My career story: “I’m a lawyer turned novelist”
Alex Wade trained at Carter-Ruck and had a series of jobs in media law before a personal crisis changed his life. He continues to do legal work for newspapers from his base in Cornwall, but is also now a successful writer.
What brought you to law in the first place?
I did an American and English Literature degree at UEA: I always just loved books and writing. After uni I took a year out in Australia and came back and naively thought I would become a writer. I went about it in hopelessly the wrong way and discovered that being good at English wasn’t enough. I got absolutely nowhere. I wrote a few short stories, but ended up with a rack of student debt.
However, my dad was a solicitor, and my younger brother had done a law degree and got a training contract. I thought that might be a good option so I did a conversion course at Leicester and, for what were then articles, deliberately targeted media firms. With my interest in English and words, I went for defamation law, something more intricately connected with the meaning of language than any other branch of law. I was fortunate enough to be offered articles with Carter-Ruck.
Did you enjoy it?
Yes, it was very colourful – the era of the great show trials, with libel cases making front page headlines. Carter-Ruck kept me on, and I was there for three and a half years in total. I learnt a tremendous amount at the firm but realised I preferred defamation law from a defendant rather than a claimant perspective: helping the publishing process rather than suing after the event.
Carter-Ruck are the best in the country but at the time they were acting for the Tory great and good. Temperamentally, I’m a bit of an anarchist. So I jumped ship – to an interesting destination. I become Richard Desmond’s lawyer. He hired me as a solicitor and I got promoted quite quickly, becoming, at a relatively young age, head of the legal department. Back then Richard’s company, Northern & Shell plc, published top-shelf magazines. I was the only lawyer in London who had to have a stack of them on my desk as part of the job.
Is there much defamation work in the world of jazz mags?
Not that much, no! And actually the obscenity law work was only five to ten per cent of the job. As for the rest, Richard had a number of other magazines, in particular OK! Magazine. It was going great guns, competing with Hello! I was working on very interesting agreements for exclusives with the likes of Michael Douglas, Michael Jackson and David Beckham, and their worldwide syndication.
That sounds like it might be the ideal job for some lawyers…
There was never a dull moment, and some of the things I advised on make me smile now, many years later. There was the ‘Win a shag’ competition – was it legal for readers to say in no more than 15 words why they deserved to win a shag? No one day was the same, and, as everyone knows, Richard is a very forceful character. We got on well, but I was pretty knackered after a couple of years.
So you moved on…
I went in search of peace and tranquillity. I was promoted in my 20s way earlier than I should have been and media London had many temptations. I decided I had to get out, and got a job with the media firm Wiggin in Cheltenham. Ironically, I thought this would ensure I wouldn’t go off the rails.
Looking back I made a mistake in not being honest about what I wanted out of life. That’s when I started to wonder what I was doing in law. I started writing and managed to get some pieces in The Times. I completed a novel, too. But my personal life was a mess. Thanks to a tendency to drink too much I ended up exploding one night at a work function and was promptly, and rightly, sacked the morning after.
It was a horrible moment – I felt I’d destroyed everything and let so many people down. But I knew I had to keep working, and within a couple of days I was working as a night lawyer for The Independent and The Sun. I had previously done night lawyer work in London, for The Mirror and Independent.
I then started to tackle my demons. I went to AA, got into boxing and sorted my life out. I got back into conventional law, but ultimately decided to try and make it as a writer. From that point on I combined being a night lawyer with freelance writing. I got a book deal about how boxing had helped me, and wrote a further two books on surfing – something I’ve loved since my teens. This year, I finally got a novel published. I’d previously written two others and picked up a literary agent.
You still do legal work from Cornwall – has your attitude to law changed over the years?
I definitely found the law a straitjacket when I was younger. I guess in the past few years I’ve been very lucky. I do legal work for the nationals, I have some publisher clients, I work with nice people who are great to deal with, but I do it from Cornwall. I really enjoy pre-publication law – I like helping journalists do their job.
Looking back to my 20s and 30s, I was waging war against the machine, which – to me back then – was the legal profession. Now I’m older, I’m at peace with it. I love the law now and feel very lucky to be a part of the profession.
Your latest book is about a night lawyer. What’s the appeal of the job and what kind of person does it suit?
I think it’s fair to say that night lawyers are more unconventional than their colleagues in law firms. They often combine night lawyering with other pursuits – the job gives them the time. The work is fast-paced, intense and sometimes stressful, but once it’s done you know you’ve helped ensure that a story gets published. It may sound quaint, but if you believe in freedom of expression there’s no better job in the law.
Any advice for lawyers wanting to do forge a new career in the arts?
I’ve met many lawyers who say ‘I really want to do what you’ve done, I’d love to be a writer’. There are certainly plenty of lawyers who are frustrated creatives but, needless to say, I wouldn’t advise people to follow my path. I crashed spectacularly and I hit rock bottom. I was one of that breed who need to mess up before things come good. What happened gave me the drive to prove people wrong, but I wouldn’t recommend it.
Instead, try and find a bit of time – to write, paint, play music, whatever it is that you love. Now I’ve turned 50, I realise I should have found time for some of those creative things when I was younger.
It’s a cliché, then, but have the courage of your convictions and follow your passions. If you don’t, you might one day look back and wonder what it was all for.
Flack’s Last Shift by Alex Wade is published by Blue Mark Books, £14.99.