Laying down the law in south London

Having taken on what must surely be one of the worst jobs in the UK, Barrister Heather Rabbatts may now have to turn down one of the best.

Assuming the £115,000 chief executive position at Lambeth in 1995, Rabbatts began her fight to change the face of a local council with a rotten image and a rotten heart.

Corruption was so rife in south London's notorious Lambeth Borough Council that one exasperated manager employed to root it out left saying instituting change at Lambeth was like trying to turn a supertanker around with a paddle.

Yet Rabbatts' arrival saw her embark on a clearout of incompetent staff, identify the corrupt element, and be dubbed the "Town Hall Terminator" by admiring national newspapers in the process. She also helped to reduce the community's sizeable council tax bill.

Her success caught the attention of British Gas off-shoot Centrica who offered her a three-year £60,000 deal as a part-time non-executive director. In response, Rabbatts has offered to donate all of her Centrica salary to charity and carry out the work in her own time.

But councillors remain unconvinced and have yet to approve the move, saying she should concentrate on the tasks that they put in her hands.

Rabbatts is cautious and diplomatic in talking about the delicate situation, although she does not disagree entirely with the suggestion that the Centrica affair is exactly why so many lawyers spurn working in the public sector.

Despite this minor point of conflict, Rabbatts has thrived in the public sector. The old boys network present at the Bar in the early 1980s failed to make the young lawyer with a Jamaican heritage feel welcome.

And while she gained wide experience of public law and represented some of the woman who protested against nuclear weapons at Greenham Common, Rabbatts never joined a chambers.

In 1984, she spurned the legal community and joined the Local Government Information Unit.

She then rose rapidly through the local government ranks – before taking the Lambeth role, she was already chief executive at neighbouring Merton Council.

Legal training, says Rabbatts, has helped her assimilate the mass of information that goes with working in councils. It has helped her think on her feet, consider different concepts and ideas simultaneously and given her good communication skills.

Although Rabbatts claims to know many lawyers who, after 20 years in the profession, are desperate for a change and want to use their skills in a different way, she warns that local government may not be the right choice for everyone.

"If you are someone who enjoys drafting opinions, then being out there dealing with tenants, meeting with young people on a daily basis, may not be for you," she says.

For Rabbatts, however, it appears the ideal vocation. She talks of the need to introduce better standards of education, housing and services to the socially troubled local community with an almost missionary zeal.

"It's vitally important to make a difference early on. The more preventative work you can do the better," she says.

The singular nature of the legal profession was not to Rabbatts liking. "The thing I found most frustrating with law was that you are dealing with cases on an individual basis," she says.

Although preferring to work with a community rather than a client, according to the press clippings at least, Rabbatts is still part prosecutor rooting out corruption, part defender of those in her community.

But does she miss the law? Most definitely not, she says. Rabbatts says she enjoys what she describes as turning crises into opportunities.

Even if that means opportunities to develop her own career in the private sector remain in the hands of local government politicians.