Ex-City lawyer now making his living from writing
Daniel Harris trained and qualified at Herbert Smith, before leaving law to earn his crust as a writer. In the last four years he has freelanced both as a journalist and a copywriter, has written a book and then published a book about Manchester United (he is a third generation fan), earning some impressive reviews along the way. He has also written a novel and is about to start his second. We talked to him about the switch from commercial law to writing.
mtl: Hi Daniel, please can you start by telling us about your legal career?
Daniel: When I left university, I knew that I wanted to write - I’ve always loved playing with words, telling stories and jokes and inflicting opinions - but I wasn’t sure what or how. Law school seemed like precisely the solution that would force me to work it all out – it gave me time to work on a novel while I was being paid living expenses, and this continued through my training contract.
I actually found law school pretty tough as though it’s not particularly challenging (and rather hard to fail it seemed), I had a hard time convincing my brain to learn and remember things in which it had no interest. Likewise, when working as a lawyer, it was obvious that I was incapable of the focused meticulousness that the job demands.
I trained at Herbert Smith and had a relatively painless experience, as it was quiet and I was adept at making sure that I was never very busy. The most interesting pieces of work that I did were various pro bono pleadings for death row inmates, but otherwise I mainly photocopied and paginated, as well as going on as many runs as I could.
After spending most of the first year of my training contract thinking about leaving, I decided that I most definitely would during my second year – I wasn’t prepared to wait until I’d written my way out of a legal career. I saved enough money to give myself something of a float and said “no thanks” when I was approached about qualification in my final seat.
mtl: How did your writing career take off?
Daniel: I left Herbert Smith to work on a novel – hopefully an entertaining and thought-provoking literary thing, nominally about a politician, that examines the relationship of the individual to himself and those around him, and the conflict between being true to yourself and what is expected of you.
SPS, Magdalene College, Cambridge
Applied for training contracts, researcher for ITV sport
Law School, writing novel
Training contract at Herbert Smith
Left law to work as a writer
Quite soon after I left HS, I happened upon some freelance work writing legal obituaries for The Times. I worked as a learning coach at an inner London school, and though I only did that for a year, it’s certainly something I’ll be going back to. I also wrote freelance pieces for some of the other broadsheets, but have stopped doing that, as the amount of time spent pitching, chasing and writing wasn’t worth the small cheque.
While I was still a lawyer, I’d started contributing to Redissue, a Manchester United fanzine, and through that, wrote a few pieces for Soccernet, ESPN’s football website. At the start of last season they asked me to file a weekly blog, which has now become a book. Nominally, it’s about following United around - to away games only, as I stopped going to Old Trafford after the takeover – though hopefully there’s a bit more to it than that. Using events both on and off-pitch, as well as my own experiences, the book looks at why it is that people love football, why people love anything, and why they behave in the way that they do, and it is also liberally sprinkled with deconstructions of those who’ve made the game such a sorry mess at the moment.
Because of how long it takes to get books onto shelves through the usual channels, and because I thought that it would be fairly easy to sell to shops and wholesalers, I published the book myself. I was lucky in that I was able to say that it came with a foreword from Michael Crick, and I’d also sent it in pdf form to a few football journalists, who were really generous with comments that they allowed me to put on the cover. So far, sales have gone really well.
mtl: What are you up to at the moment?
Daniel: I’m trying to get my novel published - I’m waiting for a publisher to come back to me on a requested redraft. The literature market is tricky at the moment as people aren’t buying much literary fiction, which doesn’t make money at the best of times, so publishers are less inclined to take chances. Unfortunately, writing isn’t trusted to succeed on its own merits; rather, agents and publishers want to know what like it has already made money for someone else, and how exactly it can be categorised
I’ve also started working on my second novel, and on a screenplay, and I also do freelance copywriting too, which is currently my principal source of income, and the best balance between the amount of money earned versus the time spent writing.
mtl: Do you have any advice about leaving law to write?
Daniel: Before you leave law, send your work to people you trust to know what good writing is, and also to tell you whether yours is any use – feel free to contact me on the email address below for help with this, or anything else for that matter. At the same time, though, it’s important that you trust yourself too – discerning the good criticism from the bad is a skill, and one that’s crucial to being a writer. Also, make sure not to miss the opportunity to observe what’s going on around you as a source for future characterisation. And be sure to save as much money as possible.
I’ve found that I used to run home to write when I was a lawyer, but now that it is my job, it’s more of a chore, and it’s also never finished. Even when you’re out, you should always be looking for things to describe and for different stimuli, and be prepared to spend the rest of your life never being on holiday.
Though I’m earning enough to get by, obviously I miss the Herbert Smith salary, but that’s the sole aspect of law that I’m not delighted to be without.
mtl: Thanks Daniel and good luck with your future career.
You can contact Daniel on email@example.com.
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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