Ex-Linklaters lawyer joins Chickenshed theatre and charity
Kate Varah trained at Linklaters and then practised as a Solicitor Advocate there for a further three years, before switching internally to a Community Investment Manager role. After a further two years she left altogether to be the Business Development Director at Chickenshed, a theatre and charity in North London. We spoke to her about her move into the third sector.
mtl: Hi Kate, please can you start with your background at Linklaters.
Kate: I studied theology and went into law to get some commercial training and knowledge of the City, with the aim of moving on to do something in the arts world or third sector in the future. I trained at Linklaters and qualified into the employment department, where the bulk of my work was contentious litigation. I really loved that side of practice as I was able to see the personal side of law while working within a big firm. My role was very client focused and I ran my own tribunal cases as a Solicitor Advocate.
After three years, I transferred internally to run the firm’s pro bono programme two days a week, while job-sharing with a friend (who founded Groovy Mummy, an online clothing company for kids in her spare time) in the employment department for the remainder of the week. I made this move because I thought I either had to knuckle down and go for partnership or use the skills I had learnt to move into something more diverse.
Theology, Keble College, Oxford
CPE and LPC, College of Law, Guildford / London
Training contract, Linklaters
Employment assistant, Linklaters
(split with pro bono role for the last year)
Community Investment Manager
Business Development Director, Chickenshed
I did this dual role for a year and then lost the legal side completely by taking on a Community Investment Manager role. It was a great introduction to the third sector, and the vital role of the City in funding community projects. After two years, I decided that I wanted to use what I had learnt at Linklaters in the third sector and so I decided to switch sides - and start asking for money rather than handing it out! Although I respected the ethos of the firm and the opportunities I had been given there, I had my heart set on doing something more “grassroots”.
mtl: Tell us about what you do now and how you got there?
Kate: I thought about what I enjoyed and knew that I wanted to combine the arts with the community sector. After something as simple as a google search (typing in ‘Chickenshed’ and ‘job’!), this role at Chickenshed appeared and after four interviews I was successful. It felt like serendipidy - it was about the only job I would have considered leaving Linklaters for at the time as it represented the perfect blend of opportunities. Based in north London, Chickenshed is an inclusive theatre company (the largest children’s and youth theatre company in Europe) where everyone is welcome, and everyone is valued.
I am the Director of Business Development and am in charge of bringing in a fundraising budget of about £3m a year, as well as leading the marketing function. I report to the Chief Executive, sit on the management board and attend Trustee meetings.
My work is varied and includes both strategic thinking (for example, drafting the business plan for the theatre) and management tasks (I have a team of 10 reporting into me who are either seeking funding, running events, or marketing what the charity does). My role was a new one, funded by Sky. I needed to do a lot of housekeeping when I first arrived to put in place governance and management structures that had been missing in the past. I also had to restructure my team and effect a re-brand of the organisation.
My role also involves upwards management, liaising with trustees and the board. I oversee the box office, so I am always looking at how to promote events and the theatre in general.
On the more glamorous side, I also spend quite a bit of time with the great and the good of the celebrity world, trying to involve them in fundraising events and interviewing them for our newsletter (recent interviews have been with Victoria Wood and Bob Hoskins). For example, last summer I attended the Concert For Diana (she was our patron) with some members of our Children’s Theatre who were performing. I stood in the wings at Wembley while they were performing, and afterwards I encouraged them to talk to as many VIP’s as possible. I realised that I was a long way from Linklaters when I was helping the kids talk to the Beckhams...
Finally, nobody ever lets you leave the law behind, so I use my employment law background in an HR context, which comes in useful as we have 90 staff. The role is therefore hugely varied and spans a large range of possible disciplines.
mtl: Do you have any tips for getting into the charity sector?
Kate: I would recommend making speculative applications if you want to work for a charity. Be confident enough to go for it. A recruitment agency told me that I wasn’t right for this job and didn’t have the right skills for it but I persuaded them to give me a shot. When I arrived, the theatre said I was the only candidate they would have considered. So, don’t worry if you don’t have direct experience. The soft skills and transferable skills such as negotiation, interviewing witnesses, communication, advocacy and written fluency will stand you in good stead. Basic things like being able to run a meeting are so important and these skills are scarce in this sector and are needed, so be bold and believe in your ability.
I recognise that I was lucky as my employer took a punt on me, as a wildcard applicant. The fact that I had done work in the corporate responsibility department showed that I had an interest in the sector at least, and I would recommend getting involved with that in your own firm on a voluntary basis if nothing else. More and more in this sector you don’t have to have a fundraising background to be able to do the job as I would say that in my role around 30% of the work is pure fundraising and the remaining 70% is strategic thinking, people management and project management.
mtl: Do you have any comments on career change?
Kate: As far as career change in general, I think that it is a great thing to do. I came to the conclusion that you don’t write your memoirs sitting at Linklaters! Although it’s an amazing place, I have experienced so much in the last two years that I would never have been exposed to in the City had I not moved. I really enjoyed Linklaters and I left to experience something new rather than to escape. I would therefore say that if you want a change, leave law before you are desperate to leave. It gives you a position of strength and that comes across in an interview.
I have to be honest and say that I found the cultural shift from a big, well-resourced corporation to a small, poorly-resourced charity difficult. It has been a real challenge but the days when it is, I walk out of my office next door into the theatre and see 60 eleven year olds buzzing with excitement and hope. Seeing the direct impact of my hard work makes the job worth it, gives me immediate job satisfaction and is inspirational. Parents tell me that the theatre has changed their child’s life, which is lovely to hear. I have no regrets about leaving law. I wouldn’t go back but I feel fond of where I’ve come from because it has given me the skills to do what I do now.
You won’t make as much money in the charity sector, so you need to be happy and accepting of that in advance. I have never worked as hard and never had so much challenge and responsibility, but it’s worthwhile because ultimately I care about my work passionately. That’s what keeps me up at night - but also puts me to sleep with a smile on my face.
mtl: Thanks Kate.
To see more information about the Chickenshed and what’s on there, click here.
To read about Kate’s own charity, The Michael Varah Memorial Fund, which she set up in 2007, click 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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