Handbags for ex-Dentons lawyer
This week we speak to Jackie Cawthra, previously of Denton Wilde Sapte. At the end of her training contract she had the usual big decision to make: should she qualify into corporate, litigation or property, or should she design high-fashion handbags, get a factory to make them and then sell them on the High Street? A tricky decision…
mtl: Hi Jackie, let’s start at the beginning. Take us through your legal background.
Jackie: Ok. I studied law at Newcastle and decided that I should probably be a lawyer, since that’s what teachers and careers advisers were saying I’d be good at. I hadn’t enjoyed studying law very much but I thought that in practice it would be better – more real, more people-orientated. I took a year out after graduation and went to Madrid to work for a Spanish law firm and to learn Spanish.
That year was influential in the ultimate decision I took to leave law – but I’ll come to that later. At the end of my year out, I sensibly came back to the UK, did the LPC at the College of Law and joined Dentons. The training contract was ok. I got a good breadth of experience and particularly enjoyed the sports law seat that I did – a real advantage of training at Dentons. However, there was one thing that I couldn’t stop thinking about – handbags!
I’ve always had a bit of a passion for a well-made handbag but found that, in the UK, there were two options: highly expensive designer label bags (where you are paying for a name) and the standard black and brown bags, which were everywhere. There wasn’t much in between. In Madrid on the other hand, it was handbags galore - all different shapes, sizes and colours. My year there really stoked my passion for the well-designed bag. So, my obvious, or perhaps somewhat deluded, conclusion was to think about trying to fill the gap in the UK with handbags designed by me.
So, while I was a trainee, handbags became my hobby. My time in Spain had given me some contacts in the fashion business and, most importantly, at a factory which made handbags. After some persistent pestering, I got a factory to make my designs. I had no design experience whatsoever, but I was able to work off their standard design templates, and sketch out how I wanted to tweak them.
I had to pay them to make the bags, of course, but we are talking about a few thousand pounds – so I was able to use money from my trainee salary rather than having to borrow anything. After many months, there they were - my very own handbags.
Graduated Newcastle (Law LLB Hons)
Year in Madrid with Spanish law firm Denton Lupicinio
LPC at College of Law, London
Commenced Training Contract at Dentons
Left Dentons to run Belen Echandia
Of course, I was still a trainee at Dentons and I had no-one to buy my handbags, but it was a start. I called all the major department stores in London and tried to get them to see my bags. That was hard – it took forever to get to speak to the right person and a lot of them wouldn’t meet me because I didn’t have any publicity. I managed to get meetings with Liberty and Selfridges but they were not prepared to take a risk. They wanted evidence that the bags would sell, but I couldn’t give them that without someone deciding to sell them.
I tried not to be disheartened but it did look like it was destined to remain nothing more than a hobby. Then, one day, I walked past a shop called Austique on the King’s Road. They were selling individual, quality clothes and accessories which weren’t label-conscious. I noticed that they didn’t have any handbags and so I introduced myself to the owner. She suggested I show her some samples and so I ran home and brought them down straight away. She loved them, took them all and, before long, they were flying off the shelves! That was very exciting but a long way from being an established business. It was a few months before I was due to qualify, so I had a big decision to make.
mtl: How did you go about making that decision?
Jackie: It was difficult. No-one really got it. I was about to qualify as a lawyer at a great firm in the City – what more could I want? I was going to start earning over £50k and all the training and studying would be justified. On the other hand, I had worked so hard to get my handbags on the shelves and the few that I had produced had sold quickly. I didn’t want to give that up. And no-one actually came out and told me I shouldn’t do it. I don’t think they dared! Still, I had to choose one thing or the other since I realised that I couldn’t do both any more. It gave me a few sleepless nights, I can tell you.
Eventually (I know it sounds corny), I had to go with my heart. Otherwise I’d have always wondered ‘what if?’. My boyfriend agreed to help me get the website set up and I used my £5,000 savings towards that. I left Dentons on qualification and threw myself into the business.
mtl: And how was that?
Jackie: I had very little money and I had a lot to do – as with any new business. Publicity was the first thing – and that just involved calling anyone and everyone and trying to get my name in the fashion press. It was slow to begin with, but I kept going and within six months we had been mentioned in some useful places. That meant that we could start talking to the major stores with a bit more confidence. Soon we had orders from Harvey Nichols in Hong Kong, then came Dubai and now Saudi Arabia are stocking Belen Echandia (my label) too!
The handbags were selling both in the shops and also on our website (which you can find at www.belenechandia.com). I kept ploughing profits back into improving the business, making more bags and getting publicity. Only now, 18 months on, am I able to start paying myself a salary. I haven’t had a holiday in three years. But it’s been worth it – the business is looking strong, the bags are selling not just in London but also in Dubai and Hong Kong and we are growing fast!
mtl: Very impressive. Any advice to lawyers inspired by your story?
Jackie: If you’ve got idea you should give it a go. Take it step by step. Focus on each particular task in hand, get that done properly and then focus on the next task. Sound the market out and get some experience in your spare time while you are still working. That may sound difficult but you will need to be that committed when you actually run your own business. Try to avoid borrowing money to get started if at all possible. Ultimately, you’ve got to believe in yourself. Sorry, corny again, but true. You’ve got to be incredibly persistent and never give up.
mtl: Jackie, thank you very much for speaking to us and good luck with Belen Echandia.
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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