Ex-employment lawyer becomes a careers coach after running her own business (updated in 2010)
Karen Gill qualified at what is now Trowers & Hamlins, where she specialised in employment law for over three years. After a brief move in-house, she worked in legal recruitment for Chambers & Partners for a couple of years, before teaming up with a colleague to set up their own recruitment business, Graham Gill. After 18 years there, she sold her stake in the business in 2006 and embarked on her 'final career' in career consultancy. She set up her own career coaching business, and has now joined forces with Career Contours, a new division of the Professional Career Partnership, to help individuals get the very best out of their careers through tailor-made career coaching programmes.
mtl: Hi Karen, please can you start with telling us about your legal career.
Karen: I decided to study law partly because it was very important to me to be financially independent. I trained at what is now Trowers & Hamlins and on qualification was offered a place to practise employment law. I worked there for three years and had lots of client contact, which was challenging, and yet I found it to be the most satisfying aspect of the job.
However, after three years I realised that I was doing the same work for the same clients and would be for the foreseeable future. I also couldn’t see a future as a female partner in the City as I wanted to have a family and at the time it appeared very difficult to mix the two. I decided to move in-house to Thorn EMI in the hope that I would be able to mix a career with family life but unfortunately I didn’t research the role well enough and I soon realised that I needed to move on.
This move actually gave me a chance to step back and look at my career and take stock of what I wanted. I had always had an entrepreneurial streak but without knowing what to do with it. Because of the misgivings I had about work-life balance in law, and knowing that I enjoyed working with people and that I could go back if it didn’t work out, instead of applying for another employment role, I took a job in legal recruitment at Chambers & Partners. I really enjoyed the work and also met a colleague there who became my business partner for the next 18 years.
mtl: So why did you decide to set up by yourself?
Law, King’s College, London and Sussex
Law College, Lancaster Gate
Trainee, now Trowers & Hamlins
Employment assistant, Trowers & Hamlins
In-house, Thorn EMI
Legal recruitment, Chambers & Partners
Co-founder and director, Graham Gill
Retrained as a careers coach
Set up own business and joined forces with Career Contours
Karen: Both my colleague and I wanted to do our own thing, with our own ethos and in a way that allowed work to be combined with family life. In 1988 we set up Graham Gill, which placed lawyers in the City and the regions. It was a huge challenge as we had to look at whether we could really take the risk and do it successfully. Fortunately we had savings as a result of our success in recruitment and the business plan I drew up showed we could survive for six months and that if we could do only a third of the placements we’d done over the last year, then we would have a feasible business going forward.
It wasn’t easy to find premises and setting up the systems was challenging, but we didn’t dwell on the risk. Instead we were aware of it but also confident in our joint ability and both really keen. We felt it was the right time and that if we didn’t take the opportunity then, we never would. We expanded the business, had our families, did a lot of deals and worked very hard, the reward for which was autonomy and a tremendous buzz.
However, we had to deal with a lot of very tedious admin as we weren’t big enough to have departments to take care of this and we did have to make some personal sacrifices. For example we both only took 3 months maternity leave for each of our children, but when the market was quiet, we could be flexible in a way that wouldn’t have been possible had we been employed.
mtl: Why did you pull out of Graham Gill and why did you go into career consultancy?
Karen: After 18 years I wanted a fresh challenge and something stimulating that would build on my two previous careers. I sold my share in the business and stayed part-time to ease my way out. I took some time out to think about what to do next and to look at my skills, values and experience. I wanted to do something within a legal framework but focusing more on the parts I really enjoyed, which included helping people move forwards in their careers. In recruitment you have a role to fill but people have to fit within the criteria for the role or you can’t really be of help to them. As a career coach, I work with individuals in a much broader sense and support them in a more general journey. I have no agenda other than to assist our clients in achieving clarity around their career goals and helping them get to where they want to be.
During my time out after Graham Gill, I spoke to a friend who was a lawyer and who had seen a careers coach, which she had found really useful. Looking back, I thought I could have done with some outside assistance at the point that I switched from law to recruitment. I also realised that the skills I’d acquired through law, recruitment, running my own business and volunteering as a Samaritan, would be very useful in career coaching.
I investigated the huge range of coaching qualifications on offer and felt that the Meyler Campbell Business Coach programme was the most appropriate, as it is uniquely accredited with the SRA and was thorough and rigorous as well as practical. Accreditation and professional development are also important and I am now a Certified Business Coach with the Worldwide Association of Business Coaches and a Member of the Association for Coaching.
I have now set up my own career coaching consultancy and have recently joined forces with Career Contours, offering tailor-made career coaching programmes. I’ve worked with many lawyers in private practice and in-house and have found that my commercial awareness, market knowledge and legal background are just as important to my clients as are my professional qualifications and practical experience.
mtl: How do you approach your role as a career coach?
Karen: I take a pragmatic approach, which is tailored to individuals. Some clients have clear ideas about what they want to do and need some support and practical assistance while they explore the options as well as, say, interview coaching, assistance with their CV or building up their networks. Others are at a real crossroads and just know they are unhappy and don’t know how to move on. I can help them to recognise what motivates them, what their values are and where they want to be in life. This can happen at all levels, from trainee through to partner.
We talk through what has shaped them so far and explore how they can move into the future and find a fulfilling career. Obviously it is not a matter of imposing what I think. It is my role to draw out what is important to each client and this is what marks me out from a recruiter who puts someone forward for something they think a particular candidate should do. Coaching goes much deeper to help clients discover who they are and what makes them tick.
I am really happy being a careers consultant and am planning for it to be my last career! It ticks all the boxes, as it is stimulating, challenging, fulfilling and I find lawyers fascinating, partly because the law is a great platform, there are so many career options, and also because I know the sector so well. I enjoy the way I work which involves a mix of client meetings, intensive preparation, sharing professional development with colleagues and follow up work. Each day is different and has the degree of autonomy and client contact that I want and need.
mtl: We’ve always been a bit suspicious of packages with large fees that you have to sign up for? How do you structure your pricing?
Karen: Career Contours offers a range of bespoke programmes which can be tailored to individual needs and budgets. I am very happy to have an initial discussion to decide whether Career Contours is for you and to see whether you feel I am the right person for you to work with – we have several consultants offering a mix of experiences and approaches. I feel it is very important to offer a bespoke service tailored to individual needs and to discuss with each client how many sessions might be needed. This often involves a full career review and developing a career transition or career management strategy.
This can include assessing career highs and lows, recognising your achievements, building confidence in yourself and being very clear about what you have to offer and how that relates to your current role. Anyone who feels unfulfilled in what they are doing and isn't sure how to address or redress it could benefit from the support that career coaching with an experienced coach can give you. On the other hand, I can also help clients who have an important interview coming up and simply want a coaching session to maximise their chances of success. Costs are dependent on the number of sessions needed and we can offer payment by instalments for some programmes.
mtl: Do you have any personal tips for career changers?
Karen: Don’t regret your legal experience even if you didn’t or don’t enjoy being a lawyer. It is a marvellous stepping stone and you acquire many useful skills. If you are really not happy, find yourself dreading work and you think it is the law itself rather than the firm you work in, then do something about it or make some steps towards doing something. Nothing is impossible if you really want it to happen.
I think that law has high rewards but is hugely demanding, whether you are working for a magic circle firm or trying to run a high street practice. It is still not great for women, though better than it used to be. I didn’t want to get to the stage of hating law myself as I could see the impact that it would have on my personal life. Running my own business was also very demanding but the autonomy was a huge plus and the boring aspects were set off by the fact that I partly owned the business. The fact that everything was down to me was motivation to get through the tough times. I have been through two major career changes and there is life and a fulfilling career out the other side!
mtl: Thanks for your time Karen.
Karen is a former solicitor and qualified coach who has worked with lawyers for over 20 years. Since writing the above article she now works in her own consultancy. If you would like to discuss your current situation in complete confidence, please contact Karen at Karen Gill Consultancy
Tel: 07941 013638
If you know any other ex-lawyers who have gone and done something interesting or unusual with their lives then please get in touch.
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