Julia Graham, director of risk management for the international Law firm DLA, talks to Lee Coppack

Julia Graham is an enthusiast. She gets involved. She is clearly enjoying her new job as director of risk management at the international law firm DLA. She admits to being a 'committee-holic', passionate about education and training, and is writing a book on business continuity with a friend. Julia describes her work as challenging - and great fun.

She is also a woman in a largely masculine profession. Julia is unusual in that she came from an insurance background and rose to be risk manager for one of the country's largest insurance groups. She was risk manager for the Royal & Sun Alliance Group until she joined DLA in March 2004.

Having gone into insurance from school, she became an associate of the Chartered Insurance Institute (ACII) when she was only 22 and spent three years as a trainee and then composite inspector for what was then General Accident, later one of the constituent parts of Aviva. "It's a role that is now extinct, but a lot of people will recognise the job," comments Julia, "Today, it would be called business development." During the day she visited intermediaries and clients. In the evenings, she sold life and pensions business.

Then came a short break for a move to Kent with her then husband, but his company, the Royal, asked her to join them as an inspector. After two years in Canterbury, it was on to the City of London where she trained as a liability underwriter, and then a return to business development with a City inspector's job, followed by Liverpool and a new job as personal lines manager. "I had a ball. It was a brilliant place to work," she says.

She was promoted again in 1992 as general services manager in Manchester, running the regional infrastructure. Her next role was a project on corporate governance for Peter Sharman, then managing director of the Royal.

Into risk management

One of the issues that emerged from this project was how well the Royal was protecting its own directors' liabilities. She also discovered that the company had about 400 insurance policies. "I said what we really need is a risk manager who understands why we are placing our insurance. We weren't practising what we preached!" In 1995, Julia became the Royal's first risk manager.

On Saturday 15 June 1996, the IRA bomb in Manchester made the value of risk management clearly visible. The bomb so damaged the Royal Insurance building that ultimately the company decided to relocate. Says Julia.

"People could see the benefit of having a dedicated risk management team because we were properly insured and had business continuity plans and a recovery strategy in place." When that year, the Royal completed its merger with Sun Alliance, which had had no risk manager, Julia was asked to take responsibility for the merged group, RSA.

Moving into law

Julia was head hunted for her current job with DLA, a large law firm which in the year to 30 April 2003 had 370 partners in Europe and Asia and fee income of £233m. The move, it turns out, did not entail as many changes as might be expected. She was impressed with the similarities.

"Our biggest risks are those associated with the core of our business and concern the engagement with our clients. Closely associated with these is the assessment and purchase of adequate professional risk insurance and specifically professional indemnity (PI). The client management process is remarkably similar to underwriting, with the need for good quality documentation and processes and a foundation of relevant and up to date knowledge. "PI," she adds, "is our biggest insurance premium. In many ways, it's a direct barometer of what people think of us and a measure of our reputation."

Not surprisingly, the culture of a law firm is different from insurance.

In DLA, the number of people is comparatively small, and the intellectual content is very high. There are a lot of 'chiefs' and being a partner creates a direct personal interest in the way the firm is run. "These are very bright people who think fast, so for the risk manager to add value, she needs to be closely involved with the decision making."

Julia is not a lawyer (DLA took a deliberate position not to recruit a lawyer into this role), but has lawyers and a partner working closely with her. "On occasion," she says, "the absence of partner status personally can be something of a barrier, but I feel that non-partner status just serves to add pressure to making quality business cases and decisions.

There is no slack allowed, but when partners do see a proposal that makes good business sense, they support implementation with the minimum of delay."

DLA is not only an unusual law firm in having a professional risk manager, it also takes an unusually sophisticated 'enterprise wide' view of risk.

Central to risk management is the firm's risk management tool kit, DLA-Way. This framework so far has four key components: client engagement management, corporate governance, professional indemnity and key business processes. However, risk management is a journey and DLA is now working on the next generation of DLA-Way.

Risks are broken down into six categories: strategic, group, financial, business, regulatory and operational. As director of risk management, Julia oversees the design and implementation of the DLA-Way and makes sure the firm is managing risk properly. She also analyses the firm's risk appetite, particularly in relation to major projects.

Julia clearly loves her new job. She is a director of the Guernsey cell captive that DLA has created for its PI and general insurance deductible.

She travels often to DLA's various offices, and she is a dedicated supporter of industry organisations.

She also has great interest in education and training. "That's one of the main reasons I'm involved with a number of trade and professional bodies, including AIRMIC, the Business Continuity Institute and the Institute of Financial Services," she says.

She has two daughters, who are at university and sixth form. In answer to a question about spare time, she answers: "Not much". But she enjoys living in Arundel in West Sussex and walking by the sea. And she has bought a sports car.