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Data is King: An Interview with Julia Warrilow, Finance and Operations Director at Thursfields Solicitors

An interview with Julia Warrilow, Financial and Operations Director at Thursfields, in partnership with Katchr.

For Julia Warrilow, Finance and Operations Director at Midlands Law Firm, Thursfields, the pandemic has highlighted the importance of having strong, accurate data to inform business planning decisions.

Before March, the firm was set on a clear growth strategy. It had a three-year plan to increase turnover from £8m to £10m, with significant investment in premises, staff, and marketing. Each year, Julia would draw up a budget, with input from partners, which performance would be monitored against. She would also do a full P&L reconciliation and report into the board at the end of every month. So far, so normal.

Post-pandemic, that has gone out of the window. She did a complete reforecast of overheads and fees. She gets weekly updates on fees and forecasts from practice heads. The uncertainty over what exactly was going to happen meant all investment was switched off. Any ‘nice to haves’ were cancelled. In terms of reporting, the focus switched to new-business-related KPIs, such as the number of incoming calls and new matters being opened, which Julia initially monitored on a daily basis.

“We’ve totally redone the financial planning, including post-Covid scenario planning that looks at four different income scenarios, ranging from awful to pretty good,” explains Julia.

These have not been projected for the full three-year business plan, only for the remainder of this financial year and the following one.

Fortunately, as restrictions have eased in certain sectors, fee levels have quickly picked up, to the extent that residential conveyancing is now double what it was at the same time last year.

Expanding the role of FD

Julia joined the 19-partner Thursfields in 2012 as financial controller, having previously worked in industry and at global law firm, Eversheds (now Eversheds Sutherland). She initially saw it as a stop-gap post, having been used to playing a more strategic role at her previous employers. After talking to Thursfields’ then MD, however, she realised they had a shared vision for expanding the influence of the finance function and its key role in driving the growth of the firm. She quickly went from finance controller to Finance Director and then Finance and Operations Director, which also covers business services, such as IT, facilities, and front of house.

“Just before the pandemic, we’d reached a place where the board were ready to push forward the next phase of our growth journey, but we were facing some passive resistance from fee-earners. With lockdown, the resistance disappeared as people realised they couldn’t carry on doing things the same old way. They needed to embrace technology and start doing things digitally, implementing technology like Thirdfort to improve processes. We’re now at a point where we want to capitalise on those good behaviours and move the business forward, so we’re actively exploring new systems and products to embed in our process,” says Julia.

Relationship building is vital if heads of finance aspire to play a broader leadership role in their firms, she believes. As her role at Thursfields has expanded, it is a belief she is used to putting into action. She speaks to partners regularly, both formally and informally, and goes to great lengths to ensure she understands their priorities and concerns and gets their buy-in to the business strategy.

“If you don’t build relationships and create that engagement, you’ll struggle to get buy-in and you’ll just be seen as a ‘bean counter’. They need to understand why their budget is at the level it is, why the targets are set at that level, and so on. If you don’t bring them on that journey, you’ll face entrenched resistance; an attitude of ‘I’m doing the best I can’. But if they understand the bigger picture of income, costs, forecasts, it’s easier to demonstrate the merits of your argument around fees or personnel changes, whatever it might be,” she says.

The other vital part of the leadership equation, she says, is data. And lots of it. Law firm leadership, especially in the finance function, is only as strong as the data that underlies decision-making, particularly during times of change.

Firms that have grasped this already, whether in the past few months or further back, will be in a better position to emerge out of the pandemic stronger in terms of their financial management and strategic planning.

“For some firms, these changes have been forced on them, but hopefully those finance directors that didn’t have buy-in from the top table will now have that support. Law firm leaders will also realise that the only way you can run anything is by data. Not only in the finance function, but across the firm. Data allows you to make better decisions and more educated financial plans. It underpins your strategies and processes. And it can make sure you are better prepared for future challenges. It’s definitely the biggest learning point to come out of this situation,” says Julia.

Three Key Takeaways

1. Make the best of a bad situation

Use the current situation to demonstrate the benefits of doing things differently, whether it’s changing the management structure or embracing technology.

2. Build influence

Becoming a strategic leader in your firm means expanding your influence outside the finance team.

3. Dive into your data

Better data means better, faster and more robust decisions, which can make all the difference during challenging times.