Chat with Amy Nhan

12 mins

Amy is an employment lawyer (by day) and Founder & CEO of Art by Ames (during all other hours when she’s not lawyering)! As a modern calligrapher and creative entrepreneur at heart, Amy has an active social media presence on LinkedIn and Instagram.

I had the chance to interview Amy about her creative energy and drive. We delve into #lawyerlife, as well as how she discovered her passion in calligraphy to turn it into an awesome side hustle.

LB. Hi Amy! So glad that you can join us here at LB. Before we get excited about Art by Ames, can we step back in time to find out a bit more about why you chose law school?

AN. I became fascinated with the law as a result of a Year 10 excursion to the Magistrates’ Court. Up until that time, I had wanted to be a teacher. Then I saw the law in action and how someone could advocate on behalf of someone else… the concept of being an advocate for justice intrigued me. This was when my interest in the law started.

At the end of Year 12, I had hoped to get into law straightaway but didn’t get the marks, which is OK—I think it all worked out in the grand scheme of things. I did an Arts degree, where I got the chance to study psychology and criminology, which was a good foundation for law. Then I decided I would regret it if I didn’t try to get into law as a postgrad. So I applied, got in, completed the JD (where I met you too) and the rest is history!

LB. It’s interesting to find out about different law journeys. For our law student readersgiven that you previously worked in insolvency law and then transitioned to employment lawwhat was it like going from university to legal practice?

AN. I was fortunate enough to do some clerkships in my penultimate year of law school, which gives you a flavour of legal practice. Unfortunately, university does not often prepare you for what legal practice will actually be like. My first year out was a huge learning curve.

I think it made me realise that, unfortunately, law school is a rather clinical environment where you learn about the law—whereas the practice of it is very different. You have to utilise a whole other skill set really. I think the things that I learnt in law school that were most helpful to me were actually in the practical subjects that I did.

For example, I took an internship subject at PILCH, which is now Justice Connect—and that gave me some real-life experience with taking enquiries, triaging the matters with real lawyers and relaying information back to the clients. I also took a subject called “Street Law”, where we prepared and taught legal topics to Year 10s. It was a pilot program for our law school year but it was one of the best practical subjects I did at law school.

When I started in legal practice, I worked in property and insolvency law, which I did not mind but was not what I was passionate about. Each of my career moves has been about getting closer to my dream of practising in employment law, which is what I primarily do today.

LB. Why employment law? 

AN. I wanted to work with people in something that was meaningful (most people will have a job in their lifetime) but that was not too emotional (like family law).

LB. I know you have a really creative side, having spent a couple of years teaching piano while studying at university. What’s the story behind discovering modern calligraphy that is now an integral part of Art by Ames?

AN. The short version is that I’d been in my second year practising as a lawyer. For the most part, I felt settled in my direction in law—though it always shifts and changes—but I thought, “I really want to start exploring a creative hobby again.”

I used to run a food blog during my Arts degree. I tried to keep the food blog alive at the start of law school, but then I realised that couldn’t handle both law school and food blogging—so I put that aside. My creative outlet was put on hold for 3 years of law school and 2 years of working. After a 5-year hiatus, I felt like it was time to find something outside of the law that was just for me.

I recall scrolling through Instagram and I saw that my friend had just started doing this thing called “hand lettering” or “modern calligraphy”. I was really fascinated because I’ve always loved the written word—just the power and the fact that words can change things. The art of making words beautiful was very attractive and aesthetically pleasing for me. So I thought, “I’ll give this a try” (and because it looked “easy”… in inverted commas)! When I started, I realised this was going to take time. Hand lettering is not as easy as it looks! But I persisted. It was something really fun, something I enjoyed—and it was just for me.

LB. Yes, I noticed an incredible transformation from your earlier work to your current artistic output. What was the driving force for you to keep going and perfecting your art?

AN. I think by nature, a lot of lawyers or law students have that perfectionist side of us, so for me when I couldn’t achieve what I saw other people do—I thought, “How can I improve myself?” The thing that probably pushed me further was that my now-husband proposed and we got engaged! And then I thought—I can finally use this skill that I had been building up to do my wedding calligraphy, the place cards, signage and all of that other stuff. So that motivated me to improve.

LB. So it started as a personal goal…

AN. Yes! After the wedding, probably as a result of planning the whole wedding, I actually got quite burnt out from it all. I said to myself, “I’m not going to touch calligraphy for a while.”

It’s funny how these things pan out. One of my friends’ sisters saw me doing the calligraphy and she said, “I’m going to attend a workshop—would you be interested in coming with me?” At the time I was on my honeymoon in Bali. I remember exactly where I was when I read her text message. I looked at it and thought, “OK, I’ll just go ahead.” So I signed up for this workshop while in Bali and attended this workshop when I came back to Melbourne.

At the workshop, I was listening to this lady who was hosting it and she said, “Look I’ve only been doing this for a year, but I’m standing here and teaching you guys, so what’s it to say that maybe in a year’s time you could be doing this as well?” She was really encouraging. When I was in the workshop, I realised that in the year-and-a-half that I had been doing calligraphy myself, I had actually picked up a lot of the skills that she was re-teaching me. So I realised that I was a lot better than I thought I was which was just the confidence boost I needed.

LB. In the early days, did you think that your art would eventually become a side hustle? What is the inspiration behind Art by Ames?

AN. When I first started, definitely not. It was just a hobby, a creative outlet for me.

I only really started thinking about it as a potential business when one of my friends messaged me and said, “Can you create a sign for one of my friends who’s getting married?” I didn’t know this person I was creating it for—it was a third party. So I asked my friend, “Is it ok if I charge you something for it?” At the time, I had just started reading up about entrepreneurship. So that’s when the wheels started turning in my head about how I might be able to turn this into a business. I basically went down this business development / self-development rabbit hole, trying to learn what I could about what it means to run a business—which is again, an entirely different skill set.

It’s not something you learn in law school—I hadn’t even done a business degree… However, May 2018 was where I would mark the beginnings of Art by Ames as a concept and when I started to consider whether there was a viable business there. Then eventually, it was July 2018 when I decided that I was going to take a chance. I talked to my boss about it actually, because as a lawyer, I had to be “legit” about it. I wasn’t going to do it on the side and not disclose this to my employer. It’s the right thing to do.

I just said to him, “This is what I’m thinking of doing, I am just giving you the heads up to let you know that it’s not going to conflict with the work that I do. I’m going to do it outside of work hours. I just want to explore and see where this thing is going to go.” I’m very thankful that he was really supportive.

I love the example that he used—I always use this example now—in that, in the same way that someone can play football or basketball outside of work hours, there is really no reason why an employer should feel threatened that an employee is doing something outside of work that’s for themselves and if they want to have an alternative stream of income.

So for those who are reading this blog post who are scared to talk to their employer about their side hobbies and/or business, I hope you find it helpful to use this analogy!

LB. You’re super active on LinkedIn and Instagram. How do you balance work, side hustle, life and social media?

AN. My Instagram account, before it changed to “Art by Ames” was “Amy N Lettering” because my last name is “Nhan”. But I wanted it to be a bit more than just lettering, so I could give myself an opportunity to explore other creative mediums down the track—which is what I’m doing now, like watercolour portraits and live art for weddings and events. And just not restricting myself to one form of artistic expression.

It’s always a challenge. In the first three months of business, I was just hustling hard. I would take any kind of job. No job was too small or big because I wanted to build my profile. So it would mean staying up late even to midnight to complete certain projects and get them out. I realised that after three months of doing that, it wasn’t sustainable.

So this year, my motto has really been “smarter, not harder” and trying to do things with ease and grace. Every time I need to make a decision about something, I try to assess it with that framework—“Is that a smart way of doing things, or am I making life really hard for myself?” And just having that as my guiding light as to how I try to structure my life has made a huge difference.

Recently, I came back from my holidays overseas and just wanted to hit the ground running, but then I fell sick. Then I thought, “This is not good!” As you know, faith plays a huge part in how I live my life. I just prayed and asked God for guidance, “Why can’t I just get back into it?” And I just sensed that I needed to “get my house in order”, meaning I needed to work out what my priorities were again. I came to the realisation without verbalising it or thinking cognitively about it, that I had probably put my business above everything else—above my family and other big-ticket priorities in my life. I think that was a huge reality check when I fell sick.

I thought, my priorities are my faith in God, then my family, then it’s my job as a lawyer, then my side business—and I needed to prioritise them in that order. I also realised that the particular season I was in was significant as well. As you know, I recently changed jobs and so I really need to focus on building my profile there and helping the business that I’m a part of. In terms of how I balance it, I find that these help:

  • No. 1 – Getting your priorities in check (as I mentioned before).
  • No. 2 – Time blocking. For me, that can mean spending 2–3 hours over the weekend saying that it’s my “side hustle” time. And I tell my husband that it’s my time, which he’s ok with because he’s an introvert—so he’s happy with that! Then after that’s done, I say “that’s the end of that” and I don’t have to feel guilty about not thinking about it.
  • No. 3 – Don’t be too hard on yourself!

LB. Do you have any advice for lawyers who want to discover their creative side, acknowledging that some people might not have that much time?

AN. I heard something once that might be helpful. There was a lawyer that I used to work with who was quite a senior lawyer, but she realised that she didn’t have that many creative hobbies. So she decided that she would try something new every month. So for 30 days, she would find 15 minutes every day to just paint, for example. Then the next month she would try something different.

I think if you are time-poor and want to inject some creativity in your life, there is a level of discipline (as with everything). For lawyers, it shouldn’t be a problem. So set an hour, or an hour a week—or divide it into smaller sections a week to exercise your creativity.

Creativity is also very broad. Creativity could just be cooking a meal. It doesn’t have to be physically painting anything. It could just be taking photos or something and sharing it with your friends. I think sometimes people get caught up, in the sense that—and I hear this a lot—“I’m not creative.” But with legal practice, there is actually an aspect of creativity within it, because you always have to tailor things to your client’s needs, find new ways to explain the law in layman’s terms and use your creativity to work out how to be persuasive in your writing. We all have creativity within us, it’s just about how you exercise it.

So if you’re looking for that external creative outlet, I would suggest you experiment, try different things—and you don’t have to become a master in each of them—but just give yourself some time to experiment with a few things. For example, you could come to one of my brush lettering workshops in August (shameless plug here) where I will help you unlock your creativity through the therapeutic process of creating strokes with brush pens!

For this particular senior lawyer, she found out that she liked taking photos and it was something that she could do without a set time or location. So she decided to commit to a 365-day photo challenge. At the end of the year, she would create a photo album for her family where there was a photo that represented each day—and that was her creative outlet. I would encourage people to explore and experiment when it comes to creativity.

LB. That’s wonderful advice about finding your creativitysomeone will be helped by this! Now for our usual last question. If you could turn back time, what do you wish you could go back to tell your past self about?

AN. I think it would be “take a chill pill”!

LB. Hahaha! 

AN. Mainly because we take ourselves too seriously sometimes and everything is such a big deal. But really if we just take a step back and remember that “hey, life is a fleeting thing”! Yes, marks are important in law school and I would encourage everyone to study, but at the same time, don’t lose yourself in all of that.

Even when we become lawyers, your identity is not “you are a lawyer”—because you are so much more than that. My advice would be to recognise “who you are is not what you do”. It’s a huge thing and I still have to remind myself about that every day.

LB. Yes, I think we often get caught up in work being our entire lifeand that can cause problems.

AN. And that’s partly why I’ve been quite active on LinkedIn to try and change the perception of what it means to be a lawyer as well—that we are more than our job titles. It’s a message that needs to be heard loud and clear. Being a lawyer is one hat, and we have so many other hats. We are human beings—we can have things outside of the law and it doesn’t have to be all-consuming!

LB. So what’s next for you and how can our readers stay in contact with you?

AN. So Art by Ames officially turned 1 year old on 2 August 2019, so we are hosting a MASSIVE giveaway for “biz boss babes” on my Instagram page that runs until Friday, 16 August 2019. I would encourage any readers who are interested in learning more about business and connecting with other amazing entrepreneurs to enter.

I am also running two brush lettering workshops in August where I will show my students how to unlock their creativity through brush lettering:

I will also be launching my new podcast in September 2019 which will cover topics such as how to find joy in your day job and still pursue things outside of your 9–5. I will definitely be talking about it on my Linkedin profile so feel free to connect with me over there!

Photography by Tash Horvat (Photography by Tash)