Nick Cole is a late starter when it comes to the legal profession. He talks to Kellie Harpley about alternative routes to a career in private practice
From the set of Australian drama ‘Water Rats’ to solicitor with Phillips Fox seems an unusual leap to make, but Nick Cole’s career has actually come full circle.
It is not that long since he was directing some of Australia’s most recognised actors as they chased each other around Sydney Harbour, but six weeks into his new role in Phillips Fox’s technology, media and communications team (part of the corporate and financial services group), Cole is confident he has moved in the right direction.
After completing his law degree in 1987, Cole forewent the process of networking and interviews and took a job as a runner on a feature film instead, against all expectations. “I went from law school to the complete bottom of the tree in a completely different and unrelated industry,” he says.
“At the time, my heart wasn’t in the law and I don’t think I would have been very good because with anything you do, unless you’ve got passion and commitment, you shouldn’t do it.” Cole says he had a wonderful time “following his dream”, which saw him work his way up through the television and film industries. He has production credits on some of Australia’s leading feature films, including ‘Green Card’ and ‘Strictly Ballroom’, and has worked as a freelance director.
“But at a certain time, I just decided that it was time to start a second phase career,” he says. “Because I have film and television clients, I still regard myself as being in the film and television industry, just in a different capacity.” When ‘Water Rats’ was cancelled, Cole took a look at the industry and decided it was about to undergo a “profound change, prompted by reality TV and by new and emerging formats”.
He decided to end his career as a director on a high note and enter another that would offer his growing family more “structure and stability”.
“Having that life experience and maturity is a great asset to my being a lawyer. I think I’m doing the right thing at the right time, in my working life and also my personal life. When you’re a lot younger, you perhaps aren’t in sync like that.”
That experience has given Cole some unique insights into the profession, and he says he found the legal recruitment process to be “a complete shock”.
“I had been freelance for the best part of ten years, so going out and getting work and finding jobs, or creating jobs was nothing new to me. But I’d never been in a situation before where I couldn’t talk to the person who was going to give me the job.
“Having to go through a recruiter was a complete shock to me and basically I decided it was a waste of time. I abandoned that process and basically made direct approaches, and I would say to anyone that that is the way. You just need to talk to the person who is either going to give you the job or is the gatekeeper to the job, and recruiters aren’t that.”
It is also important to research the firms and know where you want to go, he says. Cole was particularly specific about staying closely aligned to his commercial background, which meant going into a media practice. By this time, he had paralegal experience with specialist entertainment firm Lloyd Hart Lawyers and had been working with the Film Finance Corporation as an in-house lawyer for more than two years. During that time he had also undertaken a Masters in Law.
However, his experience was not always looked upon favourably. The smaller firms told him they only recruited from the larger firms. The larger firms told him they only wanted “young pups” that they could “mould”.
“This is against the context of me being completely outside the square,” he says. “They were looking at ticking boxes rather than looking at the context of what people had to offer.”
His break came when he approached Phillips Fox, aware that Katherine Sainty had left Allens Arthur Robinson to establish the technology, media and communications team. “That, to me, represented a very exciting opportunity to get in on the ground floor of the practice and be a part of its development and growth.”
Cole says he was also keen to work with Sainty, recognised as a leader in her field. “Fortunately for me, she was very open minded and looked at me in an overall context, and saw a fourth year lawyer who had industry experience, very good connections and could actually offer a lot more than a candidate who only had legal experience.”
He says this gives him the ability to understand his clients’ needs and wants, offer them solutions, and “essentially, speak their language”.
Although he sometimes misses the creative buzz inherent in working on set, there are definite consolations. “There’s a great energy and excitement in building this new practice,” he says. “I feel that I’m in a very positive environment.”