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Mellisa Larkin and Kara Birch sat down with Flinders University to discuss the legal industry of today, and what needs to change to make a better tomorrow.
Mellissa Larkin and Kara Birch, both graduates of the Flinders Law School, Flinders University, South Australia, sat down with Yaz Dedovic from Flinders University’s Office of Communication and Engagement recently to discuss some of the challenges facing the Australian legal industry in 2020, and their inspiring journey from BigLaw to NewLaw.
Over a twenty-year period, Mellissa forged a successful career in top-tier firms and inhouse in Australia and Ireland before eventually returning to her hometown of Adelaide with her young family and founding her own firm, Peripheral Blue, in 2016.
What is her ‘why?’, Yaz asks. Why did she feel it was so important to take this step?
“It became really apparent to me that the traditional legal model was broken,” Mellissa explains, “I knew there had to be a better way of doing things
“So I felt really inspired to walk away from the career that I had spent decades building, to found something which was completely different and enabled us to provide that very client-centric service which I knew that the clients, from my experience, very much wanted and needed.
“It would also enable us to provide very holistic advice, not just legal services, through our legal arm Peripheral Blue Legal, but also the business advisory services and contract management that I knew that clients would need to effectively run and grow their businesses, through our consultancy arm.”
How does the Peripheral Blue model operate differently from what is considered to be a ‘traditional’ firm, or model?
Mellissa starts by pointing out that the “legal market is a big market, and there is absolutely a place for both traditional and ‘NewLaw’ firms like ours. But for many clients, it’s very difficult for the traditional legal model to get clients engaging proactively instead of reactively, because they are focused on the costs.
“In traditional law, there a lot of cumbersome overheads, like expensive offices and high partner profit shares, so a lot of on-costs are then built into the pricing. Additionally, lawyers in those firms generally have to work many more hours to just meet – let alone exceed – their daily targets.
“The pre-existing structure dictates the approach to the client.
“At Peripheral Blue,” she goes on, “we started with a blank slate. We said ‘We’re going to focus on what the clients want’ and we built everything out from there. We don’t have billable hour targets. We hire the right people from the outset who share the values and the mission. We’ve made sure that everyone who works as part of the team shares that philosophy and belief and therefore goes the extra mile to service the clients.”
On the Telstra Business Awards
In congratulating Mellissa for being nominated for the Telstra Business Awards, Yaz asks her if she thought that the nomination cemented the Peripheral Blue model being “the way of the future.”
“Yes. We certainly felt very validated by just being a Finalist in the awards,” she responds. “We were so excited just to be shortlisted, so to get to the Finalist stage was hugely, hugely thrilling for us.
“We knew when we started the firm, we knew in our hearts there would be a market for it. But it’s one thing to have an idea, and to reimagine the way law might be practiced, and quite another thing to actually turn that into a reality.
“Then, to explain to potential clients, why we’re different, and how it is we’re going to go about doing things differently, at the beginning, before we’d done it was a challenge – we were basically trying to find new vocabularies and ways of explaining a service which is different to what they’ve historically experienced
“To have gone through that whole process, to see the firm up and running, to grow, and build up our client base, and get positive feedback from clients, is very exciting and the Awards process is an opportunity to reflect on what we’ve been able to achieve in a relatively short period of time.”
How much do you think the field has changed since you both graduated in terms of what’s expected from the legal profession? What kind of skillset is expected of you these days?
“We do a lot of work in the data protection space in particular,” Kara Birch explains, “and so that has obviously been an area where the regulatory landscape is really shifting, and it’s shifting in response to the technological changes in big data.”
Kara says that their upskilling in relation to those technological changes has been considerable over the last few years, and that their close relationships with clients mean that they are able to learn from their technology clients’ expertise and experience to inform their approach.
On Peripheral Blue as disruptors, as a startup itself, they have been able to develop some really unique insights into some of the commercial challenges being faced by clients and what it takes to operate a business, such as cash flow, HR, and the flexibility and openness to develop new client-centric service solutions over time.
“We are clearly open-minded and always willing – and looking – to do things differently and take on feedback,” says Mellissa.
“We wanted to move away from arms-length service. We have invested in getting to know them and their business, and have created different service solutions to enable us to do that.
“It’s our great privilege to be on the journey with our rapidly growing SME clients, and truly partner with them – as they grow, we grow, which is great for everyone! – it’s really amazing to be able to celebrate their wins with them and really help them on that path.
“At larger companies, where we’re a part of their in-house teams, we feel really lucky to get to know the breadth and depth of their businesses because we get to work alongside them as part of their team.”
At what point in your career did you decide that something really needed to change?
Mellissa explains that two years before starting Peripheral Blue, she really started to notice that there was a big shift taking place.
She started to realise that people cared less about the brand and the office and that they seemed to care more about the customised service and their relationships with their lawyer/s.
“The ultimate decision to let go of a top-tier role and the career I had spent so many years building was extremely difficult,” she goes on. “To have the confidence to start from scratch, if you took away the might of the brands that we’d worked for, the lingering question was ‘Would we be enough?’
“Our clients gave us a shot and had faith in us, they were open-minded and flexible in their thinking and willing to listen to our idea and get behind us. And then they’ve really advocated for us, and allowed us to grow by giving us their feedback and support.
“Ultimately the decision comes down to how you want to live your life.”
“I’d always loved what I did, but I didn’t love how I was doing it anymore,” Mellissa emphasises. “I wanted to embrace being a lawyer in a meaningful way. I wanted to create a workplace where my team felt supported, because I knew that if everyone felt supported and were happy, that ultimately the clients would benefit from that.”
Any advice for the law students of 2020 and beyond?
Kara’s advice for students is to really invest in relationships now, because you never know where they’ll lead you.
“Certainly for us at Peripheral Blue it’s been very organic,” she points out, “but we all developed relationships at Flinders University that, while they were built on fun, created a bond between us. You can carry that approach through your degree and your professional relationships later on.”
Be a life-long learner! Keep learning and upskilling. Be open to seeking out people who can mentor you, and new information to improve your skillset.
You’ve touched on where you see the industry going. What would be your pitch to potential clients to look at things differently and consider an alternative firm like yours?
“In today’s economy and the fast-paced world, you can get very busy doing what you’re doing,” says Mellissa.
“But there is a great value in surrounding yourself with your ‘A-team’ and your A-team should include excellent legal and accounting representation, in particular.
“To manage costs and visibility (and growth) you need to have transparency and trust, and you need know you are partnering with a provider who is absolutely going to have your best interests at the fore and be motivated by building a genuine relationship with you.”
Business owners and companies should ask themselves: What are your drivers? Your personal and company’s risk appetite? What are your goals and strategy for moving forward? Building PB’s knowledge of how a company operates and makes decisions enables Mellissa and her team to provide a very different type of advice.
“Look for someone who’s technically very good, has great commercial acumen, someone you can trust, has a high EQ,” Mellissa goes on, “and someone you like!
“Business can be very stressful, so you really want to be partnering with someone who will stand by you and act as your trusted thought partner.”