Government lawyer's sabbatical leads to a new career in food
Clare Jackson trained and worked as a solicitor within the Government Legal Service for a number of years. At 6yrs PQE she took an 18 month career break in order to do a professional cooking course at Leiths School of Food and Wine. She has recently decided not to go back to law and instead to focus on catering and food styling. We spoke to her about her legal background, the decision to take a break from it and about now being self-employed.
mtl: Hi Clare, please can you tell us why you chose to work for the GLS and about your time there?
Clare: I enjoyed studying public law courses such as EC and administrative law the most and I’d always had an interest in politics. I also looked at City careers and thought I would have a better quality of life working for the Government, so I applied to the GLS. I was sponsored through law school and trained with what was then HM Customs and Excise, which involved five seats around the department. The training was very good and I had lots of responsibility and interesting work from the start. For example I worked on some malicious prosecution litigation related to the Scott Report into the arms to Iraq scandal. I also did tax advisory work and was involved in some budget related matters.
Next I moved to the Home Office where I dealt with requests for extradition and advised Ministers on how to respond to them. I also did a lot of advisory work on policy, particularly relating to the National Asylum Support Service, as it was then. I enjoyed the Home Office as the work was interesting but it was high pressure and there were a lot of judicial reviews to deal with as a result of new immigration legislation in 2002.
My next role was at the Treasury Solicitor’s Department where I coordinated the UK’s response to litigation before the European Court of Justice. This meant working with many different departments, instructing counsel and then traveling to Luxembourg for hearings. I really enjoyed the team work and traveling but after 21 months it was time for a change so I moved to Brussels for five months as part of a scheme at the European Commission. While there I worked in the tax team of the legal service of the Commission.
As you can see, my legal career involved a lot of variety, which is one of the strengths of the GLS. You can move around or become a specialist, depending on where your interests lie. The subject matter of the work is often very interesting and newsworthy and you get the chance to work on high profile political matters. You get a lot of responsibility at a very early stage and your work is well-respected.
mtl: It sounds like you had an interesting time. What made you want a change?
LPC, Oxford Institute of Legal Practice
Training at HM Customs & Excise
Qualified as a GLS lawyer and worked for HM Customs & Excise, the Home Office, the Treasury Solicitor’s Department and the European Commission
18m career break from the GLS doing a cookery course at Leiths and freelancing afterwards
Resigned from the GLS to do catering and food styling full-time
Clare: I began to question law in about 2002 and to think about whether I wanted to do it in the long term. I liked the people and the travel but wasn’t sure about the actual legal work. I had the benefit of trying out a number of areas to test my interest, which friends in private practice couldn’t do. I was also aware that resources were always an issue as the GLS is not as well staffed as the City firms and clients sometimes expected the service they would receive from people earning twice as much for the hours worked in the City.
While I was in Brussels I had some careers coaching so began to think about leaving more seriously. This helped me look at what I enjoyed doing and gave me back some confidence as I didn’t feel very marketable at the time. I thought about options where legal skills would be useful but not core to the job but I wasn’t sure I wanted another office job. I also thought about taking a career break and using it constructively to explore my interest in food, so that at least if it didn’t take me anywhere work-wise I’d still have learnt some useful skills.
When I moved back from Brussels, I asked for a short career break but wasn’t able to arrange one at that point. At quite short notice, I found a post working in an old colleague’s civil litigation team, mainly acting on behalf of the Highways Agency in construction litigation. I decided to take an evening class at Leiths to see whether I wanted to pursue the sabbatical idea and found that I did. I therefore arranged a longer career break that started nine months after my return to London.
Initially I had not thought there was any point in asking for a career break, as it was mainly women with young families who made use of the scheme. However I was encouraged by my boss, whose support I am very grateful for. I had to look at whether I was prepared to resign over it and found that I was. Fortunately it was agreed that I could take 18 months off. This allowed me to do a practical six month course at Leiths which had been recommended by contacts in the industry and then try out the industry for a year before having to make a big decision about my career.
mtl: How was your sabbatical?
Clare: It was good! The course was really difficult and I probably worked longer hours than I had done as a lawyer, but those hours were much more enjoyable. The days were split between practicals and demonstrations. Practical sessions were very stressful because the cooking was so demanding and I often had to swallow my pride and start again. In a way, the most stressful thing was the practical exams, but having got through them I know I can cope with whatever is thrown at me in the cooking world. The class was also very diverse in terms of age and background and it was fun working with a totally different group of people.
When the course finished I started out trying to find a full or part-time day job as I would have been happy to be employed. I registered with agencies and did bits of work in catering as well as a few parties on my own. At the same time I began to get into food styling by first cold-calling and then working as an assistant to established regulars in the field.
Fortunately work has picked up quickly and I now spend half my time catering and half my time styling. I’m lucky to have lived in London for a while so I get lots of work through friends of friends and contacts at my Church. I haven’t had to advertise yet but am currently putting together a website.
About a month ago, I was contacted by the GLS about my return to work, which was scheduled for May 2008. I thought about it and, although I miss my former colleagues, I really couldn’t face the idea of going back to an office, commuting and doing a legal job. I also came to the conclusion that although there were a lot of advantages to the career, it just wasn’t right for me as I didn’t like law that much, whereas lots of my colleagues really loved it. So I have now resigned!
mtl: How does your new life compare?
Clare: I’m much happier as I find catering events really satisfying but I am also much, much poorer! I’ve had to use savings and borrow to get where I am, though I kept hold of my flat which was a good thing. It’s been quite difficult to know how much to charge for jobs and I’ve under-quoted in the past, though I’m getting better at judging costs now.
I cater dinner parties up to large events and when I’m not out styling I work during the day from home in my kitchen unless I use the venue’s own kitchen. The job involves some evening work and quite a few Saturdays and although the hours are a bit anti-social, they aren’t too bad. I’m also looking for part-time work at the moment that allows me to spend two days a week with colleagues. As yet I have no regrets about making a change, though sometimes I see things on the news and wonder about who is working on that issue and then I feel slightly out of touch.
mtl: Do you have any advice for others thinking about a career break/change?
Clare: I was lucky because the Civil Service offered schemes for doing what I did. However in any event it is worth asking and being honest about what you want to go off to do because, if you are valued, your employer will try not to lose you by giving you a chance, while hoping you come back. Think about what you really enjoy and try to find a way to do it as a test-run. I had thought about making this change for a while but had always ruled it out financially. I finally decided that I really needed to give it a go.
I also think lawyers often underestimate the transferable skills that they have when considering a move to another career. I have found that the organisational skills which I had to have to survive as a litigation lawyer are really useful when running my own business and especially when working as a caterer or food stylist. Also, I am sure that the people skills and particularly client care skills which one has to develop as a lawyer are useful when dealing with customers in a catering context.
Also, having worked as a lawyer, I am not afraid of paperwork(!) and I have been struck recently by how many people working in the food field really find it hard to keep on top of that. I think that, when you are working as a lawyer, you compare yourself (perhaps unfavourably) with other lawyers and don't realise that some of the skills you have are rare in the population at large and may be very useful in other fields!
mtl: Thanks Clare and good luck.
You can contact Clare on email@example.com.
You can see the GLS website here
You can see the Leiths website here
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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