Nightmares of final-year university exams haunt many professionals long after their studies are over. Jules O’Riordan had them too. Yet in his forties he decided to confront old terrors by taking a law degree to update his skills. In doing so, he
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Better known by the stage name Judge Jules, Mr O’Riordan’s website describes him as “master, innovator, creator, leader”, which does not distinguish him from any number of business braggarts. Yet his music career has included top 40 records, music promotion, a show for 15 years on BBC Radio 1 and being flown all over the world to play music at huge dance events.
More than three years into being an associate solicitor at Sheridans in Soho, London, Mr O’Riordan, with pink shirt tucked into grey jeans, is pleased with his working life. Mondays to Fridays he is at the media law firm and at weekends he plays at clubs such as the Ministry of Sound in London or in Ibiza. Then there is the radio show he syndicates to 80 stations worldwide.
In between, he juggles weekend and evening legal work and family life. His wife is a singer turned fashion blogger, whom he credits with holding things together, and they have children aged 11 and 16.
Straddling the two worlds has had peculiar results. At one point during our conversation, in a sterile glass-walled meeting room overlooking a building site, he catches himself explaining how DJing helps a law career. “It sounds like a ridiculous thing [you’d] say on a CV but it does improve your communication skills.”
Mr O’Riordan was drawn to the legal life because he did not know how long he could — or would want to — sustain his music career. “I had all those trappings of success and have done financially OK but [I had] only a handful of role models upon whom I could base my career.” He cites fellow DJs Pete Tong, Carl Cox, Paul Oakenfold as being among them.
“I’d never had an obvious career structure and by the time I reached my thirties I was thinking, what am I going to do beyond DJing?” He did not want to “Zimmer-frame up to the decks”. The gym enthusiast is at pains, however, to point out he is a long way from that. “I’ve looked after myself. I look probably younger than I am.”
This anxiety that DJing could not last has been niggling for years. As he approaches 50, he is surprised he is still getting away with it.
In making the switch, he was helped by a mentor — John Kennedy, a prominent music lawyer — who introduced him to three law firms. Each offered him a place. “I was sounded out to make sure that it wasn’t just some silly pipe dream, because once a law firm commits to taking you on they don’t want to look silly [if I turn out] not to be serious about it.”
As well as extending his career, Mr O’Riordan wanted to set his children an example. “Studying in front of your kids . . . is a good thing to do.” Then he pauses to think about that. “In retrospect [I don’t know] whether they actually paid a blind bit of notice.”
If he was going to proffer advice to others pondering a career change, it would be to have patience. “You can’t click your fingers and expect everything to change overnight.”
Mr O’Riordan didn’t stumble into law. He studied the subject at the London School of Economics in the 1980s (earning a 2:2, which he has improved to a first). It was his initial studies that gave him the name Judge Jules. Even at 18, he was a veteran DJ, having put on events in north London pubs for teenaged ravers.
He went on to be a DJ at Kiss, then a pirate radio station. “The pirates do serve a good purpose but it’s not as if, as a lawyer now, I would touch pirate radio.”
Law and DJing are symbiotic, insists Mr O’Riordan. “The more I [do] as a DJ the more credible I am as a lawyer tendering music advice.”
The touring as a DJ is fun, he says, but it will “eventually shorten your life expectancy”. Rather than the drink and drugs, I ask? “I don’t think the more successful DJs or recording artists are crazy party animals.” Even at the start of his career? “Never massively so. It was always my mates who were. It’s the hangers-on.”
As a DJ, he earned most from live performances rather than records although he claims it was never “crazy money”.
People underestimate the time that goes into DJing, he says. “There’s a huge amount of spadework . . . It’s not just turn up and go.” He receives more than 1,000 music promos each week and has a full-time personal assistant to deal with his music affairs. He recoils at my suggestion that he could ask for a four-day week at his law firm. “I don’t want to be any different from anybody else.”
He says that people in the music business face a perennial problem of being lulled into a false sense of security by the “artist and repertoire people” who handle talent for a label.
“A lot of artists buy into the love . . . and forget they’re in a business where the first contract is not going to be very good.”
He is sanguine about the age gap between himself and other legal newcomers. Although he started a law career in his forties, he believes his music experience gave him a head start on others.
Later, I speak to Paul Oakenfold, who is also doing less DJing while promoting his own brand of tequila and setting up the Electronic Music Awards Foundation. I ask him about the shelf-life of a DJ. “If musically you’re on it and enjoying and connecting with the crowd then why should society put a number on you?”
He adds that experience counts too, even in electronic music. There is an “understanding of working a dance floor that most of the younger generation doesn’t have”.
The generation gap is more blurred than it was, says Mr O’Riordan. At 18, he recalls that his dad came to one of his events. “I love my dad dearly but felt uncomfortable. Whereas when you go out now, while clubs aren’t awash with fortysomethings, they don’t look out of place.”
So the 49-year-old never feels like the oldest swinger in town? “No, I just don’t think like that.”