Industry Leader Profile: Peter Oakes
Peter Oakes is a partner and counter fraud specialist at Crawford Legal Service with more than 30 years’ experience in private practice. He has worked with specialist legal recruitment consultancy Anakin Seal for more than 20 years. In this short profile Peter (PO) shares his advice for building a successful career and his insights into how the legal sector may evolve in the years to come with Katie Hawcroft (KH), a non-practicing solicitor who works in recruitment at Anakin Seal.
(KH) Peter thank you for making the time to chat with us – I know how busy you are building the counter-fraud team at Crawford Legal Service. I also want to thank you for introducing me to Anakin Seal and the IPS Group – I’m loving it here. How long have you worked with them?
(PO) I first worked with Anakin and the team at IPS Group over 20 years ago when I was building the counter-fraud team at Hill Dickinson.
(KH) Crawford & Company set-up an Alternative Business Structure (ABS) as part of Crawford UK in 2016 and by 2019 it had won Firm of the Year at the British Claims Awards. Why are you doing so well?
(PO) There are several factors that have helped us grow so significantly in such as relatively short period.
Firstly, the fact that we are a subsidiary of Crawford & Company, the world’s largest publicly listed independent provider of claims management and outsourcing solutions to carriers, brokers and corporates, with an annual turnover of over US$1bn, provides a very secure foundation. That means not only do we have that financial support to grow our business, but also that we receive a huge number of client referrals internally as well as winning work independently.
Secondly, as we operate a salaried partnership model rather than an equity partnership one, that encourages a longer-term approach which is ultimately good for clients and for the business.
Also, as a start-up we had a blank canvas and were unconstrained by legacy structures and infrastructure. It has been liberating, exciting and great fun to conceive a collegiate law firm which is designed around the needs of our clients in a sector which is evolving so rapidly. We’ve been able to bring the three pillars of counter fraud – identification, investigation and legal – under one roof, while also combining the strength of our incredible and expanding talent base with an advanced technology platform to deliver a truly standout service.
(KH) So how did you get into counter-fraud? And what was it like when you first started 30 years ago?
(PO) As a trainee at BLM, I was handed a legal aid motor fraud case. Someone had deliberately crashed into someone else and as I did some digging; I uncovered a complex fraud totalling over 35 cases involving the claimant, their family and associates. That type of case was unheard of at the time and gave me exposure to a wider range of insurers and clients at a level more senior than a trainee would normally have enjoyed.
It also highlighted to me that counter-fraud was an area ripe for a more dynamic, innovative approach. There was a need for those in the claims management industry to share information better and I knew that if I could achieve that I could build a practice.
(KH) It seemed to work – you became an equity partner at Hill Dickinson within 8 years of qualifying. Was it a question of being in the right place at the right time?
(PO) Yes, but I believe everyone will be in the right place at the right time at some points in their lives. The key is the work that you have put in to get there. There is simply no substitute for really hard work and seizing your opportunities, however small, when they appear.
That first case opened the door for me to move to Hill Dickinson. When I joined their counter-fraud team was seeking to establish new leadership and senior partner Paul Walton took me under his wing and steered me towards that. Initially I was ambitious and hardworking but green, however he coached me as to what was needed to make partner. As you would expect, as I became more experienced, he needed to give less advice, but he remains a great sounding board whose friendship I value enormously.
(KH) You grew the Hill Dickinson counter-fraud team to some 200 people. What underpinned its success?
(PO) The effective use of data as a key part of the insurance process and while the industry was very good at using model data to assess the probability and cost of future risks at that time it was less sophisticated at using data to identify fraudulent claims. I developed an ‘advanced intelligence system’ called Netfoil that allowed insurers to screen against former claims. Together with a team of great solicitors it enabled Hill Dickinson to deliver a one-stop-shop for handling complex fraud claims and to develop tailored databases for clients.
(KH) And now Crawford & Company is investing in a similar technology system in the UK with global potential?
(PO) The foundations of the system may be similar, but it is more sophisticated. Technology is advancing at an exponential rate, and we are taking full advantage of the potential this is creating. For example, we are integrating artificial intelligence and machine learning capabilities that simply didn’t exist five years ago to help improve fraud detection.
(KH) That sounds like a powerful tool – is developing the database your primary job?
(PO) It is one of my main responsibilities, but I also spend a lot of time building the team and making sure that I regularly work on cases and am in direct contact with our clients which are a great part of the job.
(KH) Are there any other lessons you’d be willing to share with solicitors building their careers?
(PO) There is one lesson that stands out for me. On one occasion the firm I was with at the time was bought out and I advised a client to move with us. In my heart I knew it wasn’t the right move for them, but I allowed colleagues to persuade me otherwise. I still regret it, but it did teach me to be true to myself. A decision which is painful in the short term becomes easy to live with if it was the right thing to do and vice versa.
Beyond that, as I mentioned earlier, I have come to recognise both the importance of genuinely hard work – there really is no substitute – and of seizing opportunities – especially when it comes to business and client development.
Then, finally a piece of advice rather than a lesson. Although technology will never replace human expertise, solicitors will need to ensure they continue to keep abreast of and capitalise on advances in digitalisation and technology. Counter-fraud is an arms race and technology is going to play an increasing role both for those perpetrating fraud and those countering it.
(KH) How has COVID impacted fraudulent claims?
(PO) COVID has had a clear impact on fraudulent activity. We’ve already seen an increase in certain types of both business and personal claims, and our expectation is that the volume of fraudulent claims will continue to increase significantly in the coming months. A factor in this will be the loss of financial protection in the UK provided by furlough schemes and other measures. At the same time, society is facing general inflation. Historically whenever financial stress results in people coming under pressure claims go up. Some fraud is driven by desperation, some by greed. If our industry is to successfully identify fraudulent claims, it is critical that insurance and legal services companies move technology out of silos.
(KH) Is that going to drive demand for more solicitors?
(PO) For Crawford Legal Services, yes, it is but we are growing anyway.
The pace of change in our sector is increasing exponentially. Developments such as government reform, new insurance products, the globalisation of fraud networks, the technology available to fraudsters and the technology we have available to us in counter-fraud are all acting as catalysts. It makes our specialism an unbelievably interesting space, but it also means you need to be agile.
(KH) Is it the constant change that keeps you interested?
(PO) I’m enjoying work now more than I ever have. The constant change is energising and I’m really enjoying building a new practice from the ground up. However, the two things which have always made me tick are working with people and seeing results – results for Crawford, results for clients and results for my team as they get the opportunity to develop. I’ve never worked with better people and we’re delivering great results.
(KH) And do you have any words of advice for young solicitors in terms of working with recruiters?
(PO) Whether you’re a client or a candidate look for honesty and integrity. Bad recruiters will take a scattergun approach and don’t tailor their activity to your needs. Good recruiters take the time to understand you and will deliver a service that makes your life much easier.
If you would like to find out more about opportunities available at Crawford UK and other leading law firms please contact Katie Hawcroft on:
T: +44 (0) 161 511 6414
M: +44 7971 986 829