In the next few weeks, we will be publishing profiles of the five winners of our Best Business Leaders awards, announced earlier in the summer. We are delighted to start today with Stacey Rickford, Legal Operations Director at Travers Smith.

Transformation is a word all too easily bandied around the business world. But Stacey Rickford’s nomination for Totum’s Best Business Leaders award stood out for her success in driving genuine change in the business of legal service delivery at Travers Smith. In less than six years, she has pioneered developed, scaled and successfully embedded a new business services function across the firm known as ‘Legal Operations’.  The function exists to drive and deliver change, ‘enabling successful delivery of the firm’s strategic objectives through continuous improvement and collaboration’. Her inspirational leadership resulted in her promotion to become the firm’s first firmwide Legal Operations Director in 2021.

Bold ideas

A member of the legal operations team convinced Stacey to put her name into the hat for the Best Business Leaders awards, but while she was touched that the team thought of her, she didn’t imagine she’d actually win it. ‘When I got call, I was completely blown away,’ she says. ‘Change has happened so quickly across the sector, it can be easy to miss everything that business services have achieved. To gain recognition with this award is fantastic.’

Stacey originally joined Travers Smith as a paralegal before qualifying as a lawyer into the corporate department, specialising in the Private Equity and Financial Sponsors group (PEFS) as an Associate, then Senior Associate. But a client offering her a secondment to work as an Investment Executive at a private equity house proved a career turning point. ‘I loved every minute of it – I have always enjoyed the more commercial aspects of my job, and this was essentially a crash course in financial modelling and how to grow a business. I met so many inspirational C-suite execs across different companies and it really opened my eyes.’

It was a moment to weigh up options – while she enjoyed her job as an M&A lawyer, it didn’t feel sustainable long-term. ‘I wanted to do something that I could always give 100% to, even with two kids, a cat and a dog!” This desire for work/life balance started to nudge her career in a different direction…

She pitched an idea to her Head of Department. ‘I have learned all these skills and perhaps I could apply them to this private equity department at Travers Smith? Do we have a business plan? How can we deliver our product in a way that maximises profitability whilst maintaining quality?  What really matters to our clients and what has limited value? Are our internal processes efficient and do we have good organisational health? How can we improve it? Are we all pushing in the same direction from a strategic perspective?’ At that point, she wasn’t even sure what the specifics of such a function would be, but she had a strong sense that the department could be more efficient – and her Head of Department agreed.

Her thoughts came together in the shape of a highly specialised legal operations role, one in which Stacey could act as a lynchpin connecting, coordinating and facilitating collaboration between  other business services roles to enhance operational efficiency internally and to drive improvements in the delivery of legal services. She was inspired by in-house legal teams where GCs have increasingly appointed right-hand people to manage the business of legal service delivery, allowing the lawyers to focus on legal advice.

Implementing change

Most importantly, her Head of Department liked Stacey’s thinking, allowing her to explore the possibilities as a six-month project at the same time as fee earning. ‘So that’s what I did,’ she says. ‘I focused a lot on quick wins and low hanging fruit and after three months I was able to present a full business case to move things forward.’

The timing in late 2016 was perfect. So many things were happening in areas of legal technology, including transaction management software and AI, and clients were expecting more for less. Lawyers needed to adapt their ways of working but had so little time. ‘I focused on efficiency and profitability from every angle; from practice management and organisational health, to legal process improvement..’

‘There was a big difference, very quickly, even after just three months,’ she says. ‘We could fix things that had been bugging people for years. People loved it. And because I was already part of the team I intuitively understood what would and wouldn’t work, both culturally and practically, so I got buy-in where others might have struggled. I understood the existing processes intimately and I knew the team well, so it was easy to gather ideas on how things could be improved, and I generally had a good feel for how it would work.’

The approach was so successful that the Tax and Corporate M&A (CME) teams were next to appoint Legal Operations roles, followed by Dispute Resolution and Finance in the following years. There have been six further appointments this year and active recruitment continues. Legal Operations is now a fully-fledged function in its own right, continuing to evolve to meet business needs and client expectations.

In recognition of her success, Stacey was promoted to a corporate-wide ‘Strategic Operations Director’ role in 2020 and then promoted to Legal Operations Director for the whole firm in November 2021 – each time a completely new role for the firm.

The key to success

How did she do it? ‘I had a clear vision. I knew what I wanted to do,’ says Stacey. It wasn’t always easy to get every partner on board but persistence – and a good instinct for knowing when to step in and when to back off gradually paid off. She also credits her success to a Head of Department who was hugely supportive and the fact that there was no expectation in those early days. ‘I had lots of time to think, research and present. It’s harder for team members coming in now because they have to fill these roles that have grown massively and the expectations are much higher to deliver results quickly,’ she says. Humility aside, though, it’s clearly Stacey who made Legal Operations happen at Travers Smith. 

‘I try to lead by example. I believe in collaboration and team work; that if you roll-up your sleeves, work together and give credit where credit is due, you’ll get the most out of people, and they’ll get the most from work. I let everyone know that I have their backs and that we’re a team .’

‘Create the plan, communicate the plan, build the team, upskill the team, deliver the plan,’ she sums up.

In the ever more complex and fast-paced legal sector, Stacey is a leader who has the courage and the conviction to drive the change required to meet the new age of legal business.

Huge congratulations to Stacey and all our Best Business Awards winners. Thanks also to all those who submitted such fantastic nominations and to our judges who had the difficult job of choosing our winners. If you would like any more information on our Best Business Leaders awards, please contact [email protected]

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