Career Changers: from sports manager to lawyer

19 January 2012

Written by: Mary-Lou Ciampa

‘It started with a quest for knowledge, rather than a desire to change jobs,’ says Regan Sterry, 38, about how her career shift came about.

Ms Sterry, from Heidelberg in Melbourne’s north-east, has been working as a junior lawyer for three years in the area of Workplace Relations, Employment and Safety at law firm Clayton Utz.

‘We provide advice on all those areas to companies, assisting in bargaining for new enterprise agreements or advice where there’s been a work accident, workplace harassment or bullying. Hiring, firing, retaining staff. From birth to death of an employment relationship.’

Ms Sterry enjoys briefing her clients on negotiations with their employees. It requires predicting the values and motivations of individual workers, ultimately leading a company’s Human Resources team to coax and cajole employees to sign on the dotted line.

Asked why she likes her job, she replies, ‘Because it’s people. Employment matters. It’s not just about money. It’s about people’s lives. I don’t take that lightly.’

‘In the world of law, it’s not big money. We settle matters for $5000. I find it interesting what people value, what they will work for, what [conditions] they want to hold onto.’

When nearing the end of her studies and thinking about which area of law she’d like to practise in, Ms Sterry didn’t think she’d be negotiating on behalf of corporations. ‘I wanted to work for the little man, the employee who got sacked, for the unions,’ she says. Opportunity led her down a slightly different path.

‘I once marched to get rid of Work Choices. And now I work for the other side . . . which I do find challenging at times.’

She admits, however, ‘It’s been good for me. I get to see the other side.’

What Ms Sterry found daunting was the prospect of going back to the ‘bottom of the pile, from manager to first-year lawyer.’

‘Law firms are a pyramid, a hierarchy, and you can’t get around it.’ While she is working her way up the ranks, she doesn’t see herself aiming for partner.

Regan Sterry started off at the AFL Players Association in the career and welfare section. ‘It was very small – it was just me.’

‘I morphed my role into more of an admin role, [adding] licensing and marketing of player images on stickers and promotions.’

Over the seven years she spent with the AFL, she also was involved in developing and overseeing an accreditation system for player managers.

When the tasks became repetitive, Ms Sterry started looking for a new challenge.

Next came a five-year stint with the Australian Swimmers Association. While similar to her AFL role in looking after for the athletes’ benefits, this job description involved writing the organisation’s constitution as it moved from being a committee to being incorporated.

By this stage, Ms Sterry was well on her way to becoming a lawyer.

While working at the AFL negotiating collective bargaining agreements for players, she enrolled in a single Masters subject entitled ‘Sport, Commerce and the Law’. This was after having completed an Arts degree and a Graduate Diploma in sports management.

‘I was the only non-lawyer,’ she says.

Finding that she could hold her own in tutorial discussions, much to her surprise, she felt spurred on by the experience.

‘I started [studying law] the following year. I did it, not to get out of sport, but to do my job better, know my way around a contract and what had to be in a constitution.’

Completing her degree part-time while working full-time, it took her eight years of sacrificing Sundays and evenings for classes and study – and often her annual leave in order to knock off a subject in a matter of weeks or to sit exams. It also meant that on the days she didn’t have classes, she would work up to 12-hour days to make up for leaving early on occasion. Only towards the end of her course at La Trobe University did subjects begin to move online.

Taking a year off after attaining her law degree she had time to think. ‘Maybe I do want to be a lawyer.’

Instead of doing articles, she enrolled in a graduate diploma in legal practice, mainly because the pay was better – a crucial factor, given she had a mortgage to pay.

‘Sometimes I do miss the benefits: going to the football or swimming championships for work.’ But mostly, she says she misses ‘the emotion tied up with sport – though that’s also the thing that frustrated me most. That’s not there in law. There’s no emotion in law.’

Ms Sterry claims that age was not a factor when deciding to return to study. Although she was 26 when she picked up the law books, she ‘still would have done it at 30.’

Her advice for those considering a career change in their thirties: ‘Do it. Your working career is 40 years. Does it matter if you start it after ten or 20 years?’

She says the hardest bit is figuring out what you want to do. ‘Sometimes you know you want to change, but you don’t know what you want to change to.’

When asked about future plans, she says, ‘Although I have what I call restless legs syndrome, I’m trying to be “zen”. I’ve spent so much time studying. I’m trying to live my life and be happy with what I’ve got for the moment. And see how that works out for me.’

But, she admits, ‘I’m still on a quest for knowledge.’

 For more information on this ‘Career Changers’ series, click here.

Mary-Lou Ciampa is a Graduate Diploma in Journalism student at La Trobe University, and upstart’s co-editor. You can follow her on Twitter: @zialulu.