Originally from Lancashire, 31-year-old Ahmed Badr moved to London in 2003 to study medicine. But after deciding that medicine wasn’t right for him, he left university to take a year out before returning to study business. Now, seven years later, he’s a qualified solicitor and the Head of Legal at the booming FinTech company GoCardless.
In this frank interview, he reveals how he made those all-important career decisions…
Growing up, what did you want to be?
Ahmed Badr: “I was expected to be a doctor, but have always been a bit of a (read: massive) geek, so always wanted to do something with computers.”
At what point did you realise you wanted to work in the legal sector?
“Law crept up on me slowly. I had started medicine, looking to meet expectations, but quickly found that medicine wasn’t for me – I didn’t have the passion for a career that really requires it. Then I spent a year making some cash by designing websites, and signed up for a business degree.
It was after the completion of that degree that I found myself looking for a job that provided a mental challenge, required business smarts and provided some career structure. I was lucky enough to take part in a couple of vacation schemes, and they convinced me that law ticked the boxes.
“The first scheme was at Lovells [now Hogan Lovells], during which I spent some time in the IP department, where I got to do some real work on a big piece of BlackBerry litigation.
The second was at Allen & Overy, where again I sat in IP litigation and also banking, where I later qualified. Both were great fun and provided an insight into what life at a large law firm would be like – hard work, but lots of opportunity to play hard, too.”
Where and what did you study at university?
“I started studying medicine at Imperial College, London. It was a fun year, but medicine wasn’t for me. After that, I completed a BSc in Management at Cass Business School. To take up law, I took the Graduate Diploma in Law (aka the law conversion course) at the University of Law, and completed my Legal Practice Course there.”
What was your first job after university?
“During and immediately after my business degree, I worked at a start-up that developed a property search engine called Nestoria. This was my introduction to the world of start-ups! After my legal degree, I started a training contract at Allen & Overy LLP.”
How did you get that all-important first role?
“For Nestoria, I responded to an advert on this brand new website called Facebook, and went to an interview in a pub! For Allen & Overy, I applied to their vacation scheme, got it and loved it, and then was successful in interviewing for a training contract place at the end of the vacation scheme.”
What was that time like?
“A&O was a terrific experience. The learning curve was extremely steep, with exposure to different practice areas, at an extremely high level. The clients were large, and the deals even larger, meaning there was always a big dose of adrenaline around the corner. There was a great sense of teamwork, both within my intake and the teams in which I worked. Although I’ve left private practice, I have great friends from my time at A&O, and will always think of my experience fondly.”
How close is that role to what you do now?
“Both roles require a lot of dedication, and are equally interesting and testing in their own way. I found private practice really honed my research and organisational abilities and gave me a fantastic grounding in legal and interpersonal skills, from drafting through to practice, interacting with a wide range of people at a very senior level.
The hours were sometimes long, which meant I became pretty resilient to hard work and learnt how to keep pushing right through to the last minute – sometimes literally, when final pages were signed minutes before a midnight deadline!”
So what’s it like at GoCardless?
“In-house roles, and particularly that at GoCardless, allow me to leverage those skills I learnt in private practice, but I’m constantly adapting. I’ve moved from an environment where everyone is used to working with a lawyer and where I had a defined role, to a company where many people have never worked with a lawyer before. It’s a case of putting in place processes that help the company move forward quickly and that help me deal with queries and varying issues coming from all angles!”
Back then – in your first graduate job – did you have a clear career path planned out?
“To be honest, no. Ever since I started and left medicine, I’ve looked to ensure that I’m always interested in and enjoying what I’m doing. That means that although I might have a rough idea about where I want to be in a number of years’ time, I won’t put the achievement of that goal ahead of being continually interested and engaged.”
If not, how did you make your career decisions?
“By chasing roles I found interesting and motivating! I saw myself becoming heavily specialised in private practice very early on, and craved a wider remit, back in a sector that I have a real passion for – which is tech. For that reason, I moved to Microsoft, which has a small UK legal team that provided the varied experience I was after, and brought me closer to tech.
When the role at GoCardless came up it was a no-brainer, as it was an even wider remit and would involve helping to shape the company.”
Tell me about your current role – what does a typical day involve?
“To be perfectly honest, there’s no such thing as a typical day. I do try to set myself a routine; exercise in the morning and a good breakfast before diving in to work. However, the actual work varies massively from day to day. One day I could be focused on re-drafting all of our standard agreements, the next I’ll be implementing a new electronic signature system, and the rest of the week I may be looking at our plan for Brexit.”
What’s the best thing about what you do?
“Working closely with people from across the company, helping us to scale effectively and overcome obstacles to growth. In larger organisations, it can sometimes be hard to see the impact your work has.”
What do you know now that you wish you’d known when you were leaving university?
“That nobody ever really knows what they want to be, or what they want to do! And that’s ok.”
What single piece of advice do you have for today’s graduates in the UK?
“Follow your passion, and look for work in an area that you’re genuinely, really interested in. Don’t worry about what anyone else wants you to do or be – if you do what excites you, you will be successful and people will cast off their pre-conceived ideas of who you should be.”
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