As one of New Zealand’s largest and oldest law firms (recently celebrating 100 years), Meredith Connell (“MC”) is most famously known as the Crown Prosecutor for Auckland. More recently, they’ve evolved to include a full-service commercial law firm with a team of more than 250 employees – it’s truly impressive to see the growth journey MC are on.
We sat down to talk with Krystie Moynihan, who leads the Finance function (who in her spare time is an avid true crime podcast fan), to ask a few questions about the hard work that goes on behind the scenes to keep everything running smoothly.
What does your day to day look like as a Finance Director of a large law firm?
Well, after I raid the fruit box… it’s actually a lot of conversations with people. My role is really to provide meaningful financial information so that people can make good decisions. It might be helping lawyers interpret the results in their reports, or with some partners it could be figuring out what additional information they need to run the practice. There’s also the team management aspect, so sitting with my team to see what our priorities are, and goals for the upcoming day / week / month. And then of course the analysis – I do like a good spreadsheet.
What do you enjoy about your work?
When people think of finance roles, they might think it’s sitting in a dark room behind a computer screen all day. That’s just not the case now, with a lot of manual entry and transactional processes being taken over by tech or shared services overseas. What’s left requires a lot more judgment, communication, analysis – and these aspects always need to be done by a human. This is the stuff I enjoy doing; discussions about what information people can rely on to help their performance, and where we can add value.
What are the top 3 tips you’d give someone new to compliance?
- Explain the why and get buy-in
Whenever we try to introduce new tech or compliance type processes, it helps to explain the why and get the buy-in before diving in too quickly into the details of what we’re doing. Step back a bit, explain what risks we’re trying to address, and the goals we’re trying to accomplish, to mitigate the likelihood of internal pushback.
In reinforcing buy-in for the importance of AML, we often share updates on our intranet when we see interesting AML-related stories in the news, to explain that’s why we do what we do. AML is not just some annoying tick the box exercise – it’s actually important that we understand our risks and know our clients.
- Grow your network and build those connections
Another thing I’ve found really effective—despite sounding so cliche— it’s all about building your network. I regularly get together with other finance directors at large firms, and you notice that for the most part, people are facing the same challenges and come up with really creative ways to address those challenges.
For example when Phase 2 of AML was first introduced to law firms, the finance director at Simpson Grierson got in touch with a few of us and said, “This is coming, let’s see what everyone’s doing and share ideas as we figure it out together.”
- Involve end users in any process improvements
Involving end users not only helps to get their buy-in, but it’s also valuable to hear their immediate feedback on the suggested changes. We sometimes include lawyers as early as vendor selection to watch the presentations and give their assessment, as well as testing the solution when in the development phase.
For example when we introduced new AML processes we involved the stakeholders on how they already do CDD collection and verification. By understanding which part of it was obstructive to their work we could be sure to only introduce administrative tasks that add value.
Speaking of changing up processes, how did you decide to go with First AML?
When MC decided to make the move to outsourcing our CDD collection we wanted to work with someone who would ensure that our clients and staff were in safe hands. First AML have done this and more. Not only have they simplified work on our end by relieving the administration involved in CDD collection, but their thorough and detailed work also helped settle any worries about AML slipping through the cracks.
The team is friendly, professional and extremely reliable, and we feel like they want to work alongside us in the work we do. First AML understands the busy nature of a law firm and by creating an excellent working relationship with us it has allowed MC lawyers to focus on what they do best, which is providing quality legal services.
What does your AML compliance process look like now?
The compliance function also sits within my team, so we have a client admin team who receives a request to set up clients and matters – and that’s really where AML kicks off for us. They’ll review the particular client and matter to see what we have for existing customer due diligence (“CDD”) and decide whether it’s sufficient for the risk assessment determined by the legal team. If extra CDD needs to be collected then they create a case in the First AML portal.
Once all the CDD has been collected by First AML, it comes back to the Finance team to review and approve. Finally the information is shared back with the legal team to complete the matter risk assessment, and make sure they’re happy as well.
What makes an effective compliance team?
There needs to be robust training so that people understand what they are doing – not only the steps that need to be taken but also spotting things that might have been missed, or knowing the right questions to ask.
It’s really important to focus training around the contextual importance of the task. If you understand the context, why and what you’re actually trying to achieve, then it makes for a more effective compliance team. Gaining a really solid understanding of what the risks are enables you to address them, while having a robust review process ensures that things are picked up quickly.
Sometimes it can be a bit challenging for operations or “back office” to show they’re being effective – as there’s often no obvious wins, unlike the client facing teams. How do you know when your team is doing a good job?
If you have regular monitoring then you’ll be able to pick up things which might have slipped through the cracks. In general, the less noise we hear from wider stakeholders about problems we have to fix, I usually take as a sign that we’re doing a good job.
For example with AML once a case is approved, it shouldn’t sit for more than a couple of hours with my team. We want to make sure clients are onboarded and transactions can go through as fast as possible. If lawyers couldn’t open their case and start recording their matters – trust me I would definitely be hearing about it!
How did you end up in your role?
I studied accounting at university in the US and then started my career doing auditing at PriceWaterhouseCoopers. Once I became qualified as a Chartered Accountant I landed a dream job at the Rugby World Cup doing Management Accounting. For a rugby fan it really did not get better than this!
Later I joined Vodafone as I liked the modern vibe there, and got to learn how to work with larger amounts of data. I was looking after their retail accounting when a recruiter reached out to me about a role at MC. Initially I was hesitant to come back into professional services but she said “trust me, this place is different”.
And it turns out she was right – MC has a fun, young vibe to it and they really live their values. Diversity is modelled from the executive level down; we’re led by a great female CEO and also have film clubs, casual dress, cultural groups and people from many diverse backgrounds. Like with AML, it’s not just a ‘tick the box’ approach at MC. It’s who we are and how we go about things. It’s just embedded in the culture.
And finally… a fun one to end on, which famous person, dead or alive, would you invite to dinner?
I’d really like to talk to Elizabeth I. I figure she would have a unique take on women in leadership and living life on your own terms!
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