PROVING A long career in the law is no impediment to starting afresh, John Chisholm went from the upper echelons of Maddocks and Middletons to his own consultancy, and more recently the role of part-time chief executive at accounting firm PKF.
A life in the law seemed predestined for Chisholm. A third generation lawyer, he was partner at the firm previously known as Maddock, Lonie & Chisholm for 18 years, nine of those as managing partner. But by 1999 he was looking for a change and thought the answer lay in another law firm.
“I got to my mid-forties and wanted to see what else was there,” Chisholm said. “Push my boundaries, my comfort zone. So I became a chief executive at Middletons, and we went through a lot of expansion and growth.”
Continuing at Middletons until 2004, Chisholm began to think of moving on once again.
“I just thought that after five years it was time for me to do something else; [I] loved it, but it’s very demanding,” he said. “I turned 50, and wanted to try some other things. Life is too short not to.”
That “something else” saw Chisholm and his wife, Karen, get as far away from the office as possible, driving across the Nullarbor and up the West Australian coast to the Kimberleys, then on to Darwin.
“We did 18,030 kilometres that my wife often reminds me about. We went through our CD collection in the first two days, and played games in the car that I can’t remember playing since we were kids, but we’re still together,” he said. “It’s something that is very hard to do when you’re in full-time partnership.”
Upon his return, Chisholm decided to use his legal experience to form the backbone of his own business, John Chisholm Consulting. But although the fledgling company was potentially risky, he didn’t want to look back later in life and wish he had been more courageous.
“People these days change jobs all the time. As a baby boomer, I didn’t contemplate doing anything else except staying, probably all my working life, at Maddocks. And once you make that decision to try something else, it’s scary, but it’s good,” he said. “I’d hate to go through life and say ‘oh, I did want to give that a go’.”
From beginning the consultancy in 2005, Chisholm was appointed a part-time chief executive of PKF on 16 January this year, where he now works three days a week. One thing he has discovered is that accounting and law firms are far more similar than they first appear.
“Many of the challenges, many of the issues, many of the opportunities that a firm like PKF might face, are very much what law firms face,” he said. “That’s because behind it all is a partnership structure, but also it’s a people business. It’s all about relationships, whether it’s relationships internally, or relationships with your clients, or your suppliers.”
And at this stage, although he wouldn’t rule it out, he has no intentions of returning to a more traditional career in the law.
“I never say never, but at the moment I’m still involved with some law firms as their advisor, both in a consulting capacity and as an advisor to their executive or board,” he said. “I feel a bit blessed that I have the best of both worlds.”