Ex-City lawyer moves into HR

Alys Carlton trained at Allen & Overy LLP and qualified into their corporate department.  At two years’ pqe she moved internally to be the HR Manager in charge of trainees.  We asked her about her decision to leave law and how she has found the transition. 


mtl: Hi Alys, please can you tell us about your legal background?


Alys: I studied French and Italian at Edinburgh and then converted to law in Nottingham.  I had always planned to be a lawyer, but had no interest in studying it at university as I very much enjoyed languages.  I loved being a trainee and had a great training contract, including lots of graduate recruitment functions and a seat in Milan.  I was very confident that I wanted to be a corporate lawyer and happily qualified there. 


mtl: So how did your move to HR come about?  


Alys:  As a trainee I had expressed a view to the HR department that what they did appealed to me.  I was always interested in the training and developmental side of law, and I noticed when partners were content to be deal leaders or technical experts, without also managing their staff effectively. 


When I was about two years’ pqe, the role of HR Manager for trainees was advertised.  Without partnership in my sights, and as I was at a natural attrition point, I decided to take the opportunity.  It took me a week to make the decision, though admittedly I had already considered it before then.  However, if I had moved sooner I might have wondered about what I was missing out on as a fee earner. 




Career timeline



French and Italian, Edinburgh



PGDL and LPC, Nottingham  



Training contract, Allen & Overy



Assistant, corporate, Allen & Overy


Ausgust 2006 to date

HR Manager for trainees, Allen & Overy




My move therefore wasn’t so much about persisting doubts about law as reacting to a specific job that came up.  My mentor partner in corporate thought I was completely mad and that I was making a huge mistake.  However there were no hard feelings. A&O is a supportive firm and is good at letting people do what they think they need to do for their own personal development. 


mtl: What does your job now involve and what do you enjoy most?  


Alys:  The job I took was a very good opportunity to get involved in people management and actually make a difference to trainees’ lives.  My role has turned into part coach, part mediator and part career guidance counselor.  I really enjoy managing my team and have one officer and two assistants working for me.  I was involved in their recruitment which was an interesting experience. 


I have a much better work-life balance as although my hours can vary, on average they are 9am-6.30pm.  Another reason for leaving fee-earning was that a friend of mine died while I was a corporate assistant, which really put working very long hours in perspective for me.   


I enjoy speaking to partners on a peer level rather than as an assistant, and I enjoy discussing new ideas and then negotiating with and persuading partners to implement them.  There are similarities between HR and law in that way as there is still a client group to advise and produce guidance for, rules and regulations to follow, expertise to be gained and parameters within which to work.


An “average day” would I guess involve responding to queries from trainees, meeting trainees, partners or HR colleagues and then cyclical work such as interviewing for training contracts and summer placements, and designing the dreaded seat plans.  I get to talk a lot more in this role and have the opportunity to meet with people to discuss ideas, which I like. 


HR career opportunities in law firms also include providing HR support to specific departments and business services, as well as trainees.  I think the learning & development and training sides are very interesting.  Other roles include recruitment and resourcing, compensation and benefits and international assignment services.  Generally it takes three years of experience as an assistant to be an officer, and then another three years as an officer to be a manager. 


mtl: Was it easy to make the move?  


Alys:  It would have been difficult to move into HR at manager level other than into the role I currently perform. I didn’t have any professional qualifications or management experience, which means that you would normally go in as an HR assistant, or at most an HR officer if you are lucky.  However, the fact that I had been a trainee, knew how the system worked and what the job involved meant that I was able to sneak in further up the food chain.  Of course I had also worked at the firm for four years, so was not an unknown quantity.  I would say that moving to HR within your firm first is a good move as you know the business and you have proved yourself already.  


I instinctively know how to deal with the issues that arise, but I have a mentor if I need to check that I am on the right track.  So, I found the transition fine and I knew that I would enjoy it.  As I am an ex-lawyer, it has been easy to gain the trust and confidence of the fee-earners that I deal with.


mtl: Any advice for lawyers considering this move?  


Alys:   There are some downsides to moving to HR from fee-earning to be aware of.  These include the fact that you could miss writing, drafting and putting advice together.  I miss my old team and having lawyers as colleagues as there was always a lot of banter.    There are a lot of spreadsheets and statistics to get to grips with and the administration involved in any proposed change can be tedious.  The level of detail necessary for such a large institution is amazing.  I miss the intellectual stimulation and team-work of law.  Although I have colleagues who I work with, it isn’t the same as working closely with people on a deal.   


However, I have absolutely no regrets about making the move.  I have learnt so much about managing people, how an organisation functions, how to motivate people and also more about myself and my own strengths and weaknesses.  If you are someone who wants to make some kind of difference and quantifiable contribution to an organisation, then it is a good option. 


To do HR, you have to be quite tough and resilient and not get too bothered by demanding people who can be rude to, or dismissive of you.  You can’t be afraid of conflict or tricky situations e.g. telling someone that they do not have a job on qualification or dealing with a grievance procedure.  You need to be able to think laterally and be able to come up with interesting solutions that you can implement, as a lot of big management questions fall to HR. 


My main advice would be to think about what it is that you don’t enjoy about your current legal job.  If you don’t actually like law and you don’t want to be a partner, you can use your understanding of the pressures that face lawyers to get into HR. There is a lot of variety within HR, so think carefully about which part you might enjoy.  If you do still like law itself, then study the environment that you are working in and see whether you could find an alternative that suits you without leaving fee-earning altogether. 


mtl: Thanks for your time.


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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