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The Big Smoke sat down with Mellissa Larkin, founder and CEO of Peripheral Blue, an Australian legal and consulting firm with a fresh approach.
Hi Mellissa, can you please tell us a bit about your journey to becoming the founder of Peripheral Blue?
I always wanted to be a lawyer. I went straight from high school to law school and overloaded my schedule so I could finish inside five years. After 18 months of post-admission work, I fulfilled another life-long dream and moved to Dublin to do my LLM at Trinity College. I stayed on in Dublin during the construction boom, managing to get a job with international law firm Pinsent Masons. Then after they closed their Dublin office, I worked in-house for Shell before joining pre-eminent Irish law firm Arthur Cox, working in the dedicated Projects and Construction team.
After the birth of my first son, we moved back to Adelaide and I took a role in the disputes team of a national firm. I stayed there for seven years and it was a very challenging time for me, but during that time I learned a lot about team dynamics, their functions (and dysfunctions), how people could be incentivised (and disincentivised), and what is really needed to truly lead and inspire people. During this period I was also seconded to a large oil and gas company which proved to be a bit of a professional turning point for me. I loved being an in-house lawyer. I began to understand what a different skill set it required, and the challenge external lawyers face in trying to understand the depth and breadth of a business when their interactions with clients are timed and charged in 6-minute intervals.
Around the same time I began to realise that there was a disconnect in the value proposition – clients wanted more for less and General Counsel were required to do more with reduced funds. The traditional model just didn’t work and I knew that there had to be a better way. Once I’d started thinking about doing things differently – providing a service akin to that of an in-house legal team with real and genuine relationships with our clients – continuing to work within the traditional model became untenable for me. The idea for Peripheral Blue had been born!
What is the vision of Peripheral Blue?
I founded Peripheral Blue in 2016 with the aim of disrupting the legal and professional services industries by giving clients access to top-tier, responsive legal and advisory services in a flexible and affordable way. Our mission is to provide big and small companies with the legal and business advisory services they need so they can be effectively run. Ultimately, we want to become our clients’ trusted “thought partners”. Our vision is to continue to grow, while retaining the same core values and culture. There’s a point in the future when we’re going to be the largest and most innovative legal services provider in South Australia, while servicing clients on a national basis.
What is it about the new generation of law that you feel is so important in servicing clients more effectively?
Our new generation of lawyers and law firms are approaching client service in a new, client-centric way. Having suffered from “invoice remorse” in the past, I decided that as a service provider, it was high time we shifted from simply billing a client for the time spent on their case, to billing for the value of the services provided. We actively use technology to streamline and make processes more cost-efficient – software and other applications help to streamline workflow and provide a better service. We can easily communicate with each other wherever we are, especially when working remotely; from clients’ offices, from home, even from overseas. But I think one of the most important trends emerging from this new generation of law is embracing the humanity in the lawyer-client dynamic. An emotionally intelligent lawyer is one who cares about taking time to really understand the client’s business and individual circumstances and needs – and the key to emotional intelligence (EQ) is empathy.
What are some of the ways you have ensured you lead a collaborative company culture?
Fostering the right culture is crucial. Clients don’t simply want legal advice – they want to be able to collaborate with a trusted advisor for the legal and commercial advisory support they need – whenever they need it. By bridging the gap between simply being “service providers” to being “thought partners”, we’re able to build deeper, more genuine relationships. By focusing on investing in the relationship, we learn more about them and their business – their challenges, their goals, their objectives – which enables us to provide a better service.
We are all committed to providing each other with whatever support is needed to ensure we provide the best service to our clients. We celebrate one another’s successes and support each other during the stressful, busy periods…
Also, while I wanted to reimagine the way legal services were provided, I knew that the one non-negotiable was exceptional talent. Our PB Lawyers and PB Consultants are alumni of top-tier law firms (nationally and internationally), ASX 200 companies, global companies and government bodies. Apart from being clever, responsive and well-trained, they have high EQ. It was important to me to create a culture and a company which would not only attract but retain this type of talent. Our team are inspired by our mission to provide a dynamic new style of legal services. We have a very collaborative, positive team culture. I try to provide our team with a platform to shine but also, I know we are all committed to providing each other with whatever support is needed to ensure we provide the best service to our clients. We genuinely celebrate one another’s successes and support each other during the stressful, busy periods. After all, isn’t that what being a team is truly about?
We have a flexible workplace which helps everyone. Staff benefit from being able to provide a broad, flexible range of services built around our clients’ needs, and clients benefit from having their needs catered to by someone who is engaged and flexible in their approach to service provision and problem solving.
Our actual workplace is fairly fluid. User-friendly, comfortable workspaces engender a sense of equality and collaboration among team members, a culture and dynamic from which clients benefit. Also I work hard to give staff some autonomy over their projects and work, so while we may be very busy, our team members are choosing the assignments and hours they’ll commit to them, which gives them a sense of professional empowerment.
How do you make sure your company influences not just your industry, but your community at large?
In a very broad sense, we assist clients with negotiating and managing their contracts; managing and mitigating risk, and managing compliance, which helps them to run and importantly, grow their businesses. This in turn stimulates our economy. We also assist clients with early dispute resolution and intervention, which serves to ease the burden excessive or preventable litigation can place on the judicial system. We help clients to understand and comply with Legislation and avoid not only incurring fines (which can be millions of dollars in some instances) but manage their risk.
Also when people work with us, they tend to change their attitude towards lawyers. They enjoy working with us and are (pleasantly!) surprised by how genuinely supportive we are. Knowing they have our support on call whenever they need it helps them to focus on the things they can control within their own businesses. Also, it’s no secret that the legal services industry itself has very high rates of mental health issues and depression amongst its membership. At Peripheral Blue, we’ve created a supportive and collaborative culture for staff and clients – a “safe” space for all parties to bounce ideas off one another, without fear of judgement.
What advice do you have for other women in business looking to launch their own companies?
The first step is the hardest! I knew I would face many hurdles along the way (and I have), but throughout I have held firm to my belief that it was time for a new style of law practice in Australia, one which did things differently. When we first started and were building up our client base and workload, I found inspiration in knowing that I truly believed what we were doing was different, and necessary, and would redefine the way people engaged with and thought about their lawyers and commercial advisors.
For me, knowing the positive impact I’ve made on my team’s personal and professional lives, and the incredible feedback we’re receiving from our clients, is all the motivation I need to push forward when challenges and obstacles arise.
I’m the mother of three young boys, and starting my own company was always going to be a significant risk for me. But I was compelled to take that first step because the alternative – staying at a firm and having no real power to make the changes I believed were so very much needed – simply wasn’t an option. So, my advice is to follow your dreams. Do what feels right and you will find fulfilment in your personal and professional life. It’s hard work, but it’s worth it.