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Building Influence in the Boardroom: An Interview with Tim Sarson, Finance Director at Birketts LLP

An interview with Tim Sarson, Finance Director at Birketts LLP, in partnership with Katchr.

Top 75 UK law firm Birketts has seen its income almost quadrupled over the past 12 years, from around £15m when FD, Tim Sarson joined in 2009 to over £58m in 2019/2020.

During that time, it has grown to 750 employees, 70 partners and five offices – four in East Anglia and a recent merger with a specialist insurance law firm in London.

As FD, Sarson heads a finance function of 20 people, including 11 that handle client funds. Although an integral member of the senior management team, he is not a partner in the firm. A situation which could have the potential to create a certain amount of friction. The fact that it doesn’t is testimony to Tim’s ability to successfully navigate a course between authority and ownership.

“Law firms are very different from most other types of businesses. A typical owner-managed business might have three or four people with an equity stake in it. We have 70, but to allow them all to influence the day-to-day running of the business would mean it never moves forward. They have to relinquish that control – and that means you need to gain their trust,” explains Tim.

Gain the trust of partners

So how is that best achieved? Lawyers are renowned for being detail-focused and fairly conservative – it comes with the territory of the job – so possibly need more reassurance than most that the person they are relinquishing control to is not going to squander it.

At Birketts, the partners are involved in agreeing the firm’s strategy, but relatively few of them are involved in drawing it up.

On the financial side at least, Tim drives the strategy development and, together with his team, is responsible for executing it to enable the firm to achieve its objectives. Doing that, however, means earning the trust of partners and gaining their buy-in to what he’s trying to do, which in turn comes down to building influence across the firm.

“The first thing you need to do is show them you’re not just there to add up the numbers at the end of the month and pop them into a graph. You’re there to understand the business – their business – and how to make it stronger. You need to take the time to get to know the individual partners, what makes them tick, what their priorities are. Without that, you can’t build influence effectively. They will see you as a provider of useful financial information, but not as someone who can advise them and be trusted to exert influence at a more strategic level,” says Tim.

He continues: “It’s a listening game. I would be surprised if there is a quarter where I have not spoken to every partner. You need to give them time to tell you what their challenges are. Go and talk to them. Pop in for a chat rather than spending another hour on a spreadsheet. Spend time listening and understanding what their issues are. Don’t look to say ‘no’, look to say, ‘How can I help you?’”.

Shift in mindset

It requires a shift in mindset not only on the part of the FD but also on the part of the partners. That’s the big difference between a finance director and a financial controller or manager, he believes. The FD is tasked and trusted to take on that more strategic advisory role. If the firm and its partners are not ready to relinquish that control, the finance function is more likely to be led by a financial controller or manager, whose focus is on the numbers, not on wider strategy.

Getting the balance right has never been more important than during the last eight months, as firms face unprecedented pressure on their finances, particularly during the early weeks of lockdown.

The last thing lawyers wanted to be worrying about at that time was whether there was enough money to pay the bills and keep the taxman happy. They needed to focus all their energies on delivering excellent client service, winning new business, finding the best solutions for clients.

Difficult things to do at the best of times, without worrying about who’s going to pay the cleaner or which conferencing system the firm should be using.

“In a firm our size, that’s taken as read. But it may be harder for smaller firms to make that leap,” says Tim.

“It’s a shift we’ve seen at Birketts over the past seven or eight years. When I joined, the partners set the strategy and the directors implemented it. Now, the strategy is set by the management board and then approved by the partners. It’s a subtle but significant change. Once the strategy is approved, partners can focus on growing their practice, and we can focus on executing the strategy. But to do that successfully, partners need to have full trust in the management board – particularly non-partner members like the FD.”

Three Key Takeaways

1. Understand the business

To be respected as a strategic advisor, you need to show you understand the business, its challenges and its goals.

2. Make friends with your fee-earners

Make the effort to go and talk to fee earners regularly about their priorities and concerns.

3. Be a facilitator, not a blocker

Don’t just say, ‘no’, think, ‘how can I help you achieve that?’