Amanya builds successful law firm against all odds

Claire Amanya Rukundo Kakeeto

Women are making greater strides climbing the corporate ladder than gaining partnership at law firms.

There are still few law firms whose managing partners are females. Something unusual happens to most women after they begin to climb into the upper tiers of law firms. They disappear into civil service, politics, civil society or join big corporations as corporate secretaries.

But one woman has stood her ground to steer her firm to heights. CLAIRE AMANYA RUKUNDO KAKEETO is a managing partner of CR Amanya Advocates and Solicitors, a law firm that made four years this month, amidst insurmountable hurdles involved in women’s legal careers, writes Patricia Birungi.

She isn’t a new face to many. In 2001, Amanya graced newspaper headlines as the best arts student in A-level. Since then, she has never relaxed. Hard work has gotten her where she is today. Her office on CRAA house at plot 118 Bukoto street, Kamwokya, is evidence to this, with stacks of legal documents sprout like small chimneys on her desk, some piled in her drawer.

Wednesday is one of those busy days for the 33-year-old – where she only manages to squeeze some little time to talk to me. Dressed in a black suit showing a little of her white blouse, Amanya occasionally allows a knowing, engaging grin to wrap itself around her sentences as she shares how she has managed to get this far.

“I am glad to have made four years this month. I must say it has not been an easy ride. I was not sure of what to expect,” she says with that winning smile on her face.

“I asked myself a bunch of questions because I was afraid to fail even before I actually tried. In fact, I knew nothing could work because I kept telling myself:  ‘Am I on the right track, what exactly do I need to do, where and who should I talk to, do I need to change a few things. So much crossed my mind before I started this firm.”

Her love to empower women to succeed has seen the mother of one employ 13 females of the 15 employees, though she is quick to note that it is just a coincidence.

“I didn’t intend it. I do not take sides. I believe we can all be better at what we do given the chance,” she says.

Born in a family of seven to Serapio Rukundo (former tourism minister) and Fredian Rukundo, Amanya went to Namagunga Junior for P1 to P4 before joining Nkumba primary school where she did her primary leaving examinations.

Due to ‘not-so-good performance’, she missed her dream school, Mt St Mary’s College, Namagunga, ending up at Uganda Martyrs, Namugongo for O-level. Like bad luck haunting her, she still didn’t do well in senior four, which almost crushed her. 

“I had really given it my best, so I got discouraged, and felt so heartbroken,” she recalls.

She couldn’t still make it to her dream school, leaving her with no choice but go back to Namugongo, where her father would use his influence to have her admitted for A-level, though she wasn’t happy about the whole idea.

“I was embarrassed of what people would say about my results,” she says.

Claire Amanya Rukundo Kakeeto in office

While in A-level, Amanya set herself a tough task – to prove her critics wrong – that she is a bright child.

“I was determined what come may to make it. So, right from day one, I read hard. I attended discussions, befriended teachers that I would keep consulting, and read even after preps. It was normally called extension,” she says.

“I had promised myself to read until my head explodes. I was done being the laughing stock. So, I kept reading everything, even stuff that was not connected to my study program until one day the head teacher, then  John Chrysestom Muyingo, got concerned and summoned my parents, worried that I am pushing myself so hard; it may cause harm.”

But even after she was counselled about the dangers of straining the body and brain, Amanya didn’t backslide on her resolve. Months down the road, while working at a mini supermarket at Shell Bwaise during her S6 vacation, her efforts paid off when a stranger walked to her to inquire if she was Amanya.

She nodded in approval, only for the man to begin taking her photos. So concerned, she demanded to know what was going on. It is then that the man, who was a journalist with The New Vision, broke the news to her that she was the best arts student in the country.

“Words cannot explain my reaction at the time. I was beyond excitement and happiness. I recall screaming and crying out, thanking the Lord; it was a miracle I will never forget in the year 2001,” she says.

This opened doors for her to apply for the interuniversity scholarship in Dar es Salaam University, which she scooped. It is here that she did her bachelor’s degree in Law, still emerging the best female student in the university. She then returned to Uganda to do a diploma at the Law Development Centre (LDC).

“Life at LDC was not that good. Some looked down on me, saying I didn’t have what it takes to be there,” she says.

This triggered the madness in her to read harder, and left the rest to God. She then proceeded to do her internship at a top law firm in town – where everyone thought she was a good-for-nothing little beauty, only there to waste time.

“Even with all my hard work, no one noticed my potential, and it reached a time I started doubting my ability,” she says.

Frustrated, she first put her legal career aside to join Crestanks’ marketing department.

“We would walk from house to house, knocking on people’s gates advertising for tanks,” she says.

But while here, the LDC results came out and she still emerged the best student in her class.

“I don’t know how things kept happening but it was then that I realised no one had the right to distract me from what I was meant to do,” she says.

With support from her husband, Julius Kakeeto, the chief executive officer of Orient bank, she left for UK to pursue a master’s degree in Law at University College London (UCL) and attained a Grad ICSA (Institute of Chartered Secretaries and Administrators) in addition.

When she came back in 2009, Amanya started working with Kampala Associated Advocates (KAA). It is while there that she in 2011 got a private deal to represent the Kampala Capital City Authority (KCCA) executive director Jennifer Musisi in a case where the Lord Mayor Erias Lukwago demanded court to pronounce itself on which office is superior at KCCA.

Lukwago’s case was dismissed. Amanya says that this case where she offered free services to Musisi acted as a stepping stone for her to start her law firm in 2012, and she has never looked back.

“Most times, we, especially the women, do not know our full potential. We are so naïve and good-hearted; we tend to think everyone is out to help us, not putting in mind that some people use us as a stepping stone to achieve their own success,” she notes as she frowns in disappointment.

“As a child, my parents taught me to always aim high and do my best. That is why I train my staff for international standards since I have worked in the UK and Tanzania. Tried is not good enough for me.”

Amanya has carved out her niche as a commercial lawyer, working with mainly businesspeople. The firm also does probono services every Friday at Holy Trinity Catholic church in Kamwokya – where Amanya is a church member and notes that she pays tithe.

She has earned ample plaudits from peers outside and she has been nominated as Africa’s most influential woman in business and government in the South Africa’s Women in Business awards.

© 2016 Observer Media Ltd