3M’s Fahim Rahman: No magic to being an international employment lawyer
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Fahim Rahman
John van der Luit-Drummond is editor of International Employment Lawyer

“It's a real shame. You talk about Jean-Marc Bosman, now, to a new generation of football fans and very few know who he is. But people of my age, we all know who Bosman is because he changed the football landscape.” Learning the ins and outs of the famous Bosman ruling was the catalyst for Fahim Rahman pursuing a career in law. But how did Fahim go from aspiring sports lawyer to the lead employment and labour counsel for EMEA at 3M, the multibillion-dollar international science-based technology company with a workforce approaching 95,000?

Hailing from East London, Fahim spent three years studying law at the London School of Economics – chosen as he “got to stay at home, and my student loan wouldn’t be nearly as big” – before bagging a prestigious training contract at Allen & Overy in 2004. “I’m not someone from a background that could’ve afforded to put myself through law school, so I was fortunate there were firms interested in me. A&O was a good opportunity to train at a gold-standard firm, but also for my law school education to be funded.”

Six-month-stints in the magic circle firm’s London banking and corporate, as well as its Milan commercial practices, gave Fahim a solid grounding in the workings of a major international law firm. Yet it was his three months (and one additional week) in A&O’s employment team that left the most significant mark on the aspiring lawyer. “I worked on one case, right from the beginning through to the tribunal. During that seat, I couldn’t have told you what needed to go into an employment contract or what a compromise agreement was because I didn’t know. But if you asked me anything about that one particular case, well, it was one of the most high-profile, sexual-orientation discrimination cases in the UK and because of the facts, the client, it just got my juices flowing. It was all I did, day in and day out.”

Fahim credits this case, building upon his earlier interest in the employment implications of Bosman, as the decisive factor in his decision to specialise in employment law. “Employment law isn’t so abstract. You’re not talking about derivatives or some product that is alien to the average person, which I consider myself to be. What I found with employment law was, whether you’re acting for the respondent or the individual, there’s always a human element. And whatever the variety of work you’d be doing, whether it’s maternity, paternity, grievance, disciplinary, performance, or restructuring, you’re talking about human beings.”

The part of private practice I disliked most was being a salesman

Despite his burgeoning passion for the practice, there was no place available in A&O’s employment and pensions team when Fahim qualified in 2006. Taking a spot in the firm’s finance practice instead, he searched for opportunities elsewhere, eventually finding a position in White & Case’s employment group. A year-and-a-half later, however, A&O changed its mind. “A&O was on the other side of a deal I was on. I think I impressed my former partner enough for him to headhunt me back to the firm. That was a really big deal for me because most of my 60-strong cohort group was still at A&O. It just confirmed to me that I was able and competent enough to do the job there. It was difficult to leave White & Case but, in some ways, it was an easy decision to go back to A&O. It was my home.”

Five-and-a-half years later, Fahim took the next big step in his career, when he left A&O for the second time. However, his destination was not another competitor firm but an in-house legal department. “The part of private practice I disliked most was being a salesman. I like learning about my clients and stakeholders, but that’s really difficult when you’re a very expensive lawyer charging by six-minute units and under pressure to bill a certain number of hours each year. So I realised my long-term career would be in-house. It was just about finding the right company.”

Time was of the essence, however, as Fahim realised that the longer he stayed at A&O, the more limited his options would be. “Most of A&O’s clients are in the financial services sector, and I didn’t want to move to a bank or a hedge fund for the same reasons I wanted to move out of A&O; I wanted something real to life.” Enter KCI, a global woundcare management company headquartered in the US but with an employee footprint in over 21 jurisdictions, and a client Fahim had fought for at A&O. “In 2014 they were looking to replace their international employment lawyer, who was then based in the Netherlands; she put in a really good word for me and a month later I found myself as the international employment lawyer for KCI.”

Adding internal value

The transition from private practice to in-house is not always an easy one. For Fahim, it was important to figure out what KCI needed him to be. “When interviewing for any in-house job, the first question every lawyer gets asked is: ‘why do you want to move in-house?’ The standard answer is: ‘I want to be more commercial’. It's a nice soundbite, but I had to learn pretty quick what that actually meant. The first lesson I learned was that, to say ‘no’ – to block something – you have to have a really strong reason to do so. Whatever the request from the business, if you want to be trusted and respected as a business facilitator, rather than a blocker, you need to be able to say, ‘Yes, but’, which is infinitely better than a, ‘No, you can't do that’.

“The second lesson was that employment law – as important as it is – isn't going to be the driver behind the business. If the HR team has questions, the only value I can provide them is sound business advice. There’s no longer pure employment, or black or white, 10-page memos. It is commercial advice on how to get from A to B.”

Another issue some former private practice lawyers have been known to struggle with is the realisation that, with effectively only one client, they are no longer blessed with the variation of work seen within a law firm environment. Fahim doesn’t see things that way. “Not any one day is the same. I could be firefighting an issue in France today. Tomorrow it could be the Middle East. It could be a new hire, a termination, or a post-termination restriction. The variety comes from the sheer geography and spectrum of issues that one can have.

“I also view every internal stakeholder as a potential client, because if they don’t come back, I don’t add any value. And if I’m not adding value, I’m a cost. In private practice, you are a value because you are generating fees. To my organisation, I have to justify how much it costs to employ me, and I take this view at work every single day. One of the biggest skills I’ve learned is to develop relationships because people will work better with people they like, respect, and value.”

To complement 3M’s global healthcare business, in October 2019, 3M completed the acquisition of the Acelity group comprising all of the KCI business for $6.7bn. It remains 3M’s largest-ever acquisition to date, but despite being involved in the early stages of the sale – preparing due diligence materials on KCI’s international workforce – Fahim was quietly worried for his future. “Like every department, there was some concern that we in legal were a support function and what 3M was actually buying were the products and the people who sold or manufactured them. How wrong was I?”

In January 2020, just as Fahim started contemplating another move, 3M approached him with an ambitious proposal to restructure the employment law counsel function across the company’s EMEA operations. Fahim was earmarked for the new role of lead labour and employment counsel for EMEA, and would also act as a pathfinder for similar roles to be launched across China, Asia-Pacific, and Latin America. “They were looking at having one lead L&E counsel for all of EMEA, where previously there had been seven labour lawyers and GCs – one for each region. I was asked to take on this brand new role, to help create, shape, and develop it. I was given a blank canvas which was an exciting opportunity and the biggest compliment in my abilities, so I jumped at it.”

3M has an impressive onboarding procedure, according to Fahim, with new and assimilated hires flown out to the company’s Saint Paul, Minnesota campus every year to help them acclimatise to and understand the culture of their new employer. Unfortunately, this was not an experience Fahim could appreciate as the US, along with the rest of the globe, found itself in the grips of the coronavirus pandemic shortly after he accepted his new role.

As 3Mers got used to working from home in the middle of a global lockdown, Fahim – already well versed in remote working after fours years permanently working from home at KCI – hit the ground running. And he needed to. With almost 95,000 employees worldwide – more than 22,000 in EMEA – 3M quickly needed answers to various legal and business questions as the pandemic took hold. Questions like: what are the furlough requirements in the 40-plus countries 3M has employee operations in; ongoing restructuring projects; the continuing integration of KCI; and the labour and employment aspects of specific ongoing deals, outsourcings, and re-tenderings.

“Then there’s the day-to-day issues, which are infinitely harder when you’re not in an office dealing with your stakeholders and colleagues,” says Fahim. “It has been tough for everyone, but 3M is nothing if not robust and they pride themselves on recruiting and retaining good people.”

Fahim credits Brett Strand, vice president and associate general counsel at 3M (and his predecessor Deidre Rehfeld, who has since been appointed to an HR leadership position within the company), with creating an environment where the global employment and labour law team is trusted to work independently rather than being micromanaged from the company’s Minnesota headquarters. “Brett has shown so much faith in me in terms of trusting my expertise and judgement. He’s six hours behind me, so there has to be that element of trust in how I’m progressing matters. I genuinely feel I am somewhere I can lay down some roots and that I have 3M’s trust and respect to build my role without treading on too many toes. I also have a great relationship with 3M’s pre-existing in-region labour and employment lawyers, and they’ve been nothing but supportive of me coming in fresh from an acquisition during a pandemic.”

3M’s global headquarters in Saint Paul, Minnesota. Image credit: 3M

Work as a passion

The pandemic is widely credited with giving a shot in the arm to the movement for greater wellbeing at work. But how easy is it to implement and enforce a wellbeing policy in an organisation the size of 3M which is also at the forefront of the fight against covid-19? With the demand for personal protective equipment for healthcare workers, first responders, and essential workers at times far exceeding supply, 3M’s plants were kept running around the clock worldwide to manufacture two billion respirators globally – tripling production on the previous year – with more than 95 million produced each month in the US alone at the height of the crisis in 2020. Outside the company’s manufacturing facilities, there is also increased work and pressure on 3M’s support functions, including legal.

“We’re doing a lot for employee wellbeing,” says Fahim. “There’s the ability to speak confidentially to people externally and workloads are being managed accordingly, probably more so than if someone was physically in an office because everybody is now acutely aware of employee wellbeing as an issue itself. I don’t think any organisation can rest on its laurels and say, ‘We do enough’, especially with what we’ve all just been through in the last 12 to 15 months. But, if I was on the outside, I’d look at 3M and think, ‘Actually, they’re a benchmark’.”

Now responsible for 3M’s employment and labour concerns across the whole of EMEA, how does Fahim manage the pressure of the role and his own wellbeing? “Well, first, my work is important but no more important than anybody else’s at 3M. It’s also not so important that it should take over my life. It’s very easy when working from home to work from breakfast until right before you go to bed. If you think about it, it’s actually more difficult to adapt to a lifestyle that is more conducive to going into the office. So the commute; the dressing up so you’re in work mode; the regular breaks you unconsciously have in the office; you might go to the gym; you might walk to a local coffee shop. All of that is gone.”

For Fahim, it is important to proactively build non-working intervals into your working day. “The school run is my commute to work, and when I come home, I’m at work. More often than not, I get into work attire because, again, that helps me get into work mode. I tend to try and have intervals where, instead of seeing work colleagues, I see my wife and my two young children just downstairs, or the neighbours, or I’ll go out to the local coffee shop.”

3M has fostered a positive and inclusive environment where we treat our employees as adults

Again, Fahim credits his manager for explicitly trusting his team to manage their working times and recognise when and where an issue is of the utmost urgency. “If there’s a late-night e-mail that I don’t respond to straight away, he knows it’s because it’s my time, and he trusts I’ll respond as and when appropriate and needed. Also, the pandemic has shown us that work cannot be the be-all and end-all of one’s life. It’s been reaffirmed for me to see work as something we do as a passion because not only does it pays the bills, but there are other factors, too – we’re good at it, we want to get better at something, and because we like the people we work with and the work itself.”

With remote working predicted to continue post-pandemic, the virtual monitoring of workers is a hot-button topic for many employers. But while some companies may be wary of their employees pulling their weight from home, Fahim says this is not an issue at 3M. In the summer of 2020, 3M launched FlexAbility 2.0, a global initiative that, subject to applicable local law implementation, shall allow employees outside of the company’s manufacturing roles to work more flexibly on a more regular basis going forward.

“We’re empowering our employees with this new policy and seeing the benefit and value from our employees as a result,” says Fahim. “Employee surveillance has not been, to date, a hot topic for 3M, not least because it is an organisation that prides itself on trust and respect. As a business, we are in a competitive market. We manufacture a tonne of stuff across our four business groups, from digital stethoscopes and surgical face masks to Post-it Notes. Each business group could be a standalone organisation. So, within each business, we’ve had far more pressing issues than whether we trust our staff. Over the years, 3M has fostered a positive and inclusive environment where we treat our employees as adults, working with them, relying on them, and trusting them.”

Asked what, if anything, keeps him up at night, Fahim replies: “The most genuine answer I can give is that there has been very little at 3M that’s kept me up because I love the job. However, as an employee, I guess the most difficult part of my job is multi-jurisdictional collective restructuring work. It’s sad from a human perspective and logistically difficult because each country will have some form of required notification or consultation process. And it really is then about managing expectations of the project manager/business leader in terms of processes to implement and timescales involved.”

Managing internal stakeholder expectations is undoubtedly easier for in-house counsel when they have clear external advice to refer to. So what tips would Fahim give to private practice lawyers looking to hone their client advice? “As in-house counsel, we’re all different, but I have to say, my current outside counsel has got my particular style down to a tee,” he replies. “They also know that if they digress from it, I will pull them up on it because they’re a service provider and I’m paying for a service, where 3M money is my money. What I want is easily digestible, country comparable advice. What we don’t want is advice that looks like it’s been written by three different lawyers, in three different countries, and in three different languages. It’s better for it to be sanitised by, for example, the UK lawyer who’s coordinating the advice. That is a value-add for me because it saves time and effort when I do my first review – making my life infinitely easier. For me, the ultimate aim of a private practice lawyer should be to make their client, the in-house counsel, look good!”

Equality beyond lip service

In his free time, Fahim mentors the next generation of aspiring lawyers from disadvantaged backgrounds and communities, and it is easy to see that his passion for employment law is only matched by his advocacy for equality, diversity, and inclusion in the legal sector. “The legal profession still has a problem with being elitist, which makes it much more challenging for those from certain backgrounds, sexual orientations, or genders to succeed. It’s not equal, and as a father to two young girls, that is more important to me than being an employment lawyer.

“A big part of my life is to try to give my two daughters a better world than the one I had and for us not to go backward. That involves a fight, every single day, even whether you know it or not. It’s a fight to get a seat at the table. If we believe, unequivocally, in a world of equality, it doesn’t matter whether you are Black, White, Muslim, disabled, female, pregnant, old, or young. For me, that’s my fight, to make sure that things are more equal for the next generation. You only have to look at the recent European Championships, and the vile racist abuse that the three brave and talented young men faced on social media in the aftermath of England’s disappointing penalty shootout loss to Italy, to see that we still have much work to do as a society.

“In the legal profession, we can pay lip service to equality. I see students from certain universities that don’t know what internships or vacation schemes are until they’ve completed their degree, while big law firms only appear to target certain universities. But that fosters a repetitive cycle of privileged young people entering this profession and closing the door on many talented individuals. For me, if someone has the talent and desire to do well, it’s our responsibility to help push them on. Then we can pass the baton onto them to do the same for the next generation.”

Indeed, 3M was among the first 45 legal departments to support the then newly launched Mansfield Rule in 2018, it has also launched a number of initiatives following the murder of George Floyd by former Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin in 2020 in Minnesota where 3M is headquartered. “Being headquartered in Minnesota, George Floyd’s death struck a massive chord with senior leadership and also the organisation more generally,” says Fahim. “It really opened our eyes and we recognised that, as an organisation, we weren’t doing enough. 3M is working to make sure the next generation of employees don’t just accept what they’re told: that you have to come from a certain university or have a certain background to achieve certain things. That is one barrier that, as an organisation, we actively denounce and when we look to promote mechanisms and provisions that will facilitate others in inclusion globally.”

Ask any lawyer of any stripe what their proudest career moment is and they will most likely highlight a particularly challenging but ultimately successful deal or dispute they worked on. Not so Fahim. “My proudest moment is actually the realisation I could be an in-house employment lawyer, and a pretty decent one at that, getting over the imposter syndrome that we all now hear and read about. There was a real fear I was jumping into the unknown in 2014. I’d had the security of a 20-plus strong team at A&O. It was a safety blanket. Then, all of a sudden, I’m out on my own in an organisation relying on me for international employment advice in countries outside the one I qualified in.

“But, within a few months, the penny dropped. Nobody expected me to be an expert in employment law in Switzerland, Austria, Kazakhstan, or Morocco, but they did expect me to have a basic understanding of what the key questions, timeframes, and the dos and don’ts of a situation might be. There’s no magic to being an international employment lawyer, other than knowing what questions to ask, what to prompt, and what could be the obstacles to achieving B from a starting point of A – that’s the art of being a good international employment lawyer. That, and having a really great network of existing in-house labour counsel across all of my jurisdiction. That’s it, it can’t be any simpler than that.”