Silver Screen to Silver Circle Law Firm How I Made It
It’s possible to convert to a law career at any point; it’s not just the realm of graduates fresh out of university. Oliver Wiseman graduated with a degree in modern languages (French and Spanish) back in 2004 and followed a career in the bright lights of film production before switching to the legal sector. He told us about swapping life behind the silver screen for life in the silver circle as a trainee solicitor at City law firm Berwin Leighton Paisner (BLP)…
Which career path did you follow initially after you graduated? Did you consider law at all at this stage?
I had considered applying to university for a law degree but when I looked into it, I found that it was possible to undertake a postgraduate qualification in law instead of a law degree – this seemed preferable as it meant I could study languages and still change to law later on.
On graduation, I joined Accenture for their graduate programme. After two years working in the media and entertainment sectors within Accenture, an opportunity arose for me to work in feature film production. This was something I had always wanted to do, so I decided to move into that area.
What kinds of things were you doing in that career?
During my time with Accenture I worked on a number of video on demand implementations for companies such as Virgin Media and the Discovery Channel. When I moved into film production I initially worked as an intern for a couple of film production companies.
Within a few months, I was fortunate enough to find a position as the assistant to the producer of the Harry Potter films. The role was extremely varied, but a large part of it was a ‘production liaison’ role which involved communicating between the many departments involved in feature film production such as legal and finance, visual effects, the art department, wardrobe and editorial. I also managed the producer’s day-to-day financial and legal affairs, which meant I was frequently dealing with the execution of legal documentation as well as liaising with a variety of lawyers – from specialists in film finance investments to our production lawyer at Warner Bros.
When did you start to think about a career switch to law?
Throughout my time in the film industry, I was extremely fortunate to come into contact with professionals across a wide variety of roles and witness their jobs first-hand. I was trying to find where I saw myself fitting in – perhaps a technical role behind the camera or in film marketing or distribution. None of the roles fitted the bill and I realised that law would give me the additional intellectual challenge that I was looking for. In addition to this, the end of the Harry Potter franchise was in sight and it was time for me to start thinking about the future. The freelance nature of the film industry makes it inherently a less predictable career path and it is not realistic to expect to be employed all year round.
Were you apprehensive at all about entering a legal career at a later stage?
I was apprehensive at first, especially at the thought of becoming a student again and having to apply myself academically, as I wondered whether I would feel out of place training with students who would have just left university. Fortunately, I had a number of friends and family who had been through the GDL and LPC so I was able to discuss the idea with them. I also did some work experience at two law firms and met a number of trainees – this gave me the opportunity to experience first-hand both the type of work I could expect, as well as the environment in which I would be working.
How did you go about changing careers? Did you give up full-time work for study?
I needed to maintain an income, so I decided to study the GDL part-time. I was able to do that at BPP over a 16-month period. It was a fairly intense period of time as I was working full time, and had to get from the film studios in Hertfordshire over to Waterloo on a Wednesday evening in order to attend evening classes. My boss was very understanding throughout and let me have some additional time off around the exam period.
I already had a good idea that I wanted to work for BLP as I had spent some time working at the firm before I started the GDL. I received the offer of a training contract shortly after starting the GDL. I was lucky – in the current climate I would certainly recommend that (unless you are self-funding) prospective lawyers ensure funding is in place before starting the course.
When did you apply to BLP? Why did they stand out for you?
I applied to BLP in the last few months before I started the GDL. Quite simply the firm stood out for me because of the people. I knew that making the transition from a creative industry to law was going to be a fairly radical change, but the people I met at BLP were interesting and interested, and that really appealed to me. There was also an entrepreneurial spirit about the firm, a sense that it was going places rather than having already arrived.
Do you think your previous work experience helped to boost your application for a legal career?
Yes, much of my interviews and application form were spent discussing my previous work experience and its application to working in law. BLP were very interested in the skills I had developed outside of the law and saw this experience in a very positive light. For them, it was a bonus rather than an obstacle.
What stage of your training contract are you at now?
I am currently coming to the end of my third out of four seats, so I will be qualifying in the summer of 2014.
What kind of work are you doing with BLP now as one of their trainee solicitors? What kind of opportunities have been available to you since you’ve started?
My first seat was in Construction and Engineering. The team is extremely highly regarded in the City and I was fortunate to be working on the legal construction documentation for some very exciting construction projects around London. I then sat with the firm’s Commercial team (with a three-month secondment to a large retailer’s legal team). The seat involved reviewing (and some drafting of) a wide variety of commercial contracts – from IT outsourcing agreements, to an advertising agreement between a newspaper implementing a mobile app and a mobile advertising company.
I am currently in the Corporate Tax team where I have also been involved in a wide range of projects – from challenging HMRC’s view that e-books should be taxed differently to paper books, to the complex debt re-structuring arrangements for a property company.
How do you find life as a trainee compared to life in the film industry?
Life as a trainee is very different compared to life in my previous job. For a start it is far more structured – there is a huge amount of training and a continuous process of appraisal – something which doesn’t really exist in film production!
At times it can be difficult to adjust to being “a trainee”, especially when you come from a position where you have already built up a good level of responsibility and trust. It takes time to build that again – the size of many law firms and the fact you will probably move every six months can make that especially difficult. However, over time you do start to build your network again and you soon find that you are putting your newly acquired knowledge and skills to good use.
Does your previous work experience help you at all in your legal work now?
It certainly gave me a commercial grounding which is crucial when advising clients in a legal capacity. My experience of working for both an organisation and an individual who regularly employed the services of lawyers also gave me a useful insight into how clients think, which has been useful when thinking, for example, about the level of detail to include in any piece of client work. My previous experience also required me to be very organised as I was always working on a number of different tasks at the same time – something which is particularly useful in my legal work now.
How do you feel about your career switch? What kind of tips would you give to someone who might be thinking about doing the same?
Changing careers is certainly not something to be undertaken without a great deal of consideration, especially given the time and expense involved in converting to law in particular.
In terms of tips, I spoke to a number of lawyers for advice and gained some work experience before commencing the GDL. Ensure you understand, and are comfortable with, the type of work you will be expected to undertake as a trainee. Training contracts are increasingly competitive so it is worth thinking about how you are going to secure one as soon as possible.
Many firms are particularly interested in taking trainees with experience in the workplace, so think about how you can sell yourself and the experience you have gained. You also need to think practically about the conversion - could you afford not to have your training paid for? How long can you be out of permanent employment for? Could you combine study and work? How will this affect your work/life balance etc.? Also try to find out about any potential firm’s attitude to career changers – would you be comfortable being an older trainee amongst an intake of much younger trainees? I do sometimes miss the buzz of working in the film industry, but I am confident that the switch to law was the right career choice for me.
Keen on switching careers too? Or star struck from the off?! You can find out more about training contract opportunities with BLP and apply here.
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