Reports Virginia CFO Awards

CPA helped law firm grow in a turbulent environment

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Print this page by Donna Gregory Burch
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Large private companies
Joseph D. Cheely, CPA
LeClairRyan, Richmond

The Great Recession ushered in a new legal era. Gone were the days when clients had unlimited legal budgets. To survive, businesses had to cut costs wherever possible, and legal services were on the chopping block. 

“It was a long overdue bursting of the bubble that lawyers had enjoyed,” recalls Gary LeClair, chairman of LeClairRyan, a law firm co-founded by him and Dennis M. Ryan in Richmond in 1988.

While similar firms struggled in the new environment, LeClairRyan viewed the recession as an opportunity. “Rather than circle the wagons and retreat, we went on the offensive and decided this was the best time ever to grow,” LeClair says.

The firm made two major acquisitions, effectively doubling its size and extending its national reach. With that growth came the need for a new financial leader to help the firm maneuver the uncertain years ahead. In 2010, LeClairRyan hired its first true chief financial officer, Joseph D. Cheely.

Cheely was no stranger to LeClairRyan. The firm had been the CPA’s client since its beginning. When it was time to hire a CFO, “Joe was the first telephone call we made,” LeClair says. “He was our first choice.”

Since joining the firm, Cheely has introduced several sophisticated financial-tracking improvements. “He’s created an online, up-to-date dashboard, so that the leaders in the firm know exactly where we are every moment of the day as far as are we hitting the numbers we need to achieve our budget and objectives,” LeClair says. “Rather than wait until the end of the quarter or the end of the month, we can make decisions every day. We can turn the dials as need be on a moment’s notice.”

Cheely also moved the firm from a cash basis to an accrual system of accounting, giving leadership a more accurate picture of the firm’s overall financial health.

Cheely improved the quality of the firm’s budgets “and can predict within less than 1 percent of where we’re going to end up,” LeClair says. “From a manager’s standpoint, it eliminates surprises.”

LeClairRyan’s revenue has grown 50 percent in the past four years. But being able to manage dollars and cents isn’t the only skill that makes Cheely an effective CFO.

“A lot of people can add up the numbers and do the math,” LeClair says. “The question is can you find that person who makes the organization stronger beyond the numbers? Joe is one of those people. It’s very, very rare in my experience for a CFO to have that.”

Cheely, however, credits his success to his loyal staff.

“I came into a group of people who are absolutely committed to what they do,” he says. “My style is more to give input and tell people what we need to get done and trust that they will get it done. Everything we’ve done, I’ve just been the fortunate overseer of it. The folks here are tremendous.”

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