From top lawyer to interior designer: "A career change is not for the faint-hearted"

by Mackenzie McCarty28 Feb 2014
Former Minter Ellison Rudd Watts (then Rudd Watts) lawyer and Marsh & McLennan department head, Eleanor Steel, had a highly-successful career working for one of the world’s largest insurance companies. But, while she enjoyed her work, Steel says her passion for the law had waned – so she made a dramatic decision.

“I had always wanted to study interior design, but felt trapped in the other industry I loved – the law.  I knew that if I didn’t make the change before I was 40 I would never do it, so after the birth of my third child I took the plunge and started studying.”

After completing her degree at Weltec, Steel opened her design business, ES Design, In 2004 on Thorndon Quay in Wellington. In April, 2008, the business moved into an open studio and retail space on the corner of Marion and Ghuznee Streets*.  She hasn’t looked back since.

“I wanted to follow my passion – I knew I had to do it, so I made it happen.  I didn’t feel completely fulfilled in my career choice; even though I loved the law, I didn’t love it all the time and I yearned for a job where I wanted to go to work when I got up every morning.  I do now – well, 99% of the time.”

Steel admits it was daunting going back to school in her 30’s. She was the oldest in her class, but says she met some “amazing talent”, as well as her current right-hand woman, ES Design general manager, Nikki Burnet.

“The great thing about studying with younger people is that they give a fresh perspective on design and definitely keep you on your toes – they challenge you with out-of-the-box ideas and push you out of your comfort zone.  I keep in touch with Weltec and have done some Colour Theory teaching for them.  I also do some examining and external critique work at Massey in the Textile Department.  It’s important to give back to the industry and support the up and coming talent.”

Though the two industries seem markedly different at first glance, Steel says her experience as a lawyer has helped her greatly in setting up ES Design.

“It’s really the same skill set – just different services.  My clients are similar people, busy professionals.  I treat my chosen career as a profession.  I think the characteristics and morals that I learnt and held true as a lawyer I similarly hold just as true in my role as an Interior Designer – integrity, honesty and professionalism.  Also, when you are dealing with people’s personal environments you also need to be respectful and treat the information they give to you with the utmost confidentiality – both things I learnt as a lawyer.”

For those currently in the legal profession who are considering a career change, Steel offers the following advice:

“A career change is not for the faint hearted and running your own business is not either.  We get one shot at it and I knew I needed to make a change.  I was lucky that I knew what I wanted to do.  Lawyer friends have always said that to me – ‘if only I knew what I wanted to do I’d give something different a go’.  If you know what you want to do, embrace it with both arms – but hold on tight – it’s a roller coaster – both exciting and scary.”

*ES Design will be moving to a new location in the Wellington CBD in March.