Being a West End Actor and a Commercial Lawyer – Karl Wilson – S5E12

This week on the Legally Speaking Podcast, our host Robert Hanna welcomes Karl Wilson.

After training to become a lawyer with Linklaters and qualifying into their Capital Markets team, Karl took a year out to pursue his other passions and attended the Royal Academy of Music. He later embarked upon two years of professional actor training at Bristol Old Vic Theatre School.

Since then, Karl has managed to combine his passion of the law and acting last year enjoying a six month run in the West End in Agatha Christie’s courtroom drama witness for the prosecution.

Karl is currently on secondment working as a lawyer via Linklaters platform for contract lawyers, Re:link. 

In this episode, we discuss the following:

  • Where his interest in law started from
  • His training and experiences with joining Linklaters
  •  How Re:link helped Karl be able to pursue his passion for music and arts while pursuing law at the same time
  • The pros and cons of contracting
  • How to become a contract lawyer


Connect with Karl via LinkedIn


00:01 Robert Hanna:

Welcome to the Legally Speaking Podcast. I’m your host Rob Hanna.


00:05 Robert Hanna:

This week I’m delighted to be joined by Karl Wilson. After training to become a lawyer with Linklaters and qualifying into their Capital Markets team, Karl took a year out to pursue his other passions and attended the Royal Academy of Music. He later embarked upon two years of professional actor training at Bristol Old Vic Theatre School. Since then, car has managed to combine his passion of the law and acting last year enjoying a six month run in the West End in Agatha Christie’s courtroom drama witness for the prosecution. Karl is currently on secondment working as a lawyer via Linklaters platform for contract lawyers Re:link at BNP Parabas in the commodities credit FX and Rates Derivatives legal team, in addition to all of this in his spare time called Also Volunteers at the Barra Food Corruptive, which works to alleviate food poverty. Wow, what a mouthful. A very warm welcome, Karl.


01:01 Karl Wilson:

Hi, Rob. Good to be here. Gosh that is a mouthful. Well done.


01:04 Robert Hanna:

My absolute pleasure. And before we dive into all your amazing achievements, I’m super excited about today’s chat. We do have a customary icebreaker question here on the show. So on a scale of one to 10, 10 being very real, what would you rate the hit TV series suits in terms of its reality?


01:23 Karl Wilson:

Ah, well, I knew this was coming. Because I listened to a few of the other podcasts. And I thought I better watch it properly. And then and then just haven’t. But I mean, I had seen snippets it before. And I didn’t think it was very realistic to be fair. I mean, the idea that someone could sneak into a top law firm without any legal training. I mean, sometimes I feel like that’s what I’ve done. Maybe is realistic,


01:54 Robert Hanna:

There. And I would say about three, three or four, three or four. Fair enough, I think you’ve justified your answer very clearly. So let’s start. Well, we always like to start on the show, tell us a bit about your family background and upbringing.


02:07 Karl Wilson:

I had a very good childhood, I really enjoyed it. I grew up in Surrey, in cotton. My mum was a saree girl and my dad came from what was at the time British East Africa, and came in with 30 quid as a teenager, and as a self-made man. So I definitely wasn’t. As well hang on, let me get let me go back on that as good as bad to say, I went to these really great schools growing up as a kid. The first one was, locally where I lived, and the other one was charter house. And I think these, these schools are just incredible if you get the opportunity to go there, because they have everything. They’re like a little mini society, a very privileged one, of course. And it was there that not only do you get a really great education, but whatever your passions might be, you can pursue them. So there’s all these wonderful facilities, sporting facilities, or theater, of course. And I was just I didn’t know you don’t know how lucky you are that HD? No, you as a kid. It’s just normal to you. But looking back, now, of course, I realized what a gift that was out to that was that sort of really set me up for everything I’m doing now.


03:31 Robert Hanna:

Yeah. And it’s great that you’re sort of humble and you know, you accept that privilege. And you know, because like you say, at the time, it’s probably what you know, until you go and venture into the big wide world and figure out what else is out there. There were wonderful opportunities and you embrace them. But where did your interest in the law stem from?


03:50 Karl Wilson:

I don’t know, maybe cutting deals, to sort of break the impasse in long games of monopoly. With my cousin’s or AI at school, I just didn’t know what else to do. And I thought, well, I’ll do Economics and Law, and hedge my bets. And I think I just wanted to have money, I was surrounded by lots of wealth at school, and, you know, relative to everybody else. We definitely weren’t one of those families. And I’m ashamed to say that that was probably a strong motivator, but I didn’t really. I didn’t really discover any sort of great passion for it till I got to university and then there were subjects that interested me. Like, the philosophy of law was very interesting. Like why do we have law? Where do we get it from? Who decides what it what it is and should be? And, and then there’s, and then there’s really tedious subjects that I just didn’t enjoy it at all. So I wouldn’t say it was a passion. It was just it was I was just following a sensible path. Yes. And it didn’t occur to me that the extracurricular activities I did I mean, the clues in the name extracurricular, it’s sort of like an appendage, you could just remove if you didn’t need, it could actually become the main thing. So there’s other interests that we that we do as kids can, can become, can take the place of work.


05:33 Robert Hanna:

Yeah, interesting. So, as I mentioned, in the intro, you trained at Linklaters. So firstly, what was that like, and tell us a bit about your experiences this provided you with


05:46 Karl Wilson:

So Linklaters was, was almost to me an extension of, I see it as an extension of university because the people there and the time I had in the stage of life I was, it was, it was as fun. Of course, we worked really, really hard. But, you know, it’s easy to think of these, you know, big law, or banks and corporations. It’s the sort of faceless entities that that have no human connection. But for me, I rolled out of Durham into law school and the law school I went, there were lots of other Linklaters future trainees. And so we behave like students do, and then turned at Linklaters together and carried on behaving like students do. My Time, My Time at Linklaters was, was brilliant. I really enjoyed it. And I went to New York in my second seat, which was an absolute blast. I sat with my first the first part, I sat with Alan Stephens was this great company. I learned a lot from him. And he’s very supportive. And it was a place where I felt I could I could be myself, actually. I mean, I made no secret of my interests in other areas, but it didn’t hold me back in anyway.


07:09 Robert Hanna:

Yeah. Well, that’s good. And that leads very nicely onto what I was going to ask next, actually, because after your training, you did attend the Royal Academy of Music. And you trained at the Bristol Old Vic Theatre. So, you know, have you always had that passion for the music in the arts?


07:25 Karl Wilson:

Definitely, yes, yes, I have an even if I didn’t know it at the time. It’s always been there. And as I said, it, I didn’t have to go out of my way to pursue it, that school in the way that you might, that others might have had to do if those opportunities weren’t there on tap. So to me, it was it’s always been part of my world. It was probably music that that the way but all the way through school, I was doing place at a wonderful theater there. It’s probably the best theater I’ve been in until I got to Bristol, actually.


08:02 Robert Hanna:

What makes you say that?


08:05 Karl Wilson:

It’s just, it was just a quite a big theatre. And when you when you start out as a as an actor, so before I trained, I’d be doing stuff above a pub. And the space would be smaller, and grimy and not as good as this amazing theater for some school kids. So what was the question?


08:28 Robert Hanna:

Was it always in your passion for the music and the arts? You know, was that your DNA from an early age?


08:34 Karl Wilson:

Yeah. So yeah, it was always there. But it wasn’t until I got to Linklaters. And I found myself working in some seats, very long hours. And gradually, there was less and less time for these things. And then I realized I couldn’t do without them. So I didn’t, I didn’t realize at the time how important it was to be doing that. I took I wasn’t say doing becoming a lawyer was the wrong path. I just it was that it was a sort of correct path. And then I realized that it wasn’t enough. And it became, I suppose, emotionally necessary to pursue my artistic inclinations alongside the law.


09:22 Robert Hanna:

And again, that leads nicely on to my next question, because I talk a lot about you know, lawyers and risk. The two don’t tend to be in the same coffee cup at times. But why did you arguably decide to take that risk and pursue other interests? And what was that transition actually like?


09:40 Karl Wilson:

Gosh, that’s a good question.


09:42 Robert Hanna:

How did they want today?


09:45 Karl Wilson:

The really honest answer is that people often go Oh, aren’t weren’t how brave and it wasn’t brave. It was necessary. I couldn’t have kept I got to the point where I had to do it, it would have made me very sad to not do it. So I didn’t feel like I had much of a choice, perhaps if I had to give it a go. And in terms of how, how I managed to transition. Messy. But interestingly, I had a lot of support from Linklaters. So at the time qualifying train, it was a bit of a dip in the market in qualifying trainees and law school grads were being offered some time out, to take a year out and be paid a bit of their salary. So I thought, I’ll do that. And that’s actually I got a fifth of my salary to go and try out a year, the Royal Academy of Music. So I got that sort of supported year if you like. And then when I went back to Linklaters, having experienced doing that for a year, I couldn’t go back to full time law and at the time really didn’t exist. The contract market was in its infancy. And it was always a very kind of all or nothing set up. So as much as I tried to get some kind of Flexi arrangement, it just at that time, wasn’t available. So I crashed out with no plans.


11:26 Robert Hanna:

And you touched on it, they’re reeling because you recently joined forces with Linklaters again as part of the Re:link platform, which is a platform for contract lawyers. So tell us a bit more about this platform for anyone who may not have heard of it thus far.


11:41 Karl Wilson:

Well, I mean, the context to reeling is the general contracting market, the general contracting market, by the time somebody needs a contract lawyer, it is too late. They wanted them last week, so operates on very tight timescales. And, and it’s like the Wild West, you know, and there’s lots of agents out there, with no exclusivity at all. And really, link isn’t exclusive either. And what I think Re:link does is it pre selects the lawyers, so I felt going to rethink that. Not only was I going back to the firm that I trained with, but I’m really proud of that training. And they’re really, really proud of the fact of work the link latest and by teaming up reeling it, it felt like I had that seal of approval again, and also the clients, that’s reassuring as well, because everybody on the reading books goes through quite strict referencing process and interview process so that they’re ready to be put into a client to comment straight away. So it, I think there’s that aspect to it. There’s also the fact that real link would gave me access to work I couldn’t get as a contractor, like I’m this, I’m the Linklaters Sekondi to BNP Paribas, and I wouldn’t be able to do that job in the general contract market, because that’s a, that’s a specific Linklaters role that either a Linklaters lawyer does, or a Re:link lawyer does. It doesn’t go out to tender to the rest of the market. So it’s really good. It’s as a result of that. It’s good quality work.


13:30 Robert Hanna:

Yeah, no, absolutely. And how have you found sort of kind of going back to Linklaters sort of quasi from training? And you know, how is this bill familiar faces there? And has there been any big changes that surprised you at all?


13:44 Karl Wilson:

Well, I’ve not set foot in the building apart from when I went to have my interview. And the partners I interviewed with Simon Firth was a partner when, when I was a trainee. Yeah. Very senior, brilliant to have that slide. And Dave Phillips was a trainee when I was a trainee. So it was, it was great to see. It was great to see them again. I did, I did sort of think, gosh, you know, what, what might have happened if I hadn’t left if I just stayed might be a partner now. And the same thing happened at BNP Paribas as well, some of the team there. I know from my trainee days, so that’s, that’s the that’s the nicest thing about going back to neglect is that there’s, you’ve got you’ve got old friends and old colleagues that know you and you know them and there’s a personal connection. And I think contracting generally is all about relationships. It sounds I did say it was the Wild West earlier, but over time you meet people, and then those people move around. And when they get to their next place, if they need someone, they call you up. And I’ve got as many jobs like that, as I have through an agent.


15:10 Robert Hanna:

Yeah. And that’s a really good positive story. And I think, you know, we can talk a lot about, and I talk a lot about this in my communications to the market about, you know, amazing communities, and it can be hard to leave, you know, full time law, due to that amazing community that’s there. How does reeling, can contracting help create the community if you like?


15:32 Karl Wilson:

Yeah, this is the first time I’ve really felt that collegiate atmosphere. Since leaving Linklaters, apart from one of Justin’s I had another law firm. And I think there’s something about law firms, maybe it’s because people stay there for a very long time they do their training there. It’s a very, it’s a very collegial atmosphere. And it’s a very tight community. Everybody knows everybody. So returning to Re:link sort of felt plugging back into my network so that I’m quite competent, it makes me it’s reassuring to have that aerial support. You know, and in I caught up with Dave, before I went on to secondment, for example, we just had a chat about, you know, how are we doing? You know, what’s the basically just saying that he’s there if I need it. So you don’t get that as a contractor? Normally, you’re just on your own?


16:38 Robert Hanna:

Yeah, no, I think that’s a very valuable point. And I’ve got a lot of friends that are contractors that, you know, certainly don’t have that. So I think that is invaluable. So for anyone who’s interested in contracting, maybe they’ve not too familiar with it or not sure where to go, how would they get started?


16:55 Karl Wilson:

Yeah, this is a really good question. To today. Yeah, no, that the reason? It’s good, a good question is because it’s not the answer is not obvious. You would think that the answer is reach out to lots of temp agencies and lots of contracting platforms, while you’re thinking about it, and have some chats, or when I tried to do that when I was thinking about leaving Linklaters. I just people just sign up. I mean, they’re just like, yeah, call us when you’re out. Yeah. Because the timeframes of, of permanent hires are very long. Yeah, you know, people, people start thinking about six months a year in advance. And there’s several rounds of interviews, and the whole thing takes forever, and then they completely accept, they’re going to have to wait for someone to serve their notice and have a period of gardening leave or whatnot. So whereas a contract lawyer, it’s, it’s, I mean, I once got an interview on Wednesday, and was in the office by Friday. Wow. Another one, I didn’t even have an interview, they said, oh, we’ll have it. And you’ve got to be able to move within a week. And if you’re trying to line the ducks up like a good risk averse lawyer, you can’t so actually, the truthful answer is just jump. I suppose today there are platforms like we link where you can go and have a conversation. And you could say, look, what would it look like? How much work am I likely to get? And barring a pandemic, or the credit crunch? If you really want a contract, in my experience, you start looking and six weeks later, you is the longest It normally takes to get in the door somewhere. That doesn’t mean you’re going to get exactly what you want. But if what you just want us to work and get the money coming in again, we can do it quite quickly. You might have to be flexible about what you get paid and what you’re doing. But there’s plenty of work out there. Even paralegal work if you don’t want too much responsibility.


19:14 Robert Hanna:

Yeah, no, I think again, great, great shout and particularly people looking to try and just get some, you know, maybe at the earliest stage of their career trying to get some paralegal work. You know, it’s it’s a great option. So do you, though, need a certain amount of private practice experience before making the leap into contracting? Would you say.


19:34 Karl Wilson:

That the correct advice is yes. I think the more private practice experience you have up to a point, the better. Particularly if you want to continue contracting in private practice. But for going in house you don’t need that much, because the moment at which the job is slightly different when you’re an in house lawyer, your job is to manage legal risk. So if there comes to a point where if you’re coming across a deal, that requires some documentation that we haven’t done before, you would manage that legal risk by instructing external lawyers to do it, and then just act as a liaison between them and the business. And if we have done it before, we’ll have a nice set of precedents that external lawyers have done. So actually, you’re not doing that much really dry legal work, you’re managing the legal risks in a transaction. And that often involves instructing lawyers rather than being the one holding the pen, as it were. And of course, you comment on everything, and you, you know, fully involved, but it doesn’t require partner level blackletter legal skills. So I would say, you could probably make a go bit from what I left straightaway, like six months in, wow. So yeah, I mean, you can jump straight away, you could probably qualify as a trainee and just jump. But usually, I would say, try and get to two years under your belt. And if you had five or seven years, you’d be really useful. You go straight in at quite senior level.


21:36 Robert Hanna:

Yeah. Now that makes sense. And again, I think, you know, it’s good to, it’s good to hear different views on that particular because we get that question quite a lot when it comes to even moving in house or, you know, moving contracting, what do I need to do? And it’s, you know, the correct answer, as you say, is, you know, get some experience under your belt and do it. But the reality is, sometimes, you know, you could do it pretty much as soon as you’ve qualified, if you if you back yourself. And so, what would you say have been some of the advantages of pursuing different passions? You know, I know before the show, you mentioned something called the PCA law. So tell us more about that.


22:12 Karl Wilson:

Yeah, PCA law, are a training company set up by two guys, Joe and Charlie, who had legal and acting backgrounds, and they set out to provide law firms with actors that could deliver experiential training. So this is a, this is not your sort of standard, learn the scenario and have an actor come in, and the whole thing feels really fake, or just have someone delivering slides to you, yeah, we would have to go in and roleplay situations and improvise situations and be able to have a conversation with these, you know, associates at Magic Circle law firms. And you can be playing the role of a difficult partner, you could be playing the role of a insubordinate Junior, a RC client. And the job is to be to provide the right level of challenge to each person so that they could grow. And then while you’re improvising, you’re making notes in your in your head, to give them feedback on so that was a great way of combining the two. And it was it was one of those ideal in between job jobs. That was also very entertaining, because I didn’t know there were any other actor lawyers out there, and there’s loads.


23:52 Robert Hanna:

There you go, there you go. And just before we wrap up, how could others work for Re:link? Or how can they find out more?


24:01 Karl Wilson:

Well, the best thing to do is give them a call or drop them a line. And they’re definitely I mean, there’s a huge demand through quite junior lawyers as well at the moment. So don’t be afraid if you’re sort of in that early stage of your career and you’re thinking about it now. There’s all manner of different contracts out there. I’ve had contracts where I get paid per document I’ve had contracts where I’ve just did three days a week contracts for eight weeks contracts for two years, whatever it is, contracts where there’s been zero notice contracts where there’s been a week and contracts with relinquish it’s a month so whatever your whatever you want. There’s probably something out there for you.


24:49 Robert Hanna:

You yeah, it sounds like you know, you’ve had a real variety and seen a whole range of different contracts and experiences, which is wonderful. And, you know, I’m sure you inspired a lot of people and got people thinking About this particular route, which is exactly what we wanted from today’s show, so if people want to get in touch with you or learn more about what you’re up to, what’s the best way for them to get in touch with you feel free to shout out any social media handles LinkedIn or, or websites for that, and we’ll share them with the show for you too.


25:16 Karl Wilson:

Well, oh, gosh, what is the best way? We’ll have a Twitter. There we go. What’s your fairly inactive Twitter? It’s called Karl Wilson. It’s mostly acting focused. But we can feel legal queries there. And of course, through Re:ink as well, if you have any questions, you can drop them a line and I can forward it to me.


25:37 Robert Hanna:

Good stuff. And final question. If you were to liking yourself to any actor, or any aspirational actor, who would it be and why?


25:46 Karl Wilson:

Oh, that’s a good question. Again. That’s the question. Good. Question number three, yes. Gosh, well got my dog that Well, that’s very difficult. Actor I get told, the most often that I look like is Ray finds. I wish I could have his career. But I certainly don’t have his career. That the theater actor I most like it’s probably Mark Rylance. And I saw him at the globe. And the last time I saw him, and he makes Shakespeare seem like it’s is just having those fresh thoughts every time it doesn’t sound like he’s reciting lines. You just see the character there. You don’t see him. It all seems so natural. And you can’t take your eyes off. So yeah, it’s very exciting to watch.


26:49 Robert Hanna:

There we have it, folks. So thanks a million once again. Karl has been a real pleasure having on the show learning more about your story, what you’ve been up to and your amazing achievements. So wishing you lots of continued success with your career, but from all of us on the Legally Speaking Podcast over and out.


27:05 Karl Wilson:

Cheers Rob. It’s been a pleasure.

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