Patrick Firebrace may have rejected a career in law, but a law degree has certainly helped him manage a firm of lawyers. “Sometimes I feel a bit like a trainee surgeon. They’re not going to hand me the knife and ask me to do the surgery, but they are going to expect me to understand it and explain what’s happening.”
In reality, ending up at the helm of a law practice is pure coincidence in a career that has also seen him work at the BBC, for a business owned by a private equity group, and for accounting behemoth EY (then "Ernst & Young"). He’s been drawn to the complexity of running a business, opening up in new markets and strategic decision-making. That said, there were specific aspects of the law that he liked. “It’s a people business. I like that you are selling knowledge rather than just a product,” he says.
“I had studied law and wanted to be a barrister. I started on the bar vocational course and did it for three weeks before realising I was on the wrong path. In truth, I’d fallen out of love with law at university. I’d done an accounting module and thought I’d give that a go, but yes, it was an odd turn of fate that I ended up working for a law firm!”
From university, he embarked on an ACA traineeship with EY, qualifying as a chartered accountant in London. There was much about the work he enjoyed – the culture of the firm, the graduate scheme, but he didn’t enjoy moving from business to business, only ever getting to know them superficially, and he certainly didn’t like chargeable hours. Ultimately, he concluded, he wanted to be embedded in a business and find a way to make a real difference.
Media seemed to be an interesting option: “I’d spent a bit of time as a production company runner before I had gone to be an accountant and had had a few media clients while at EY, so when a role came up at BBC News, I snapped it up,” he says. “I worked there as a management accountant and finance manager. I was working with the editors, newsgathering and making programmes. I was there for four years and it was really interesting.
While the BBC was a vast organisation and afforded plenty of opportunities, ultimately he wanted to find something less ‘public sector’. Family life also meant he was looking to move out of London. Ultimately, he found a job in Bristol at DAC Beachcroft, the insurance and healthcare specialist law firm.
It was his commercial and business acumen rather than his law degree that made the difference: “The business was converting to an LLP and that was the immediate challenge. I didn’t know at the time that I had been ear-marked for the finance director’s role. I did the project, the financial controller left, the FD mentored me and then retired and I took over. I joined when it had around £90m in turnover and it grew to nearly £200m during my tenure.”
This was an exciting time with the business growing quickly across the globe - from Chile and Colombia to Spain, Ireland and New Zealand. The group’s insurance clients had previously had to deal with multiple law firms across the globe and DAC Beachcroft wanted to ensure they could deal with just one law firm in all regions. “It was all about how to get international law firms up and running in those territories. It was complex, multi-jurisdictional and hugely enjoyable, even if it was also a baptism of fire for a finance director.”
After a number of happy years at the group, he was lured to a private equity-run group with big ambitions. He was in his late 30s and wasn’t sure how often those type of opportunities would come along. While he enjoyed the time with private equity and the very different management and ownership dynamic, four years down the line he felt he’d done all he could do for them, bringing in the right people and systems and building professional relationships. He exited the business slowly, while deciding on his next move.
Patrick took on his current role, as finance director of VWV, in September 2018. The firm had built a solid reputation in a number of specialist sectors, including education and charities, technology and life sciences. Nevertheless, it needed to shout a little louder about its achievements and get its processes and systems up to scratch. “Until about a year before I joined, the technology was a little old. The culture is really supportive and collaborative but we need to promote greater dynamism and confidence in our core markets and sectors. When I joined they were looking for a new perspective and ways to grow the business,” he says.
“It’s not an option to potter along in today’s environment. If we don’t do it, someone else will. A good sector focus is one of the ways to do that.”
What qualities have helped him through his career? “The ability to accommodate a broad range of behaviours and people and be able to mould yourself in a professional way to address people’s needs but also to challenge them where necessary is fundamental. The ability to work very hard has also been useful!”
By necessity, this briefing can only provide a short overview and it is essential to seek professional advice before applying the contents of this article. This briefing does not constitute advice nor a recommendation relating to the acquisition or disposal of investments. No responsibility can be taken for any loss arising from action taken or refrained from on the basis of this publication. Details correct at time of writing.
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