Ex-barrister now an animator and cartoonist
Alex Williams left the Bar in 1996 for a career in film animation that has included working on “The Lion King” and, most recently, the latest “Harry Potter” film. He is also a cartoonist and, since 1993, he has written and drawn the weekly cartoon strip “Queen’s Counsel” in The Times. His latest book of cartoons, “101 Ways to Leave the Law,” is published by JR Books this September.
mtl: Hi Alex, how did your legal career unfold?
Alex: I grew up with animation all around me, since my father is an animator. Dad is something of a workaholic and and many of my earliest memories are of him drawing scenes from his film “The Thief and The Cobbler”. After school, I did a foundation course at Camberwell School of Arts for a year and then went to University. After graduation, I spent two years working for my father on his film, which had just received financing from Warner Bros.
Unfortunately the production did not run as smoothly as had been planned. The film was eventually completed, but not in the way that Dad would have liked, which was a very hard thing to watch unfold. My response was to quit the movie business and get myself something that looked more like a stable career. Going back to school to study law meant that I could delay for a while the business of actually getting a job. But I did genuinely like the idea of the Bar; there is something very agreeable about working in the Temple. It has something of the feel of a big overgrown Oxford college, and (if I am honest) I rather liked the idea of the wigs and gowns. They make you feel so very important.
Camberwell School of Arts and Crafts
Modern History, Merton College, Oxford
Working as an animator on “The Thief and The Cobbler”
Law conversion, City University
Began “Queen’s Counsel” cartoon strip in The Times
Bar course, Inns of Court
Pupilage and tenancy at 12 King’s Bench Walk
Returned to a career in animation
Partly to help pay for my legal studies, I was able to find work at Disney in Los Angeles during the summer holidays, where I helped out animating on feature films like “The Lion King” and “Pocahontas”. I also started the “Queen’s Counsel” cartoon strip at the same time; the idea seemed to come naturally. I had originally tried a similar cartoon strip with politicians as the focus but hadn’t been able to sell it, so I added wigs and gowns to the characters and changed the title. I sent it out to three publications and got two offers. So, all in all, even though I was embarking on a legal career, I was able to continue to practice my drawing and keep my skills polished.
mtl: Why did you leave the Bar?
Alex: Although I think that the Bar is a wonderful career, I always had a sense that there was something more exciting out there, particularly as I had already experienced an alternative career. In general I had a very good experience at the Bar and I worked at a very supportive set of chambers. Unfortunately for them, I left at the point when I had just started to become useful to them after all the training I had received. Looked at from Chambers’ point of view it was really quite selfish of me – though I didn’t fully realise that at the time.
The reason for leaving when I did was very much a question of timing. In the mid 1990’s the world of animation was enjoying an enormous boom after the massive success of films like “The Lion King”, and production was being scaled up all over Hollywood. There was a huge demand for animators and I was flown out to Hollywood to be wined and dined by the studios – they even sent a stretch limo to pick me up at the airport. For a very brief time being an animator was – astonishingly – extremely glamorous. I was very lucky to be head-hunted in this way. It was more a question of being lured away from law than being desperate to escape it.
After I left the Bar, I moved to LA for ten years, where I worked on various films for Disney, Warner Brothers, Sony and other studios. I’ve now been back in London for three years doing visual effects work on various projects, mostly for Cinesite, in Soho. I’m currently working on “Marmaduke” which is a Fox film based on an American comic strip involving a great dane. It’s being shot in Vancouver and we are doing a large chunk of the visual effects work in London.
Some of the high points of my career have been working for Brad Bird (director of “Ratatouille” and “The Incredibles”) on “The Iron Giant”, and working on the “Harry Potter” Films. “The Lion King” was also a great experience. Now and again I find myself fortunate enough to work on something that has the potential to become a classic rather than something instantly disposable – and that can be very rewarding.
In between jobs I do fortunately have time for other more personal projects. I’ve just completed a book of cartoons called “101 Ways to Leave the Law,” - a sort of fantasy on the theme of how to blow up your legal career. Like the song “fifty ways to leave your lover” – but for lawyers. Plenty of lawyers daydream about doing something else with their lives – something more romantic, more exciting. I know I did. This book is for them.
mtl: Is there anything you miss about your legal career and do you have any advice for our readers?
Alex: There is undeniably a huge thrill to winning a case, especially one that looks weak at the outset. Being able to turn something around, or being able to catch out a witness – that can be incredibly exciting, and can give a huge adrenalin rush. There are moments of excitement that come with the drama of a court case. It can feel very gladiatorial, a sort of personal combat.
Animation can be a difficult industry to break into. Nowadays the studios tend to be looking for candidates with both visual skills and technical training, so you have to be able to master both the artistic demands of the project and also the software. People who are both artists and technicians and can keep up with the advancements in the technology are very much in demand.
Leaving law was probably the hardest decision I have ever made. There is no doubt that the Bar is as a great career, but I am very fortunate in that I love what I do for a living. As a lawyer, my personal situation was fairly straightforward in that early on I was being pulled powerfully in an alternative direction and it was therefore easy to leave – maybe too easy.
mtl: Thank you Alex.
Click here to see Alex’s website
Click here to see the Queen’s Counsel cartoon strip
Click here to order Alex’s new book, “101 Ways to Leave the Law”
If you know any other ex-lawyers who have gone and done something interesting or unusual with their lives then please get in touch.
Send this feature to a friend