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Seeking greener pastures

Seeking greener pastures

Meet four lawyers who found a new direction and embraced a career outside the law. IntroductionLaw presents a gateway to many things. Some decide to enter and leave fully equipped for something…

Meet four lawyers who found a new direction and embraced a career outside the law.


Law presents a gateway to many things. Some decide to enter and leave fully equipped for something different. Others will choose to take an entirely different path, equipping themselves with a multitude of other skills before eventually taking the gateway of a law degree to a legal career.

Often, but not always, a twist in the economy will be the inspiration an individual needs to make such a change. Perhaps they have lost their job, perhaps they are disenfranchised, perhaps they are merely seeking something new.

At the University of Western Sydney, head of the law school Michael Adams says that, in his experience at UWS and in his previous role at UTS, the variety and background of students studying law is fascinating. When dealing with professionals - such as engineers, doctors, dentists and the like - he says often the motivation comes from them having contact with law in a negative way - finding themselves involved in litigation and getting frustrated by the legal process because they haven't understood it.

"Law is one of those things that acts as a vortex," he says. "Once you get a taste of it, it sucks you in and you want to know more and more."

But for all the individuals who pursue a career in law after developing careers in different areas, there are other individuals who turn away from careers in law and move into something else.

According to Bruce Lee, managing director of talent management and outplacement provider Lee Hecht Harrison, it's a situation we might see more of as the economic situation takes hold, hitting people who may not have previously seen the negative cycle of business. "I think one of the things that is occurring in business at the moment is that there is a lot of focus on that age group (people in their 30s and 40s) thinking: 'Gee this corporate world is pretty thankless and tough, and although I worked my backside off to get a good job and to be making good money, in the end I am just a number.'"

Deborah Wilson, CEO of business consultancy Deborah Wilson, notes that legal degrees, qualifications and skills are easily transferable, opening a range of opportunities to lawyers outside of the legal sector. "I don't think enough people follow their dreams," she says. "And a lot of people get into that rut and follow the path of [becoming] lawyers and accountants for their families."

The individuals profiled in Lawyers Weekly are living proof that however farfetched a dream might seem - pilot to lawyer, lawyer to comedian, artist to lawyer, lawyer to politician - it's still possible.

Barrister to politician

Duncan Kerr

Politician Duncan Kerr has kept his practising certificate as an "enduring safety net" and "insurance policy" to prevent him becoming a prisoner of the vagaries and whims of political life, despite having been the Member for Denison in Tasmania for the last 23 years.

Currently Kerr is the Parliamentary Secretary for Pacific Island Affairs and as a member of Kevin Rudd's ministry can't maintain a private practice. His legal career, nonetheless, has been interesting and varied.

He started at the Solicitor General in Tasmania and ultimately became Crown Counsel. He then took up the role of dean of the faculty of law in Papua New Guinea and was legal counsel for the Ombudsman Commission, PNG's anti-corruption agency. When he returned to Australia, he was principal solicitor for the Aboriginal Legal Service and has continued to practice as a barrister, mainly on a pro bono basis, while in politics. Kerr says one case in which he appeared in the High Court might be the most important legacy he leaves in public life.

"One of the most significant cases, in certainly the recent past, but probably since the court was founded, is a case called Plaintiff 157 of 2002, which was the occasion where the High Court reinforced the availability of judicial review over all administrative conduct of the executive, notwithstanding the existence of a privative clause in the legislation ... which really has become the clarifying case in an area of public law and administrative law," he says.

But Kerr also appreciates the significant influence he is able to wield as a politician on a policy front and cites his time as Justice Minister from 1993 to 1996 as key for law reform. Kerr cut red tape in the Copyright Act, reformed the law of evidence and carried oversight of the Justice Statement and moved to establish a model Criminal Code.

He concedes that making the career choice to become a politician is not without its challenges.

"I'm being judged on every public occasion. If I go out and eat a meal at a restaurant, you're being seen, people know these things and are making judgments about you because they choose whether to re-elect you or not. So that sense of constancy of public attention is very different to what a barrister experiences - they may be in the news every now and then and for some moments may be extremely well-known due to the fact that hey are representing a high-profile client or involved in a high-profile cause, but after that's finished they go back to a private existence," he says.

"[As a politician] you [lead] a life of influence and policy direction instead of what is the opportunity to have a more disengaged attitude to your professional tasks, so as barrister and solicitor you can quite easily treat clients as pretty disembodied ...

"You represent a whole range of people that you have no affinity with and don't share any of their values, whereas when you get into politics you really do have to think 'What are my values? Where do I stand?' And I'm making those value-related choices all the time."

Banking and finance lawyer to comedian

James Smith

Touring with John Mayer, sharing a stage with Robin Williams, performing for former New York mayor Rudy Giuliani and appearing on television show Flight of the Conchords is a long way for James Smith to have come after originally embarking on a career as a banking and finance lawyer.

Now a comedian who performs up to six shows a night in New York and around the US, Smith made the career jump when he found working as a lawyer didn't give him an outlet for his creativity and love of public speaking.

But Smith, 34, has no regrets about completing a law degree and says it has helped him succeed as a comedian.

"With law you look at a set of problems, you identify the issues and then apply the relevant law for an outcome. It's the same structure for jokes and you look at a situation and look for the most outstanding issues and then apply the comedic twist," he says.

The career transition was not without its challenges though, says Smith, especially the change in lifestyle.

"You go from what is the pinnacle so far in your life - you're sitting there with a beautiful harbourside corner office in Sydney, Australia, life doesn't really get much better than that - then you've got to go from that literally to pubs to talk to audiences that are disinterested and distracted for no money and the whole time your brain is trying to process what happened," he says.

"No one cares whether you were a lawyer, it's just 'Are you funny?'."

In Australia, Smith's career blossomed and he appeared on tv shows such as Rove and The Footy Show as well as in the Melbourne Comedy Festival, but five years ago he moved to the bright lights of New York.

He says that going to New York returned him to a lifestyle of constant entertainment, which he likens to being back at Bond University. There he studied, hosted law balls, residences' dinners and comedy debates and was also given the opportunity to go to Princeton University for the World Debating Championships.

"I love the buzz and energy [of New York] and I love the urban living and there is always something happening. You can get booked for a show at 2am and there's people there listening, it's a 24-hour city - it's so much fun. New York is like Disneyland for adults," he says.

Smith says it's wonderful being able to do what you want every day.

"I wake up tomorrow and the only thing I have to do is make sure that I write the jokes that I want to tell. I get to be writer, producer, director and performer - there are no restrictions on me," he says.

Partner to investment banker

Jon North

Jon North describes his decision to leave his position as partner at Allens Arthur Robinson and become an investment banker as initially "very daunting".

North began his law career as a graduate at Allens in banking and finance and worked on cases involving Christopher Skase and Alan Bond. He then had a stint in London with international law firm Slaughter & May, working on M&A and corporate finance. On his return to Australia, he rejoined Allens in their corporate and commercial department until he was sent to Papua New Guinea to privatise the mineral resources assets of the government. From there his career progressed at the firm when he was made partner in 1996 and built up the underwriting practice.

But in 2006, when he was head of the capital market transactions group at Allens, he was offered a position as an investment banker at Gresham Partners and decided he should make the move, otherwise, he says, he would never have done it. He had previously been seconded to Bankers Trust back in the 1990s and says he enjoyed the commercial aspects of a deal and wanted to broaden his skills.

North, 46, followed a family trend the opposite way - his father was an investment banker until he went to the bar in the 1970s. He says he was inspired to become an advocate by his father and completed a graduate degree in law at Sydney University, after his Arts degree where he majored in English and History.

While some skills have been transferable - including North's knowledge of the boundaries of law for deals and the discipline to develop strategies and responses to a situation - he faced a challenge when applying his experience to financial analysis, he says.

"Financial analysis is very different to legal analysis. Legal analysis is about how you do the deal. Financial analysis is about whether you should do the deal. 'What is the value proposition? What's the right price to pay?' So that's the difference," he says.

One thing North doesn't miss about being a lawyer is daily timesheets and the responsibility of documenting a deal, although he does work the same hours.

While he says there were moments of doubt initially, nearly three years on he is enjoying his new career.

"I think it's an exciting job. It's hard work, but there is great satisfaction in achieving commercial objectives on behalf of your client and I enjoy the role of working on transactions with a commercial objective in mind, but also providing advice to clients which is both financial and strategic," he says.

Partner to B&B business owner

Stephanie Pursley

It could be assumed that starting as a graduate lawyer at age 37 meant that Stephanie Pursley had entered into a career that would take her to retirement. She had qualified as a lawyer via the Solicitor Admission Board, which allowed Pursley to work in the travel industry during the day and study at night.

But that was not the case, after 23 years of Freehills, Pursley made the decision to change careers - and establish and run an upmarket B&B called Tirtiri Lodge in New Zealand.

Pursley, who was made a partner at Freehills after only six years at the firm, made the decision after she fell in love with the mountains of the South Island of New Zealand and could not imagine slowing down from her life as a lawyer.

"I left Freehills when I was 60. It's high pressure. I did not want to hang in there and wind down. I wanted to keep working there while I was at the top and doing really well but I didn't want to phase out slowly. I thought 'I want to stop now and do something else'," she says.

At the firm, Pursley worked in major projects on redevelopments such as the Wooloomooloo Finger Wharf and Walsh Bay, was the first head of the funds management group in Sydney (which later went national), and had been involved in recruitment and redesigning the look of Freehills' documents.

When the time came to move countries and careers, she didn't waste a minute. She left Freehills on 15 December 2007, packed up her house in Sydney over the weekend while her partner, Dennis, was setting up the six-room lodge in Wanaka, collected her uncle for a visit to New Zealand, flew over and then welcomed their first guests on Chrismas Eve.

Two years on Pursley says not only does meeting fascinating people makes the career change enjoyable, but the natural surrounds are an added bonus.

"The chairman of Georg Jensen Silver in Denmark, who had also been a professor of design at a Danish university, stayed and had a lovely time with us. On the last day he said 'You and Dennis are very intelligent, literate people; why are you doing this?' And we said 'We're enjoying it, we love meeting really interesting people like you," she says.

For her, lifestyle choices are also a big factor: "I go walking in the mountains and in winter I go skiing, even when we have guests because we can go for a couple of hours. I love gardening and I've got a lovely cold climate garden."

- Interviews by Zoe Lyon and Sarah Sharples.

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