Firm hopes internal transparency will tighten lock-up

SJ Berwin’s debtor days for the end of 2011-12 rose marginally compared with 2010-11, from 88 to 90, while work in progress (WIP) for the year-end dropped from 62 to 55. The firm’s financial management story is mixed, but it is trying.

The firm rolled out a financial hygiene regime six months ago in a bid to improve WIP and lock-up. The secret: making information more widely known to partners.

Under the previous system partners were left somewhat in the dark: the only members issued with clear data about financial performance were a cabal comprising the top management team of managing partner Rob Day and then-senior partner Jonathan Blake, so-called ‘finance partner’ Craig Pollack (who is actually a litigator, to confuse things) and the finance representatives of each of the five practice groups of corporate, finance, litigation, real estate and EU and competition.

The group – responsible for nagging partners who refused to pull their financial management weight – were issued with a helpful overview that crunched the numbers down to bite-size.

SJB chart

But this year SJ Berwin tried something truly radical: it decided to give everyone in the partnership access to this data including, dare one say it, practice heads who, remarkably, were not previously included in the elite team of number-crunchers. Instead, muggles had been given an unfathomable 30-page spreadsheet.

Day’s analysis is sensible: the firm launched in 1982 as a start-up where everyone know what was going on and corporate communications were unnecessary. This has changed, with the £180.1m business now engaging 150 partners worldwide.

The increase in debtor days points to a marginal drop in the quality of financial management at the firm, but Day claims the issue in play is variability of this across the year – it should be constant, not up and down – rather than the final figure at the end of April.

The firm has upgraded its financial management software to help get a grip on the matter, but the task of getting partners into line continues.

Joshua Freedman