A career in Legal Finance Systems part 2 (HOW!)
NEW BALANCE BLOG:
A career in Legal Finance Systems pt 2 (HOW!)
One thing to highlight is that patience is required. Career planning takes time, and if you’re committed to the end goal of moving in to a finance systems team, you’ll need to bear in mind that it may still be two career moves away at this stage.
First of all, let’s look at the current population working within finance systems in the legal sector and their career backgrounds before moving in to this area. I’ve met many, many individuals in this field over the last 12 years, and would suggest the following as crude estimate:
65% from a prior role within a ‘legal accounts’ function. More than half of these (maybe as high as 70%?) from transactional, non-qualified positions such as billing, revenue control, cashiering and increasingly eBilling, the rest from accounting/financial reporting positions, some qualified accountants, some not.
15% from an IT/technical background. The majority of these will have started a career within an IT team, developing strong SQL/report development experience, and over time grown their knowledge of finance through creating financial reports and supporting finance systems colleagues.
10% from software business and financial systems vendors. Typically internal support/development consultants who decide to take a step out in to the client-side market.
5% directly in to finance systems. Whilst not exclusively a new occurrence, this has been rare, but we have seen recent growth in the number of firms hiring at graduate/apprentice level directly in to junior level finance systems roles (would love to see more of this happening!).
5% individuals with finance systems experience of varying levels from outside of the legal sector. Mostly from other professional services industries, but some from outside of partnership, time-billing environments (my money is on this share growing the most over the next 5 years).
For this article, I’m just going to focus on the majority - those currently within an accounting position in the legal sector who want to make the move.
Firstly, the easiest way for you to make the move is by doing it internally. If you have proven to be a reliable, hardworking individual, your employer should be reluctant to lose you. Use your appraisals to express your interest in getting involved with some finance systems based tasks. Are there any opportunities arising? Are there any projects you could get involved with? Upgrades and implementations often require testing periods – is this something you can get involved in? Could you do some work shadowing if you have completed your current tasks?
Get to know your colleagues working in the finance systems team and let them know of your interest (buy them a coffee/beer/glass of wine – they do a lot of socialising, believe me). Familiarise yourself with what they are actually doing on a day-to-day basis. Ask them, and read relevant job descriptions and vacancy adverts online – even those that may be well above your pay grade. Is there anything listed in the responsibilities that you might be able to get involved in?
If there isn’t a systems team where you work currently, you would be wise to move a bigger firm where there is, even if that’s a sideways step maintaining your current responsibilities, but before you do move, who does handle finance systems maintenance and development where you are currently, the Finance Controller? A member of the IT team? They might welcome your interest, and if you can get some exposure through them, stay put and take advantage.
But what if you’re asking all the right questions, and there just isn’t the requirement internally for you to get involved in some finance systems work and no opportunities are opening up? Then you need to become a more attractive proposition to a Finance Systems Manager elsewhere who might be hiring. So what do they want to see?:
Broad accounting knowledge. If your career to date has only been in one area of transactional accounting (e.g. cashiering or billing), try to gain more experience in other areas, even if it’s just providing extra help at month end. A greater understanding of the processes other finance systems users follow is extremely useful knowledge for when you make the move.
Knowledge of a well-known finance system. The majority of finance systems positions that arise in the legal sector will require knowledge of Elite 3E, Elite Enterprise, and Aderant Expert. If you don’t have experience of these, it may be sensible to make a move to a firm which uses one of them.
Develop your Excel skills. Whilst you might not have the opportunity to practice more complex functions in your daily work, if you’re going to make it in finance systems, you should already be displaying an interest and curiosity in learning new technical skills and systems, and should know your way around a spreadsheet beyond the basics.
Develop your SQL skills. Increasingly a prerequisite on job descriptions for finance systems vacancies, knowledge of SQL is a great differentiator to stand out from your peers. Whilst you may only be able to gain theoretical knowledge at this stage, it again displays that you are committed to learning. Online training courses are easy to find and reasonably priced.
Accuracy and systems compliance. Would your current manager give positive feedback on your systems usage and compliance if they were asked to provide a reference? Do they see you as the “go to” person for systems queries in your team? Do they trust you to show new hires how to navigate systems effectively? If the answer is no, you have some work to do!
eBilling knowledge. If you’re a Legal Biller, a well-trodden path in to finance systems in recent years is through eBilling – is there an opportunity to take ownership of eBilling processes within your firm? If you can progress from the processing of ebills to implementation of new eBilling clients and understanding/manipulating file formats, you’ll be half way there already.
It’s not easy, and it may take some time, but there are steps you can take to move yourself closer which will get noticed. I’m sure there will be some more valuable suggestions, and would love to have some comments from seasoned legal finance systems professionals below with any further advice you could offer…
p.s. another good suggestion is to get in touch with a highly reputable recruiter (ahem) who has been placing finance systems professionals in the legal sector for many years, including a great deal in lead/managerial positions.
By Richard Hooper.