Diving into the Detail: An Interview with Lindsey Woodland, Finance Director at Tinsdills Solicitors in Partnership with Katchr

An interview with Lindsey Woodland, Finance Director at Tinsdills Solicitors in partnership with Katchr.

“The first bit of planning I had to do after lockdown was to throw all our existing plans in the bin and start again!” recalls Lindsey Woodland, Finance Director at Tinsdills Solicitors.

The firm, which has 13 directors and offices in Staffordshire and Cheshire, was in the midst of planning for its new financial year, beginning at the end of April. The planning process at that point was typical of many firms of a similar size, based around fee budgets and cashflow forecasts.

“It was quite rudimentary,” says Lindsey, who leads a finance team of four, previously five, staff. “We would approach all the department heads and ask them to forecast their revenue for the next 12 months. We’d look at what they achieved during the previous 12 months, any changes to their team or capabilities, and agree a target for the coming year. We’d do that for every department and then use it to build a firm-wide fee budget. We’d then go through a similar process for costs. We were halfway through that process, but it was all binned within a few hours,” she says.

Creating a ‘corona forecast’

In its place, Lindsey drew up what she calls her ‘corona forecast’, initially for the six months from April to September. Fee estimates were colour-coded green for the first two months, amber for the next two and red for the final two, indicating the degree of certainty in the estimates. These would be fed into a cashflow forecast. In addition, she developed a simple modelling tool that enabled her to calculate, for every member of staff, the financial impact of them staying, leaving or being furloughed. She also built a month-by-month fee budget for each fee earner.

“These tools have proved incredibly useful and we will continue to use them going forward. It means we’ve got a virtually real-time cash flow planner. In the past, I would have done my cashflow forecast at the beginning of the year and just explained the variances on a monthly basis. Whereas now, each month we are keying in the actual fees and costs and replacing them month on month, so we’ve constantly got an up-to date picture of our cash flow,” says Lindsey.

This has provided a more secure foundation for planning ahead as the firm moves through uncharted territory.

Creating these tools – largely in Microsoft Excel – to provide this ‘live’, granular information was a task that Lindsey undertook herself during the first few hectic weeks of lockdown. The primary focus of the department heads was to make sure their departments were able to continue working remotely. But once that was done, Lindsey knew that expectations on the finance function would be high as the firm – one-third of whose income comes from conveyancing – planned its survival strategy for the months to come.

The more data-driven, rolling forecast planning approach implemented since lockdown is one she expects to continue as things return to normal. It is something she has done in previous roles in much larger organisations, but there has never been a need for it at Tinsdills, a very stable business employing around 100 people. The pandemic, however, has demonstrated the longer-term value of such an approach.

“Next year, I expect we will keep our whole year budget, but at the same time, we will also run forecasts. So instead of having the two columns in the spreadsheet, actual versus budget, we will add a third column, forecast. It will enable us to see, this is what we thought at the beginning of the year, this is what it is, and because of this, this is what we’re now forecasting,” she explains.

Adapting to new ways of working

As well as transforming Tinsdills’ approach to planning, the pandemic and the subsequent move to a remote working environment also brought changes to established ways of working. Most notably in terms of cash handling.

Immediately prior to lockdown, the firm had moved all its payments online, replacing a mixture of cheques and physical payments via a card terminal in the office. It was a move she had been advocating for some time, and the decision was justified immediately as restrictions around lockdown came into effect.

She believes that many firms – and their stakeholders – become wedded to a certain way of doing things because that’s the way it has always been done. Whereas in reality, there are much more efficient and effective ways to achieve the same objective. For example, after moving to online payments, the firm’s auditor raised a query about the fact there was no longer a signed payment authorisation for each payment. It’s typical of some of the ingrained processes and attitudes common in many law firms – and many finance functions – that have been swept away by the pandemic.

“I had to point out that, while there might not be a signature, the person needed to log on to the bank’s payment system, log on to a PINsentry machine, input the login number, then a password, then a one-time password. Surely that is more secure and more traceable than a piece of paper with a signature, which more often than not is little more than a squiggle?” she says.

Three Key Takeaways

1. Be ruthless

Lindsay helped to keep the firm on track by quickly ditching her just-completed planning and starting all over again.

2. Update your data as often as possible

The more up-to-date the data is, the more accurate a picture it can provide of your current –and potentially future -performance.

3. Prioritise the outcome, not the process

Don’t be afraid to change the process if it helps you achieve the outcome more effectively or efficiently.

Read the full report with Katchr here.