Ronald Fletcher Baker celebrates its 75th anniversary this year. Over nearly eight decades, it has undergone an incredible journey from a small, mostly criminal practice operating out of an office in Stoke Newington, to the full-service leading London firm it is today. We spoke to the firm’s former Senior Partner, Jonathan Roberts, on how RFB has transformed since he joined in the early seventies.
“I didn’t actually join the firm properly at first,” Roberts explains. “In 1971, I was given a job as a clerk at the Angry Brigade trial – which I think is one of the longest criminal trials in British history. They were anarchist bombers – you can still read a lot about it on the internet, it was a very famous case. I was about 22, self-employed, rather than working for the firm. It was a very high-profile case, so the work was really interesting.”
The firm at the time was a very different beast. Founded in 1948 by Ronald Fletcher and Benjamin Baker, as Ronald Fletcher Baker & Co, it was mainly focused on criminal work, though also had a number of business clients, predominantly from the London Jewish community from which Fletcher and Baker hailed.
“Ronald Fletcher became a solicitor in 1936 – I remember, because I remember his 50th anniversary in 1986, he had 50 years on the rolls,” says Roberts. The accessibility that the firm still prides itself on was already in evidence in those early days: while today RFB offers many routes to a law career outside the conventional law degree, this was a path blazed by its founder.
“Ben Baker fought in the war – I remember him telling me stories about his time in North Africa and Normandy,” recalls Roberts. “His family had a shop in East London, which he had worked in. He didn’t have a degree – he was articled as a solicitor, that was his path in.”
It also had the same sense of openness it values today – although Ronald Fletcher Baker & Co’s lawyers were predominantly Jewish and acted for many clients in the Jewish community, Roberts (a secular Christian) was never made to feel unwelcome, or that the firm was any kind of closed shop.
Once the Angry Brigade trial was over, Roberts – who at that stage was aiming to be a barrister – was brought into clerk on another long-running criminal trial, this time a fraud. He studied for his bar exams while working, before switching to becoming articled as a solicitor, qualifying in 1976. By this time the firm was expanding, opening an office in Holloway Road, from which David Summerfield – a nephew of founder Ronald Fletcher – handled family work. However, the firm’s focus was still very much on the criminal side; Roberts recalls the team handled a lot of cases involving the then-hot topic of obscenity prosecution.
The firm also had at least one slightly more exotic client, handling work for Bob Guccione, founder of the infamous Penthouse magazine. “Ben would get flown over to New York on Concorde to do the Penthouse business,” Roberts recalls – a change of pace to the firm’s usual stream of work. Alas, Roberts himself never got the chance to fly on Concorde!
Roberts became a partner in 1982, at the same time as Summerfield. With Fletcher retired, the partnership became a three-way split between Baker and the two newer partners, with around 10 employees in total. But although the work coming in was impressive – and often high profile – the firm was hampered by its location and premises The firm was further hampered when, after Summerfield retired – with Baker and Roberts buying out his share to become 50:50 partners – Baker then suffered a heart attack, leaving Roberts to steer the ship alone. At the same time, the workload was increasing. “I was handling a big civil fraud case against Israeli banks, that I’d taken over from Ben, who was completely out of combat. We actually won – but it was a very big case, worth millions, involving top silks.”
Luckily, help was at hand. The arrival of John O’Callaghan – now the firm’s Senior Partner – was the ballast the firm needed.
“After Ben Baker died, I was a sole practitioner until John joined the practice, in I think 1989 or 1990. I was a little at sea. We had three offices – Stoke Newington, Highbury Corner office, and Barnet. I’m very grateful he joined when he did. He was very much like he is today, a rock of stability. This was a big change for him, though. John had been working as a solicitor for Greenwich Council, so this was his first foray into private practice,” Roberts recalls.
Roberts also credits his support staff for keeping him going during that time, particularly long-term secretary Claudie. He recounts a story that illustrates that from the start, RFB cared for its people. Before Claudie, I had a secretary who had to stay home for personal reasons, but she was adamant she wanted to work, so I used to take files to her and dictate them in her kitchen, rather than her having to come into the office.
It was in the late 80s, too, that another transformational figure was to join – future Managing Partner Rakeebah Rahim. Rahim joined as a paralegal in 1989, before becoming a partner in 1993, alongside another female lawyer, Dolores Kelly – making it one of the few firms at the time to have a 50/50 split between its four male and female partners. “There was an energy about her,” Roberts recalls about Rahim. “There still is!”
In Roberts’ time at RFB, there have been huge changes. The firm consolidated into one office in Old Street, from which is launched its current expansion – which now includes two offices in London, and offices in Manchester and Exeter. It has transformed from a high street criminal practice to a commercial law firm, with 115 members of staff and 23 partners. But one thing remains at its heart, feels Robert – its commitment to the ethos of ‘law and people’. “We never had any closed doors. We were never discriminatory about who could do the work. Accessibility is – and always has been – a key tenet of Ronald Fletcher Baker as a firm.”