Things You Only Know If You Walk Away From A Six-Figure Salary Job

As new figures reveal that record numbers are now 'overeducated' for their jobs, Lil Caldwell, 37, explains why swapping the law for floristry was her best decision yet...

Lil Caldwell

by As told to Polly Dunbar |

In my new job, every day is different. I could be designing the flowers for a fashion client’s special event, creating a floral installation for a department store or hotel, or talking to a bride about ideas for her dream bouquet. I love the variety and creativity – as well as the fact that what I do gives pleasure to people.

I appreciate it all the more because, three years ago, my life looked very different. I was a senior lawyer at a multinational law firm, working 70-hour weeks and earning a six-figure salary. After 10 years at the company, I took a leap of faith and exchanged the career my background and education had prepared me for to start my business in an industry that’s not a ‘traditional career path’.

Figures released recently by the Office for National Statistics found a record number of 35 to 49-year-olds – 18.9% in fact – are ‘overeducated’ for their current jobs. According to career experts, this is partly down to career swaps by people like me, who get a decade into one career before deciding that a different path might be more fulfilling. ‘It has become far more common that people are keen to challenge themselves in a different career sector,’ says Lou Goodman, marketing director for the recruitment company Monster. The world of work is far less stable than it once was and rewards are diminishing. So why would we plug away at one career when another might make us happier?

Like so many people I know, I’m not sure I actively decided to pursue my first career; school, university and everyone’s expectations set me on a course that I followed. I was always artistic but it was instilled in me that I needed a ‘sensible’ degree. My dad was a lawyer so it made sense to follow him and, after studying law at Glasgow University, I headed to London in 2007 to begin my legal career. I was lucky to be employed by one of the world’s best law firms, working in litigation for high-profile clients, which was exciting. Standards at my company were high and competition fierce. As I climbed the ladder, I was rewarded with pay rises, bonuses and private healthcare. The hours were long, and I even found myself checking my Blackberry on the morning of my wedding. But it felt stable and secure; and working in a fast-paced environment became addictive.

I came to realise that I attached a lot of my identity to the prestige of my job. But, clichéd as it sounds, a nagging voice asked was it what I wanted. In 2014, I took a month off work to do a floristry course. I loved it so much that when I returned to my job, I started shifting in Rebel Rebel, a flower shop in East London, on Saturdays. Working with beautiful flowers was such a refreshing change after a long week in the office. Gradually, I started doing the flowers for friends’ weddings and my friend Mary joined me. We’d met at university and she had a high-flying career in marketing, but felt drawn to trying something new. At the end of 2016, we decided to leave our jobs and work on our business, Grandirosa, full-time.

Walking away from law to start my own business was the biggest decision of my life and one I agonised over. I’d been saving to ensure we could pay the mortgage on the house we’d recently bought, and I knew it would potentially mean having less money. I knew I wanted a family, and maternity pay at my firm was excellent – but I also knew I couldn’t wait until I had my son, who’s now one, just because it would have been a ‘sensible’ decision. I was also aware that although my husband, an engineer, and close friends were supportive, others wouldn’t understand. A family friend asked what I was thinking becoming a florist, while another asked if I’d get to wear an apron while I ‘played with the flowers’. My dad is so proud of what I have achieved but, initially, I dreaded telling him because I thought he wouldn’t get it.

There’s an unfounded snobbery about floristry and other careers that aren’t seen as a traditional route for people with degrees. People imagine jobs that don’t require academic qualifications are for those who aren’t intelligent. When I meet people, there are some who speak to me differently to how they did when I was a lawyer, and that can sting.

They’re totally wrong, too: I’ve met so many highly intelligent people in this industry. Some have come from fine art degrees, some have worked in production and events, while others are career florists. People may expect that law and floristry are worlds apart, but both are client- facing and require quick-thinking and organisation. We need to be highly professional, excellent communicators and detail-focused – skills which law prepared me for. But now I’m creative, too. Mary and I work incredibly hard and we’re proud to have built a successful company. In 2017, we won the floral contract for London’s The Ned hotel, and we’ve worked with clients including Annabel’s, Soho House and Net-A- Porter. We recently won a gold award at Chelsea In Bloom for an installation made entirely from sustainable materials.

Juggling a baby with a business means getting straight back on my laptop after putting him to bed, and I never fully ‘switch off’ because I care so much about what I do. But the good parts of my career change are great – working with a friend, celebrating the rewards and building a successful company; recently, my husband has even joined the business.

Today, my work is as challenging as when I was in law, but the difference is I am working for myself and managing my schedule, which gives me time to be with my son. Some might consider me to be ‘overeducated’, but I feel very lucky.

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