Family lawyer becomes fundraiser and then coach
Tessa Armstrong qualified as a family lawyer in Birmingham before moving to London, where she worked for Macmillan Cancer Support as a fundraiser. She has now trained as a coach and has set up her own business. She spoke to us about her career changes.
mtl: Hi Tessa, please can you start by telling us about your legal career?
Tessa: I initially studied music at Birmingham University as it is a subject I am very passionate about and at that stage I was unsure of what I wanted to do in the long-term. At the end of my second year, as I was deciding what to do next, I started looking into doing the law conversion course. In particular, I was attracted to family law as I was looking for a challenge and a career that involved helping people.
I did the law conversion and LPC at the College of Law in Birmingham and spent two years at Irwin Mitchell doing my training contract. It was a friendly firm to train with and I was able to spend a year in the family law department, which I really enjoyed. Unfortunately though there were no positions within the department upon qualification.
As I had decided that I wanted to specialise in family law, I moved on qualification to work as a family law solicitor at a regional firm called Wright Hassall in Leamington Spa. I spent over two years there specialising in all areas of relationship breakdown including divorce, children, cohabitation and finance. It was good experience working for a smaller firm and the role was really interesting. I met and helped people from a range of backgrounds as well as getting out and about attending meetings and court hearings with counsel.
mtl: So what made you leave your job in family law?
Tessa: After two years I started to think about what else was out there and decided there was more for me to explore. I decided to take a six month career break from law, as it coincided with an opportunity to move to London. My plan was to do some voluntary work within the charity sector as I had previously done some voluntary work in Africa and India which I had felt really passionate about.
Although I was expecting to have to volunteer first, within a few weeks of leaving my job I applied for a role at Macmillan Cancer Support which I saw advertised on their website. I had already carried out a lot of research of the charity sector, including networking with people in the sector to ask for their advice and tips, and so I already knew a lot about the various roles available. I ended up getting a paid position as a Major Gifts Officer, which involved fundraising with high net worth individuals.
It was inspiring to work for an organisation which delivers such a fantastic service and with people who are so passionate about the cause. It was also fascinating to work in a place where there are lots of different jobs available within one organisation e.g. fundraising, marketing, service delivery and even in-house legal. I did take a pay cut but it wasn’t as much of a cut as I had been expecting.
I enjoyed fundraising and my job involved arranging and attending meetings and service visits with high net worth individuals to promote the charity and gain long term support. It was very satisfying to bring in large sums of money and the role taught me a lot about networking and how to engage people in your work.
I gained a lot from working in the charity sector during my break from law and found it really interesting as well as a fantastic insight into how a different sector operates. I had wanted to experience something different and my plan had been to decide, during the career break, the best career path for me. Although I missed parts of my role as a family law solicitor, such as the reward of a good result after working on a case for a long time, I’d always wanted to do something that I was really passionate about and that was really “me”.
mtl: Why did you move from the charity sector to set up your own business and how are you finding it?
Tessa: After making the move from law to the charity sector myself, lots of people started to ask me for career advice and I enjoyed the process of speaking to them about their own careers. Deep down I’d always wanted to work for myself and so looked into how I could make a career out of giving careers support.
In March 2010 I attended a free weekend course at The Coaching Academy which confirmed my interest in coaching. I then went on to do a coaching diploma with Achievement Specialists over a number of months, which included access to a mentor who helped me establish my own business. I added an NLP course to my training and was fully established by October 2010. I really enjoy what I do and find each day brings a new interesting challenge.
mtl: Tell us about your service.
Tessa: I work with anyone wanting to change career, set up their own business, return to work or progress within their current job (by building independence and confidence through performance coaching). I also work with solicitors by coaching trainee solicitors and junior lawyers. I am based in Gloucestershire but continue to work in London as well as the Midlands, the Cotswolds and throughout the UK. The benefit of coaching is that it can take place in person as well as by phone and Skype.
I offer an initial consultation for 30mins that is free of charge and allows the individual to find out more about coaching, how it will benefit them and whether they would like to work with me. Different programmes are available and are based around the individual’s wants and needs. A typical programme would be six sessions. However, sometimes fewer or more sessions are appropriate.
mtl: Do you have any advice for our readers?
Tessa: If you are struggling with your career, there are many short-term solutions to dealing with challenges at work while you are considering your options. The more time you spend planning the longer term option, the better your decision is going to be. Also, networking is really important for progressing in your current role as well as for finding alternative routes. If you are thinking of changing career, speak to people in the area you are interested in to find out what it is really like before making any decisions. This will help you clarify what is right for you.
If you are looking at the charity sector, don’t set your sights too low or undersell yourself. As a lawyer you have lots of transferable skills and don’t be afraid to talk about them. You also need to show your commitment, so talk to the right people and ask for their advice to help you along the way. You never know who may open a door for you.
If you are thinking of running your own business, consider what it will be like working for yourself. It can be isolating and so it is really important to be able to get out and about and meet people. I would also recommend having a mentor or a coach to support and guide you as you take on the challenge.
Also, think about what skills and knowledge you already have that you can use in the future. I still use my legal experience (but from a different angle) and have found a role that I am passionate about, but finding this career path took a lot of perseverance. People often tell me how unhappy they are in their careers and coaching can really make a difference to their lives.
mtl: Thank you and good luck with your business.
Music degree, Birmingham
Conversion and LPC, Birmingham
Training contract, Irwin Mitchell
Family law, Wright Hassall
Fundraising, Macmillan Cancer
Set up Tessa Armstrong Associates