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Beyond the law: Lawyers turned entrepreneurs

Beyond the law: Lawyers turned entrepreneurs

By Karin Derkley

Interviews 

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Three former lawyers reveal why they left the law to start their own businesses and how their legal experience helped their success. 

Maggie McGowan

What do you do now?

I am co-founder of Magpie Goose – a fashion social enterprise that showcases unique stories from Aboriginal people across Australia. We partner with Aboriginal artists to create clothing collections that celebrate Aboriginal culture, people and stories. Aboriginal artists create textile designs which are hand screen printed on natural fibres and made up into clothes at our ethically accredited partners in Sydney.

I oversee the day to day activities of the business, which includes textile design (workshops in remote communities and partnerships with remote Aboriginal art centres), business and legal admin (licensing designs from artists), clothing production (ordering fabric, overseeing screen printing, managing production), sales (online, popups), website maintenance and marketing.

Where and when did you commence your legal career?

I studied arts/law at the University of Melbourne, 2007–2013 (with an exchange year in California and a few study trips abroad).

How did you know when it was time to move on?

My early law career took me from Melbourne – where I completed my studies and worked for a stint in a Victorian government legal department – to the North Australian Aboriginal Justice Agency (NAAJA) in Darwin. In this role I was travelling out to remote communities across the Top End, providing legal advice and assistance in the areas of tenancy/public housing, welfare rights (Centrelink) and consumer law. Through this work I was exposed to the incredible textile design work that was taking place at remote Aboriginal art centres. I was also exposed to the lack of jobs for Aboriginal people living remotely – but could see the incredible talent that existed. 

After a hard week at work my partner (and Magpie Goose co-founder) Laura Egan asked what I would be doing if I wasn’t a lawyer – and I decided it would be something with the incredible hand screen printed textiles that were created in remote communities; and something that could help create new income generating opportunities for people living remotely.

It became clear that I could create greater impact and opportunities by starting a business than by continuing to be a lawyer. We worked on the business part time while I continued to work as a lawyer. After six months, we did a big pre-order campaign on Kickstarter and had such a good response that I felt confident to leave my job as a lawyer and commit to the life of a social entrepreneur. 

How has your legal experience equipped you for life after law?

I learned so many valuable skills through my law studies plus three to four years practising as a lawyer that I continue apply to my work today. Being able to read a lot of information and distil the key points is a useful skill. Contracts, licensing and negotiation is a major part of my work with Magpie Goose. Through my work at NAAJA I undertook cultural competency courses, studied Yolgnu Matha (language of East Arnhem) through Charles Darwin University, and learned how to communicate complicated legal concepts in plain English. All this experience has been invaluable in working closely with Aboriginal artists who often don’t speak English as a first language (but will have competency in many Aboriginal languages). 

The work we do – licensing designs to be screen printed and made into clothing and sharing cultural stories through fashion – is often a new concept to Aboriginal artists/remote art centres, so it’s very important to have the right communication, interpersonal and legal skills to make sure we’re all on the same page. 

How has your definition of success changed throughout your career?

Magpie Goose evolved out of Laura and my shared commitment to work for economic and social justice in remote Australia. I have always wanted to do meaningful work that is impactful; this was true throughout my short legal career. Magpie Goose is the vehicle I am currently using to work to address the economic and social injustices faced by Aboriginal people in Australia. 

Success in my legal work was probably more individual based – helping people with unique legal problems while also trying to address broader systemic issues where possible.

I view success in my current work as constructive and honest working relationships with our Aboriginal partners and business collaborators; generating income for our artist partners; supporting local manufacturing; and helping to create the best version of Australia – an Australia that recognises that we are all on Aboriginal land, that the experiences of invasion and colonisation have been diverse and we haven’t heard nearly enough of these stories; and that we can all benefit from a deeper understanding of our history and a connection with Aboriginal culture.

Sarah DavidsonSarah Davidson

What do you do now?

I call myself a lawyer turned funtrepreneur –it gets harder to describe what I do as each year passes because I’ve ended up doing a bit of everything which is probably what I enjoy most about the entrepreneurial career path. My departure from law came with the unexpected success of the side hustle turned global matcha green tea company, Matcha Maiden, that my husband and I started in pursuit of our own need for good quality matcha powder after discovering it overseas.

A year later, we expanded into a physical plant-based eatery, Matcha Mylkbar, with two brothers (one of whom also started out in law) that again took us by surprise drawing global attention and becoming actor Chris Hemsworth’s favourite café in Australia. After a few years on the matcha mission, my fascination with life paths and the complex relationship we all have to success and fulfilment led me to start the Seize the Yay podcast, along with a range of merchandise and, as of this month, a Seize the Yay book. That tumble into the world of podcasting has also led me into audio production, and I produce other podcasts now as well as my own. I’m also a speaker, host and Channel 7 presenter.

Where and when did you start your legal career?

I graduated with a law/arts degree in 2012 from Monash University and started my career at King & Wood Mallesons. I rotated through tax and M&A and then was lucky enough to complete my third rotation at our global headquarters in Hong Kong before returning to settle in the M&A team where I spent another year or so.

How did you know when it was time to move on?

Many people who walk away from corporate roles are pushed by unhappiness or similar feelings that another career path might suit them better, but I honestly enjoyed my time as a lawyer and couldn’t have chosen a better launchpad or learning environment for everything that has come next. I was so grateful to have a job at all having been at university during the GFC and thrived on the learning curve of my first few years in the workforce. What scares me the most now (and helped form my “seize the yay” philosophy) is that I could have quite happily continued that way accepting things being “good” for a lifetime before ever realising it’s okay to want more than good – that great exists and you can go out to find that.

Now I’m so passionate about encouraging people not to walk away from stable, promising careers but at least to turn their minds to whether they’re where they want to be. I only discovered that law wasn’t fulfilling me completely by accident, when fatigue led me to give up coffee and discover matcha powder, which then led to a hobby that became more successful than we ever could have dreamed. It was only by contrast that I saw how the creative, fast-paced nature of business invigorated me and that my creative side was far more dominant than my academic side (and had been my whole life) but was being stifled by law. I might otherwise never have known it was time to move on and, even when the business was big enough to jump, I still hesitated and deferred to my risk-averse certainty-loving legal brain putting it off as long as I possibly could. But, ultimately, it was when it became physically impossible to do both that I realised law would always be there for me but I had a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to give Matcha Maiden a chance without any other real competitors in the market – so that’s when I resigned and I haven’t looked back.

How has your legal experience equipped you for a life after law?

Immeasurably. I believe that nothing you do is ever a waste even if you dislike every minute of it (and especially if you don’t). Every experience is teaching you something as long as you’re willing to learn (and that includes learning that it’s not something you want to do).

Law taught me so many things that still serve me every day – time management, critical thinking, organising concepts logically, reading contracts, negotiation, networking. No matter what career you end up in, a law degree and time as a lawyer will give you skills that can transfer to any scenario. I never used to know what people meant about law teaching you “critical thinking” until I saw the way people who don’t think in an organised fashion write emails or organise their ideas. Even if you can’t see it right now, law sets you up so comprehensively for anything you do next.

How has your definition of success changed throughout your career?

I don’t really measure success anymore because I think it’s become such a loaded word. I’ve never been driven heavily by financial metrics, but there’s definitely an element of that in the concept of “success” as well as the sense of progress and ladder-climbing – promotions, titles, pay rises, things that show you’re moving up. The problem was I was moving up a ladder I really didn’t care much for. That’s where I think success can distract us. I’ve come to realise direction is far more important than speed and that success is probably not what we all want so much as fulfilment. They can be the same thing but often they aren’t. So for me, what I measure my life by is if I’m feeling fulfilled which is a combination of physical and emotional health and energy, a sense of financial stability (even if not quite the same as a regular wage), social connection, feeling intellectually challenged and seeing that I’m further along than “yesterday me”. 

Zara LimZara Lim

What do you do now?

I am the owner of two creative businesses. Edward Kwan specialises in custom hand painted bow ties and ties, mainly for wedding clients. When COVID-19 hit, I had been running Edward Kwan full-time for five months and had to pivot to make face masks. In July, I started a second “COVID-proof” business – Gracie Kwan Candy Boxes. Little did I know that in the same week I launched Gracie Kwan, face masks would be made mandatory in Melbourne. All of a sudden, I had two businesses that were going crazy, running them on my own in the middle of Stage 4 lockdown. It was a really exhausting, stressful and actually horrible experience, but also one of the best things to happen. Seven weeks later though, I was completely burnt out and had to stop selling the face masks. 2020 has been an absolute rollercoaster but I’m really proud of myself for how I have adapted and survived.

Where and when did you commence your legal career?

I did my PLT in-house at Macquarie Bank in 2014. I then worked as an intellectual property lawyer at K&L Gates, before doing a stint as associate to Associate Justice Efthim at the Supreme Court of Victoria, before spending a year in commercial litigation and insolvency at a boutique firm, Aptum. I also volunteered over a 10-year period at Southport Community Legal Service working on criminal law matters, so it’s safe to say that I gave law a good crack.

How did you know when it was time to move on?

I ran Edward Kwan as a side business for six years, but it wasn’t the case of “Edward Kwan took off so I gave up my law career”. It was the opposite. I was so exhausted from my law job that I had stopped trying with Edward Kwan. Then in August 2019, I experienced a traumatic life event and suddenly I no longer had the energy to pretend I was passionate about being a lawyer. So I resigned and went all in with my true passion, Edward Kwan, with no proper business plan or budget. It just felt like the right thing to do, and the only thing I wanted to do.

How has your legal experience equipped you for a life after law?

My knowledge of intellectual property law helps me tremendously in relation to trade marks and my design work, and my experience in litigation and insolvency helps me in business. The way you are trained as a junior lawyer to constantly update the senior associate on where you are up to with tasks also helped me when my mask sales went crazy, as I naturally started updating my customers daily via Instagram as to how I was tracking with orders, and received positive feedback on that. Then of course, the people you meet and the networks you create along the way are invaluable – many have now become my customers.

How has your definition of success changed throughout your career?

When I was a lawyer, I was very driven by achieving and succeeding in and of itself, but not necessarily because I was passionate about what I was striving for. Now success to me means being able to make a living out of doing what I love and am passionate about, and being able to be my 100 per cent true self. ■


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