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Rakeebah Rahim - not your usual managing partner

From being a 16-year-old school-leaver working in a café to managing one of London’s most dynamic law firms might not be the most usual career trajectory, but Ronald Fletcher Baker’s Rakeebah Rahim is not your usual managing partner. And while teenage jobs in fast-food joints might seem a world away from the hallowed corridors of the law, the core tenets that Rahim learned there – a fearsome work ethic and commitment to customer service – are the very things that have helped her drive the expansion of RFB from high street practice to a full-service law firm with offices across London, Manchester and Istanbul.

Of her early work experience, Rahim says, “It taught me a really good work ethic, and about customer service, always going the extra mile. I was never somebody who just stopped when the hours were over.”

Born in Guyana, Rahim moved with her family to England as a teen, but found the transition a tough one, particularly the transfer to a different educational system. She left school at 16 and got a job in a fast-food restaurant, but the hunger for education instilled by her parents led her to go back to studying. Discovering a passion for the law, she eventually joined RFB as a paralegal in 1989 (she qualified as a lawyer in 1993).

Rahim is not precious about admitting she initially joined RFB as it was, she laughs, the only firm that would hire her.

“In 1989, the market wasn’t the same as it is now – the market as you know it didn’t exist. So I joined a high street firm because that was where most people ended up. But even though I saw other lawyers going from firm to firm to get more money, I remembered my mum’s advice – a rolling stone gathers no moss. She meant that I should stay and try and achieve good things where I was. So that is what I did. I wanted to build something. It was never just about the money for me.”

Rahim was drawn to a criminal law by a drive to help people and, having supported herself through her education and training with a series of jobs in retail and hospitality, the punishing hours of being on call 365 days, 24-7 didn’t daunt her.

“I liked helping people, and crime was fascinating to me. I enjoyed being a duty solicitor. But I think I spent more time at the police station than I did in the office! I took calls all of the time.”

Working through the ranks, she progressed to partnership in 1999, eventually taking the reins as managing partner in 2013. Always ambitious, Rahim realised that to thrive, the firm needed a more commercial focus, and she oversaw as it expanded into other areas such as property.

“I wanted the firm to have resilience, stability and longevity, and I knew the only way to do that was to have specialisms. I was never just thinking about the law, but also – how do we keep going as a business?”

It was a prescient decision, vindicated when the gutting of Legal Aid saw many criminal boutiques fold. Particularly renowned for its property and crime practices, RFB now advises on everything from corporate and commercial to cybersecurity. The firm is recognised by leading independent legal directory The Legal 500 in nine different practice areas, evidence of its standing.

It’s this commerciality that has seen the firm expand, now having not just offices in London (The City and West End), Manchester and Exeter but an international presence via its office in Istanbul and its Russia, Ukraine & CIS Desk. Now with 11 equity partners, RFB remains ambitious, and has pursued a policy not just of smart lateral hires but nurturing people from within its ranks.

But despite this growth, the firm remains very much a family – Rahim personally sits in on most interviews, and makes an effort to speak to everyone in the office, no matter their role. She also visits Manchester and Exeter regularly, to ensure the lawyers there feel part of an integrated team, not some remote outpost.

“I see everyone as my colleague; everyone is working together for the greater good of the firm,” explains Rahim. “I make the effort to speak to everyone. Sometimes, this surprises people, because they’ve come from firms where the managing partner never spoke to them.”

This also ensures clients are getting a smooth, cohesive service. “We take a one-firm approach. We’re Ronald Fletcher Baker, not our City office or our Manchester office or our West End office or our Exeter office. Clients know they will get consistent service,” says Rahim.

This has helped RFB weather the storm of the pandemic, emerging stronger than ever. While many firms shuttered up for the duration, Rahim kept both furloughs and office closures to a minimum, reopening as soon as it was possible to do so.

“The pandemic was obviously challenging, but the firm was in a good place when it hit, and our approach meant that we were in a strong position to survive it. We reopened the office as soon as we could, so we could give people face-to-face service, so that teams could work together in person. The offices are the heart of the firm. And, ironically, the last two years have been the most successful financially for the firm, so this approach worked!”

Says Rudi Ramdarshan, who has been at the firm since 2011 and a partner since 2012, “I think this personal touch was even more important during the pandemic, when everyone was isolated. I think Rakeebah’s leadership, vision and courage gave us the confidence that actually, this was an opportunity to rise.”

In a landscape where both the Boardroom and law firm management are still very much the domain of Oxbridge-educated men, Rahim stands out, and the firm’s diversity is core to both its strength and its appeal. Rahim’s own non-traditional route to leadership is an inspiration to junior talent, and lawyers join the firm knowing there is an opportunity to fulfil their ambitions.

Says Ramdarshan, “I think the fact that we are so diverse and have a woman Managing Partner definitely helps us attract talent. People see what Rakeebah has achieved and know they can achieve that as well – they can come here and work hard and make partner.”

It’s testament to Rahim’s belief that RFB truly is ‘a family’ that so many of its team have been there years – senior partner John O’Callaghan, for example, boasts three decades at the firm.  This in turn helps foster the kind of longstanding client relationships that allow the lawyers to truly become trusted advisors with a deep understanding of their clients’ businesses. Clients not only benefit from the consistency of the ‘one-firm’ approach Rahim has fostered, but from access to a range of diverse talent that larger, more homogenous firms lack, and the commitment to client service that Rahim has instilled in its very DNA.

“When I first joined the law, law firms took their clients for granted. There simply wasn’t this idea of client service you see now. But I’ve always had that commitment, even when I was working in my first jobs. I always knew that was important.”

Having emerged from the pandemic triumphant, the firm – and Rahim – don’t intend to rest on their laurels.

“Oh, we plan to grow,” Rahim promises. “Some of our newer departments are still in their infancy, and we will expand those. We want to be a truly full-service firm. And it’s not just about attracting the right people, but helping the people we have to grow. We have so much talent here, we want everyone to be able to fulfil their ambitions.”

It’s a plan that her team have faith in. Says Ramdarshan, “Rakeebah wouldn’t say this of herself, but she’s always ahead of the curve. She understands not just the market, but the political trends, the social trends, the way things are changing. She always knows what’s coming down the road.”

Ronald Fletcher Baker has come a long way since it was founded in 1948. But, with Rahim at the helm and a talented team behind her, it is looking to go further still.