In 2012 I had a job as a Senior Associate in one of the top five law firms in the UK, advising a host of multinational companies on high profile environmental law matters. I had an impressive shiny office in the heart of Spitalfields Market, my own PA and a six figure salary that meant I could comfortably afford to shop in Whistles during my lunch break, go on nice holidays and invest in a pension. But I was miserable. I had returned to work after having my first son and was regularly leaving the office at 5:30pm, picking him up, putting him to bed and then logging on to do another 4 or 5 hours work on corporate deals which left me feeling that I was making little or no difference to the world my son would grow up in. My boss was a nice guy but wanted someone who could be in the office day and night if he needed them and he flatly refused to entertain the idea of me working from home even one day a week in case it “ set a precedent”.
Fast forward seven years and two more sons later, and I am no longer a lawyer. I now work for a charity in a job that I love that brings business, civil society and government together to find solutions to complex sustainability problems. I don’t have my own office, I don’t even have my own desk and I earn less money now than I did when I was a trainee solicitor age 23. But I couldn’t be happier. I work three days a week and one of those from home so I am lucky enough to be there to pick my kids up from school three days out of five . I rarely if ever work in the evenings meaning I have (just enough) time and energy to build up a side hustle in modern rustic interiors that I love and which is now starting to turn into a mini career of its own.
So how did I go from dissatisfied solicitor to seriously happy sustainability professional? I have set out below my five steps to making successful career shift to share what I think helped me the most and to hopefully inspire anybody else out there stuck in a job that doesn’t work for them and which is making them unhappy to go after one that does.
Step One: What Do You Want To Be Now You Are You Grown Up?
Up until about age 16 I would answer this question by saying a vet. But it turned out that a fear of bovine animals and a dislike of yappy lap dogs are not really compatible with a career in the veterinary sciences so I switched path and chose to study law at University instead. It was around the time of Ally McBeal and I had visions of myself in a sharp trouser suit making sassy representations in the high court. The reality when I graduated and started my training as a solicitor was slightly less exciting. There is a reason there has never been a Hollywood Film about the intricacies of conveyancing law. But whilst it might not have been Ally McBeal territory, a three week criminal trial in Carlisle County Court defending a meat rendering client was thrilling enough to convince me that a career in environmental law was for me. A few years into that career, when I was working crazy hours and at my most jaded, I asked myself the question : what do I want to really be now that I am grown up. It helped me to realise that I was working in an area I was interested in and passionate about (the environment) but just not in the right job within that field. Once I understood this it made it much easier to focus on what it was I did want to do and how I could use my existing expertise to get there.
Step Two: Don’t Be Afraid To Go Backwards To Go Forwards
Once I had worked out that I wanted to still work in the environmental field but in a job that would help me feel like I was making more of a difference , I started looking into how I might make the sideways step from law into sustainability. I found an masters course at Birkbeck University in Business Strategy, Environment and Politics that I could do in the evenings and just about juggle with my day job. Going back to being a (part time) student felt like a bit of a retro step but it helped me test out whether this was the right road for me and to add a qualification to my CV that was more relevant to the type of jobs I wanted to apply for in the future. There were definitely evenings when I wanted to just go home watch Eastenders and study my sofa rather than heading to a two hour seminar on research methods after work, but it confirmed and gave me confidence that it was a shift I definitely wanted to make.
Step Three: Make Maternity Leave Work For You
We are the generation of women who have been told that we can have it all: a successful career and a family. But it can still feel like taking a step off the career ladder to start that family, even if only for 12 months, can set us back in the world of work. But for me, maternity leave was actually a great opportunity to press pause on my career, work out what I wanted to do next and plan how to get there. Having completed my masters course before I went off to have my first baby, I knew that the next step towards getting a job in sustainability was to try and get some work experience in the field. Whilst on maternity leave (after I had got beyond the immediate leaky breast, chapped nipples and baby sick part) I wrote to the charity I now work for asking if I could volunteer for them on a pro bono basis a couple of hours a week. I was able to do it from home, working around my baby boy and it ultimately lead me to the job I have today.
Step Four: If You Never Try You’ll Never Know
As a wise philsopher (and Chris Martin) once said, if you never try you’ll never know. For me there came a point when I had done all of the ground work and I just had to be really brave and take the leap. On my second maternity leave I started applying for jobs in sustainability but I got the jitters and also applied for a lawyer job with OFGEM, the Government regulator of the Electricity and Gas markets. Sexy I know but it offered a reduced but still generous salary, better hours, and the holy grail of the non baby boomer generation: a final salary pension. I am not a risk taker by nature. I make Emily Bishop look like David Blaine. I came dangerously close to chickening out and embarking on a career in electricity market regulation instead of sustainability. But the same week I also got offered a job with an environmental think tank which was basically everything I had spent the last three years plotting my move towards. There was no pension (let alone one index linked to your lifetime career average) and the salary left me with about 50p in my purse every month after I had paid for childcare but with the support of my husband I knew if I didn’t woman up, throw caution (and my pension prospects) to the wind I would never make the change.
Step Five: Define Your Own Version of Success
One of the hardest things for me in making that final leap was letting go of what other people thought of me. I knew it made my mum and dad really proud to say that their daughter was a solicitor and if I am honest I liked how it sounded myself. It was hard to let that go even though I knew I was making absolutely the right choice not just for me but most importantly for my family. That first job I took in the brave new world of sustainability turned out not to be the right one and I worried what people would think of me leaving it after only a year. But having made the first really big leap, taking the second one to land in the job that is “the one” was much easier. Maybe I don’t have it all any more but that is ok. The bits I do have feel like a much better balance for me. I think what I am trying to say here, without sounding like I swallowed a self help manual, is that you need to define your own version of success. For me that is no longer a six figure salary and an entry in the Chambers Guide to the Legal Profession. It is about having a job that I enjoy which gives me the flexibility and space to also enjoy my family. For somebody else it will be different and that is ok. I am happy swimming in my own lane.
I hope sharing my story of how I went from soliciting (in the legal sense) to sustainability has been vaguely useful to anyone else wanting to swap their current nine to five for something different. I would love to feature more stories of other career shifters over the next few months so please do get in touch if you have made a big career change.