd seat that half of them wouldn’t be staying at the firm and those that stayed would have to fight for it. I decided to fight for something I cared more for, and decided to move into music law.

Like Zaidi, Wielogorska — who studied at Oxford — made clear that her career change was tough. When asked whether she found the move easy, she told me:

Definitely not easy. I had to sacrifice my city income. I had to do a lot of knocking on doors.

So, it’s hardly a walk in the park, but with passion and hard work it can be done — Zaidi and Wielogorska are shining examples of this.

But just because it can be done, doesn’t mean it should be done.

Legal Cheek asked Underwood, Zaidi and Wielogorska whether opting for a short stint in a fancy City outlet is a realistic option in the current legal market.

The advice given by Oxford grad Zaidi is clear:

Work hard, do things you find interesting, and everything will fall into place.

Financial considerations are important, he said, but ultimately you should do something you care about instead of punting for a job you know you’re not going to enjoy, just because it pays the bills.

Zaidi was particularly saddened by genuinely bright, interested budding lawyers being turned off of the criminal bar because of what he described as “narrow-minded government cuts”. If you are committed, you should not be deterred.

These sentiments were echoed by former barrister Underwood, who urges wannabe lawyers to enjoy and excel at what they do. This is crucial, he told me, to having a fulfilling legal career in the long-term. He continued:

If you know you won’t enjoy the substance of that practice, the everyday tasks of your job, you should change while you still have the chance.

On the other side of the fence sits Wielogorska, who appreciates the pros of having an ‘I’ll practice in one area then move on’ mentality. Unfortunately, this may well be the only way to keep your head above water in this ever-changing legal market. She explained:

[F]or as long as the training contract exists you may have to have that mentality because ultimately you need to get trained. Boutique or niche firms often only take one trainee a year and competition is stiff for the place (at Clintons, a leading entertainment practice at which I now work, it’s roughly 1 in 700) and very few companies (if you consider going in-house) offer training.

She continued:

For me being trained was my ticket to ride. I could go out into the world and make my own luck, but without that credential to my name I couldn’t have done what I have… I don’t think that attitude is a bad thing but you have to be smart about your choices during training for example align yourself with partners, departments and projects that have some synergy with where you want to be ultimately.

To give 19 year-old me some credit, maybe my idea wasn’t quite as original as I thought it at the time, and not so ridiculous either — but ultimately I’m glad I didn’t bite the bullet and spend two years masquerading as a wannabe City lawyer.