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Empowering lawyer-entrepreneurs: Q&A with Rashida Abdulai (LLB, 2005)

Law alumni in action
Alexis Beaumont

Alumni & Stakeholder Engagement Manager for The Dickson Poon School of Law

16 March 2022

Graduating from the Law School in 2005 with an LLB in Law, Rashida Abdulai decided a career in international commercial arbitration was for her. After almost a decade representing some of the world’s largest corporations at global law firm Hogan Lovells, Rashida decided to use the expertise and network she had gained to pursue a cause close to her heart: making world-class legal services more affordable and accessible to entrepreneurs across Africa. As part of our Alumni in Action series, Rashida spoke to us about what it means to be a 'lawyerpreneur' and how she welcomes those to the profession "who decide to start new disruptive legal businesses and those who wish to be pioneers of change".

Headshot image of Rashida Abdulai

Why did you decide to study Law, why in London, and why King’s?
From a young age I have felt driven to be an advocate for others, speaking up against injustices and empowering others to understand and defend their rights. At school, this meant campaigning for the widening of opportunities for young people, and it later led to my decision to pursue a career as a lawyer.

Why London and King’s? That’s easy. I wanted to be in a multicultural environment and in the heart of the legal world. There really is no better place if you want to be in the middle of the action.

What has been your career path since graduation?
I graduated from King’s in 2005 with an LLB in Law with Honours. After a short stint at Price Waterhouse Coopers for 6 months as a tax graduate, I went to the US to study International Law at New York University, graduating with an LLM in 2007. On my return to the UK, I completed the Bar Vocational Course and was called to the Bar of England & Wales in 2008.

Having decided that a career in international commercial arbitration was for me, I accepted a position at global law firm Hogan Lovells and started working in 2009 from their London and Dubai offices, representing some of the world’s largest corporations in international arbitration disputes with a focus on Africa.

After almost a decade at Hogan Lovells, in 2018 I pursued a cause that had become close to my heart, making world-class legal services more affordable and accessible to entrepreneurs across Africa using legal technology. Strand Sahara was born.

Can you tell us more about NOTICED. What do you feel you have achieved through that initiative?
As a Black woman in a city law firm I was often the ‘only one in the room’ and I was all too aware of the acute under representation of Black men and women in the legal profession, especially in commercial law practice. I have long been a champion for diversity and inclusion in the profession, being one of the founding Co-Chairs of the inter-law firm diversity network, NOTICED, and a committee member of the Law Society’s Ethnic Minority Lawyers Division.

NOTICED supports people in the legal profession from non-white backgrounds, celebrating their success and promoting debate about cultural change. Around the time that NOTICED started in 2013, there was a lot of concern within city firms about the lack of ethnic diversity within our profession – and a desire to build an inter-firm network that would provide strength in numbers. 

"We all wanted, and continue to fight for, a profession where everyone can thrive, free of discrimination."– Rashida Abdulai (LLB, 2005)

Are we making progress on diversity in the legal sector?
The representation of Black people in the legal profession is low and has been for a very long time. Black lawyers are a particularly underrepresented group and it gets worse the higher up you go the chain of seniority, to the extent that there are multinational law firms that don’t have a single Black partner. Having worked in the city, I know that this is a problem across the board and requires firms to wholeheartedly acknowledge the problem and take practical steps to deal more effectively with the barriers to progress. As the profession responsible for upholding the law and principles of justice, it is damning indeed that it still struggles with such basic issues of fairness and equality.

With that said, progress is being made and I am pleased that the recent changes to the route to qualification for solicitors, with the introduction of the SQE (Solicitors Qualifying Examination), has led to more opportunities for lawyers from underrepresented backgrounds to access the profession. I am particularly pleased that we were able to take on our very first trainee solicitor at Strand Sahara.

You have also focused, across a number of projects, in Africa. With Strand Sahara – a pan-African online legal platform – you identified a particular problem that you felt needed addressing. What was that problem?
My corporate work often took me to Africa and there I saw first-hand the power of businesses to completely transform communities. By providing job opportunities and access to vital goods and services, these businesses actually save lives. What could be more important than that?

I believe that businesses provide true empowerment for individuals and communities by creating sustainable livelihoods and lasting prosperity, but the truth is that most businesses are small and medium-sized and for them, the legal support they need to succeed is simply of reach. I wanted to do something about this.

After visiting and interviewing entrepreneurs in the UK and across East and West Africa to refine the offering, I founded Strand Sahara, an online legal platform with the mission to empower African entrepreneurs with the legal support they need to build the corporate giants of tomorrow, using technology to make those services easily accessible and affordable. We educate business owners on issues such as intellectual property rights, commercial contracts and how they can put legal protections in place for their businesses so that they are sustainable and capable of attracting investment for growth.

Strand Sahara has supported innovative businesses in the UK, Nigeria, Ghana, Kenya and Uganda and partnered with Africa-focused business accelerators including Google-backed Afritech XYZ. I was recently named Black Solicitor’s Network (BSN) Lawyer of the Year for my work at Strand Sahara at the UK Diversity Legal Awards in November 2019 and I am regularly invited to present on topics relating to legal tech, the future of legal services and diversity in the legal profession at local and international business forums, including the International Bar Association, the University of Oxford and the African Union, and on various media channels, from The Guardian Nigeria to the BBC.

"My ultimate vision for Strand Sahara is to empower entrepreneurs on the continent and in the diaspora to build successful businesses that improve the lives and life-chances of Africa’s people all over the world."– Rashida Abdulai (LLB, 2005)

You have said there is a need for more lawyer entrepreneurs. What do you mean by that and why do we need more?
I think it’s a real tragedy that the majority of business owners (and the general public as a whole) feel that legal expertise is out of reach for them. The law belongs to everyone, and everyone should have access to the tools and expertise to understand and enforce their rights.

I believe that the onus is on lawyers and the profession as a whole to make our services more accessible and relevant to all. We need more people who are willing to think creatively, take risks and innovate to come up with solutions that radically improve access to, and the practice of, law. A ‘lawyerpreneur’ includes those who decide to start new disruptive legal businesses and those who wish to be pioneers of change within an existing law firm. The world needs more lawyerpreneurs and the confluence of technological advances and digitisation means that there has never been a better time to become one.

Do you have any key memories from your time at the Law school?
I loved the academic rigour of the course, but my key memories relate mostly to the community I became part of at King’s and the lifelong friendships forged. Of particular note was the African Caribbean Society (ACS) which brought Black students together from all the different faculties as well as from other Universities across London and the UK. And, most notably, I met my husband at King’s! I have a lot to thank King’s for.

How has your time at King’s and the law school affected your career to date?
I love Kings’ international outlook and this, without doubt, has helped to shape my career. My tutors encouraged me to apply for the Kennedy Memorial Trust Scholarship to study international law at Masters level in America, and with their support I was successful with that application. My interest in international law led me to pursue a career in international commercial arbitration before leaving ‘big law’ to start an international legal technology company. It all traces back to King’s and the encouragement I received to grasp opportunities to study abroad.

What advice would you give to students considering Law?
A law degree is an amazing foundation for almost any career. It helps with developing analytical skills, your ability to communicate your ideas and your attention to detail – all incredibly useful skills. Knowledge of the law and how to enforce legal rights is empowering.

"Studying law and practising it over the years has taught me that I can turn my hand to pretty much anything."– Rashida Abdulai (LLB, 2005)

Law alumni in action

What came next for our law school graduates? In these Q&A interviews, we hear from alumni from The Dickson Poon School of Law.

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