Robert, born and raised in Ipswich, joined the firm as an Office Junior on his 16th birthday, 2 August 1972, when the firm occupied its former office in Museum Street. From humble beginnings making tea and coffee for a salary of £7 a week, Robert spent two months working in the back office before being taken under the wing of one of the firm’s Legal Executives, Ted Glasgow, supporting his work with debt recovery. He’s worked in the field ever since.
In his early days with Ted, Robert found himself in front of a Registrar (now a District Judge), requesting an adjournment on a case in place of a Legal Executive off sick. The case was adjourned without issue and the Registrar spent some time telling a young Robert why joining Birketts was such an excellent move, before the Ipswich County Court staff ordained him with his new nickname – ‘Baby Birkett’.
The firm had just five Partners in Ipswich and a handful of clerks and secretaries when Robert joined in the 70s. It has now expanded to more than 800 employees including more than 90 Partners across East Anglia and London, and has moved to Providence House, its new home in Princes Street. It’s modern and forward-facing law firm that moves with the time – but when Robert started, it was a much more formal affair.
Robert said: “I was told on my first day: always wear a white shirt and never take off your jacket. Call the Senior Partner ‘Sir’ and everyone else ‘Mr’, and don’t use anyone’s first name. Things have changed a lot now but I still wear the white shirt with short sleeves every day: it’s like a uniform and means I’m always dressed ready for court.
“One of the only times I wasn’t dressed for court was because I had my arm twisted into a ‘dress down Friday’ about 15 years ago, and at two o’clock the phone rang – a judge called me to attend court in Ipswich right away. I had to go in and apologise for my jumper and jeans, but the judge said ‘you’re the last person that needs to worry about that, Mr Howard’.”
Robert was preceded on that day by his years of hard work, his reputation and his candour, and it wasn’t the only time. On another occasion, Robert saw his case on the court listings in Clacton was last in the order, so took a short walk along the seafront in the town to pass the morning.
Robert explains: “When I got back to the court 30 minutes later, it was completely deserted – I’d missed my case entirely. I saw the judge putting his coat on and I asked where the 20 or 30 people in the court had gone. ‘Oh I got rid of those in no time’, he said.
“Luckily, the defendant didn’t turn up and the judge and I had to go back to Ipswich – he didn’t want to get the train, so I gave him a lift and we did the case in the car. The moral of the story is: never leave the court!”
Ted Glasgow was a mentor to Robert in his early days, even helping him look the part on a wet and windy day heading to court in Ipswich:
“I had a stack of paper in my hands and just as I got to the court door, a gale swelled and sent these forms flying and onto the court roof. I had to go back to Ted empty-handed. Without a grumble, Ted got another form from the drawer and started working on them again. Just as I was about to go back to court, he gave me a five-pound note and told me to go and buy a briefcase. He wouldn’t let you get down or disillusioned, he was great.”
‘The person who looks like a cherub’
While the world has changed a lot in Robert’s 50 years at Birketts, large parts of his job in debt recovery have remained the same. However, two big factors have affected the industry.
Robert said: “Technology has changed the job a lot. In the old days, I would spend my whole day in court sometimes, or fielding calls from bailiffs and defendants, whereas now almost all my work can be done at my desk, over the phone and on video calls. COVID is the other big factor, which has brought on the use of the technology much faster.
“The court landscape has changed a lot too. There used to be county courts in Stowmarket, Clacton, and Woodbridge. Now the nearest county court is Norwich – even Ipswich is just a hearing centre.”
One thing that has changed is Robert’s standing in the courts, having built up his enviable reputation over the years. However, while starting out in the 70s, judges treated him a little differently.
Robert added: “On one trip to Norwich a judge, not a nice man, pointed at me and said, ‘the person that looks like a cherub – are you the press?’ I said no and discovered I was being scolded for sitting in the press box; the sign had been covered by someone’s coat. That was quite a scare at 19 or 20 years old.”
‘Thank you Robert’
His long-term service with Birketts’ means the firm’s longstanding clients have often only worked with Robert, and he has left a great impression with many of those he has worked closely with.
Greene King’s Risk and Recovery Manager, Natassja Chandler, said: “It has been a true pleasure to work with Robert over the years, providing an unwavering level of support and expertise in such a unique industry. Robert’s inimitable character will be sorely missed!”
Nicola Foley, of Essex-Based Tec Supplies, added: “Robert has been a joy to work with for more than 15 years. No matter what the problem, Robert has always been on hand to help and it goes without saying we’ve had a good few laughs on the way too! We have been very fortunate to have his expertise to rely on; we cannot thank him enough for his patience and support.
It is very sad to see him go and he certainly will be missed. On behalf of everyone at Tec Supplies, we wish him the best of luck in his retirement – now go and relax!”
Amy Jennings, speaking for the team at Headlam Group, also shared her thoughts: "Since I took over as the senior back in February, Robert has been nothing but kind and caring towards me and helping start my journey on understanding the process. With every question answered and making sure I understood everything he was explaining he made sure I really did understand. We would like to wish him all the best on his retirement and to enjoy his allotment and picking up his grandchildren from school."
Those in Birketts also wanted to share their thoughts, including Senior Partner James Austin who wished Robert well in retirement and said: “Robert has always been excellent at his job, and has always put our clients first, but he’ll be remembered most fondly as someone you could always share a joke with. A real personality, his care for colleagues and clients always shone through, so we are grateful to have had him as a part of Birketts for so long. Have a wonderful retirement.”
Partner Josh Ripman said: “Robert is a fixture of the firm and the courts of East Anglia. In Ipswich, we are sure every District Judge knows him by name – he’s a consummate professional but also one of the nicest men I’ve worked with. His charm has served him well in the world of debt recovery and all of us at Birketts who have worked with him are better for meeting him. Thank you to Robert for making Birketts a special place to work over all these years.”
Finance Director Tim Sarson said: "Well Robert, what can I say! Firstly, 50 years is beyond the call of duty. Secondly, I remember you as one of the first people I met when I joined Birketts, a friendly welcome always coming to say hello each morning (or was that to see Allison and the rest of the Accounts Team?).
"Robert, you are an incredibly positive person; kind and thoughtful and yet somehow you could get people to part with their cash, is that an art or a science? All the very best as you embark on your next chapter – here’s to the next 50 years!"
Credit Controller Ann Robinson added: “I have known Robert for the last five years and, over that time, have encountered many instances when I have had to call upon his vast knowledge and assistance. Robert never fails to bring a smile to my face no matter what the circumstances. He will be a hard act to follow and I will miss his invaluable help.”
Outside of work, Robert has two allotments he is looking forward to tending, and four grandchildren he is excited to spend more time with. He is also looking forward to spending more time playing the organ – a talent that nearly became a career when he was finishing school.
Robert said: “After the summer I think I'll be relearning all of Bach’s organ works. I have all the preludes and fugues that at one time I could play, I'm probably very rusty. I’ve played the organs in cathedrals in Coventry, Lincoln, Norwich, Canterbury and Ely, and most of the organs in Ipswich. One of the Partners heard me playing in Westerfield once, and when she saw me she said she thought it was a CD playing, which I thought was quite the compliment.”
‘Don’t go it alone’
Sharing his thoughts about Birketts and its people, Robert said: “If I had to give some advice to those starting at Birketts today, it would be ‘don’t go it alone’. Birketts is full of very lovely, very clever people. There's always someone who can help, and no question that cannot be answered. If you need help, ask for it and the people here will help you. That's where the strength is.”
The Debt Recovery Team has benefitted immensely from Robert’s support and insight over the years, and he leaves his colleagues with his hard-earned wisdom. Partner Josh Ripman will continue to lead the experienced team, including Debt Recovery Officer Heather Abbott and Assistant Caroline Nichols, as well new Debt Recovery Manager Carl Fairfull, who joined Birketts at the start of 2022. The team has also been bolstered by the addition of new technology, automating and digitising the debt recovery process for clients to reunite them with their funds faster.
Robert concluded: “At the end of the day, I still feel like an unqualified Law Clerk. I started from school, got to work the old-fashioned way and learned everything through experience. I see some people with glorious titles ahead of their names on court documents, but I’ve always put Law Clerk, because that’s what I am.
“Someone once told me I had a complete lack of ambition, staying in the same job all these years. I had a job I enjoyed, that I was good at, that I was well known in. I’ve really enjoyed it and I couldn’t disagree with them more.”