Ex-HS lawyer lives chateau dream
This month, we interview Patrick Bergot, an ex-Herbert Smith lawyer, who jacked it all in to convert a run down chateau in the Limousin Region, France into a luxury retreat. You may have seen Patrick and his family featured on the Channel 4 show ‘No Going Back: Chaos at the Castle’. Things looked pretty grisly for Patrick at times on the show; we ask what it was really like, and how life now compares to life at Herbert Smith……
mtl: Hi Patrick, how are things?
Patrick: Pretty good thanks. Very busy, but that’s good. We always knew it was going to be hard work. This wasn’t about getting out of the City and putting our feet up, it was about so many other things.
mtl: Ok, so let’s start at the beginning – you were once a big, hot-shot lawyer – tell us a bit about how you got there….
Patrick: Well, after studying Latin American studies and doing some language teaching in England, Brazil and Portugal (mtl: as one does…), I thought, hey, I really need a steady career and some cash.
mtl: Enter stage right: legal career.
Patrick: Exactly. I got the CPE and LPC under my belt and then started small by doing my training contract at William Sturgess in Westminster. Then I moved to Brachers because I wanted to focus on Employment Law. I was there for a couple of years and then moved to Theodore Goddard (now Addleshaw Goddard), still searching for the best employment/litigation work. I met Colette at Theodore Goddard and before long we were married with kids on the way. Then Herbert Smith came along and that seemed like a good option because of the nature of the work, and because it was a big firm and that was going to help with paying the mortgage and with all the other expenses that go with trying to bring up a family within the M25.
mtl: And how was HS?
Patrick: Well, it was hard work, obviously. But I enjoyed it – it was a great mix of people and I made some really good friends. One of the best things I did was to say to HS before I joined that I had a wife and two children and that I wanted to see them and that if that wasn’t going to happen they could forget it. The partners were pretty good about that and I think that’s the best thing about coming in as a lateral hire – you can set the tone of how things are going to be and you get treated more like a senior lawyer and less like a permanent trainee.
Patrick: However. While I enjoyed the work, it has to be said that the hours are not good if you’ve got a young family and you want to see them, even when those hours are quite regular in City-lawyer terms. The youngest was a baby/toddler and most week days I didn’t see the girls at all, or I saw them for about 15 or 20 minutes. I missed a lot of what was going on in their lives and I just thought ‘what’s the point?’
mtl: So you started considering other options?
Patrick: Yes, but I still enjoyed the actual work at HS and I was in a great department, which was always going to make it difficult to leave. We wondered if we could perhaps run a project in conjunction with our legal careers, in order to maintain some income. I had always had in my mind this dream of buying property abroad and renovating it and we also thought about running our own restaurant – but mostly these were just romanticised notions that weren't really going anywhere.
mtl: So what eventually inspired you to take this huge leap?
Patrick: One year we stayed in a small hotel in France run by a Scottish family who had left the rat race and we thought – ‘why not us?’ Continental Europe has a different attitude towards work and life – for example, there's uproar in Madrid if the two and a half hour lunch is cut short...
mtl: Ahh, the Spanish....
Patrick: ....yeah, and we were feeling more and more that London wasn't right for us or our children. When we got home we kept coming back to the idea of setting a place up on our own and we decided to draw up a business plan, to reassure ourselves of the possibility and to make it all seem real. We had many a late-night discussion working out the practicalities of the idea. We felt that if we got it right we could make it work financially. We saw the Chateau, which was in a complete state but the right price and, though it all felt a bit insane, we knew we could do it. So we went for it.
mtl: Hmm, simple as that. I’m sure lots of people feel like you did but you can’t just go around buying chateaux willy-nilly – what about capital, long-term finances, your mortgage, the ludicrous risk of it all?
Patrick: Well, it was a risk but we had seen other people do it. To get the capital we simply sold up in the UK. At the time, a four-bedroomed house in Teddington was worth about the same as a run-down chateau in France with 86 acres. We swapped one mortgage for another. Completely selling up in London was scary – it would have been easier if we could have kept the house in London and rented it out – but we needed all the capital we could get. That was around two years ago and a strange time, leaving the careers for which we had worked so hard. But the really hard work was only just beginning. We put ourselves under massive pressure to get the chateau ready for guests to ensure that we could keep up with ourselves financially. If we hadn't done that, things would have been very bad – but what is the worst that could have happened? All our money down the pan? Yes, but we could have come back to London and got jobs as lawyers. We'd have started again from very little, but we would've been ok.
mtl: True. Lawyers have a tendency to feel locked in to what they are doing and forget about the fact that it is possible to jump out for a while and then jump back in again if needed. So, decision made, you were off to France to start creating your luxury retreat, the biggest move of your life, when, all of a sudden, you had a whole camera crew coming along for the ride, documenting for the general public every little thing that went wrong. The 'No Going Back' show certainly did make things look a bit tricky. How difficult was it, really, to get the whole thing off the ground?
Patrick: The hardest thing was the time pressure. I've never worked so hard in my life (not even corporate support at HS!) as I did in those first few months. I'm sure the level of work involved came across in the show (though we weren't entirely happy with how we were portrayed!). There was an incredible amount to do – I've always been quite in to DIY but this was a bit serious (you can see the renovations timeline here). However, the support we received from friends and family and from the local community was incredible and, though it was extraordinarily tiring, it was also very interesting, and now we have a real sense of achievement. Working your guts out on national TV is an unusual experience but it has given us great publicity.
mtl: Which was the whole point of it, I suppose. It's a great story, but was it all worth it?
Patrick: Yes, absolutely. Certainly for the kids – they love it. It is an amazing place to bring them up and we get a lot more time together as a family. It's still very busy but now things are on an even keel, we’re getting plenty of bookings and repeat business, and to keep things sensible in lifestyle terms we don’t cook for guests on two nights of every week. And it is so different from our lives before. Right now I am looking out of the window and I can see down to our lake, our woods beyond and the valley beyond that, with not another house in sight. We get to see the changing of the seasons, we get open space, and we get to interact with all sorts of interesting people in wonderful surroundings. We’ve managed to integrate well with the local community (the children have helped that) and we really feel settled. Ultimately, I wouldn’t change any of it, although it was a shame our chickens and ducks got eaten by other animals and not us.
mtl: So, apart from ‘get electric fencing’, any advice to lawyers inspired by what you have achieved?
Patrick: It’s easy to say but if you have a yearning to do something else, you’ve just got to go for it. Everyone feels locked in by mortgages, loans, children – we had all of that and we managed it.
mtl: Cool. We think the whole thing is very impressive indeed……Um, any chance of a free holiday for mtl staff?
Patrick: Er, no, sorry.
mtl: Fair enough. Worth a shot. Patrick Bergot from Chateau Ribagnac, thank you very, very much for your time.
You can find out about staying at Patrick and Colette’s beautiful retreat at www.chateauribagnac.com or you can call Patrick or Colette on +33 (0)5 55 39 77 91.
If you know any other ex-lawyers who have gone and done something interesting or unusual with their lives then please
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