In this article we speak to Nik Simon, from Allen & Overy Belfast. As Head of Finance, he oversees a team of 95, working with A&O’s global network of offices and clients. We find out what it’s like to work for the only Magic Circle law firm in Northern Ireland and hear how the firm has adapted during recent times and supported staff throughout the pandemic.
Tell us more about Allen & Overy Belfast and the finance function?
“A&O Belfast opened in 2011. It is the second largest office in the A&O network and we employ approximately 600 people locally. We have a Support Service Centre which delivers business services – Finance, Human Resources, IT, Marketing & Business Development, Document & Design and Library & Information - to the firm’s global network. A&O Belfast is also at the forefront of delivering legal services to clients in new and flexible ways, with proportionate lower-cost, tech enabled resourcing and end-to-end managed legal services.
“Within the Finance team we provide the full breadth of finance services; Accounts Payable, Credit Control, Billing, Management Accounting and Reporting, Financial Accounting and Tax Advice. We provide these services to our London office as well as offices across Europe, the US, Middle East and South Africa. A number of our services including eBilling, Group Reporting & Consolidation and Partner Tax Advice are global, with the teams here in Belfast working with our network of 44 offices worldwide. Every day is different as we manage clients and offices, all with competing demands.
“A&O is renowned for its innovation and within finance, it’s an ever changing work environment. We’re constantly looking to the future and we’ve embraced robotic process automation. We’re using the latest technology across several different functions within Finance, including the use of BluePrism robots to improve the eBilling process and finance reporting. We use a leading-edge financial software solution designed specifically for law firms. It enables us to manage our new business intake, billings, collections, payments and management reporting efficiently and ensures consistent processes and controls throughout the firm.”
Allen & Overy Belfast has continued to recruit during the pandemic. What do you look for in prospective employees?
“Since the opening of our Belfast office in 2011, the scope and scale of our work has increased significantly. We are very grateful that the professional services sector has performed well over the last year, compared to many other sectors, and we expect to see continued growth during 2021.
“Our people come from a range of backgrounds and disciplines but they share a number of key attributes. They are motivated, highly skilled individuals who can find innovative solutions to complex and challenging situations. They work alongside leaders in their field and support the growth of an international legal practice. We look for people who are team players, adept at managing client relationships and who can deliver the highest level of customer service.”
What can prospective applicants and new recruits expect from A&O as an employer?
“As a professional services firm we value our people and recognise their strengths and abilities. We provide leadership, management and business skills training and development for staff through our A&O Support Academy. In addition, our Educational Support programme supports people through their professional qualifications, as well as providing study leave and assistance with professional membership costs.
“We have regular career conversations as we want to see our people progress and develop their careers within A&O. Working within a large finance department, there is scope to move across roles to broaden your experience. One of the main reasons I love working at A&O Belfast is that you’re part of a truly global finance function. You’re working with colleagues around the world including Sydney, New York, Hong Kong, Dubai and across Europe. There is also the potential for working further afield and moving internationally around the business.”
Covid-19 brought many challenges for businesses – not least the move to working from home. How difficult was it to adapt to these changes?
“When Covid-19 restrictions hit, we were able to respond quickly. Over the last 18 months we have been changing our ways of working. We refurbished our office workspace and invested in digital technology, supplying all our people with laptops to enable them to work seamlessly from the office or home. This move to agile working during 2019 really helped us when the first lockdown was introduced last year. We were already accustomed to working from home which meant that we could adapt quickly to changing circumstances. Most importantly, we were able to maintain the high level of service and engagement that our clients and A&O offices across the world have come to expect from us.”
How do you manage 95 people from home? How do you keep people motivated?
“Working from home was not a new concept for us, so in many ways we were ahead of the curve when lockdown hit. However, Covid-19 did bring its own challenges and we were mindful of the pressures on our people as they juggled home-schooling and additional caring responsibilities. We try to be as flexible as possible around people’s individual circumstances and the emergency leave days that we provide have proved very beneficial. Mental health is a key priority and we continue to focus on helping our people feel connected while they worked from home. I want to recognise the vital role my senior managers and line managers play, keeping teams connected and focused, despite the challenges they face. We hold regular team meetings and Townhalls, conduct monthly surveys to track how people are feeling and dealing with the changes and produce a weekly newsletter to keep people informed and provide a sense of normality.
“In the present circumstances, work is a source of stability for many, and we recognise the importance of being social together. We actively encourage virtual coffee breaks to keep staff connected and provide a supportive environment during these challenging times. Throughout lockdown we have organised our own fitness challenges, held regular competitions and online quizzes, tested our pizza making skills and we’ve taken the time to recognise and celebrate our achievements throughout the year.
“There is an extraordinary team spirit within the Finance team and we have rallied around to help each other. One of the positives during the pandemic is that with the increased use of video calls, we got to know our colleagues even better, met their family members and even their pets!”
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