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Letting go of control as a business owner

While wearing all the hats is a given for a lawyer just starting their own firm, this founder emphasised the importance of being able to slowly give up control in order to grow and scale.

user iconLauren Croft 02 November 2023 SME Law
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Melissa Barlas is the director and founder of Conveyed, a conveyancing firm based down in Melbourne, and the most recent winner of the Sole Practitioner of the Year category at Lawyers Weekly’s Australian Law Awards.

Speaking on a recent episode of The Boutique Lawyer Show, Ms Barlas reflected on her journey as a sole practitioner and revealed how she’s been able to differentiate herself in the post-pandemic legal market.

As the owners of small businesses, sole practitioners have to wear many hats: administrator, accountant, and leader, according to Ms Barlas.

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“For me, developing really great leadership skills is fundamental to ensuring I have a happy team. We all work remotely. But we try to adopt a culture that mirrors what you would see if you’re working together at an office. So, we’ve got daily touch points with each other. We call it the water cooler session. It’s like the session when you go to the kitchen together and you have a gas bag for 10 minutes before going back to your desk. That’s effectively what it is. It’s checking to see that they’re OK, and if they need to raise anything with me, we do that over 10 minutes every day,” she said.

“We’ll have a whiteboard session, which is our half an hour session, to run through what our settlements look like for this month or this week and what other matters have we got on the go. And then on a Thursday afternoon, we do a social club, which is our half an hour session, just to have a coffee or eat something and just talk about anything that’s not work. So, it’s really designed to mirror those relationships that you would develop if you were in the office as well. And as a result, my team is really happy. But that’s just one example of how we adopt a culture whilst working remotely.

“But it’s also looking after you and being patient with your team as well. You have to come into it with an open-book policy. That’s how we operate within my business. And with that policy, my team is happy to call me any time of the day, knowing that I’m going to respond in a positive way. Even if you work remotely or you have hybrid working styles, there is always a way to make your team feel like they’re looked after and in turn, the productivity goes up, and everyone’s happy, and your staff turnover is very low.”

In addition, being a sole practitioner has meant that Ms Barlas has had to upskill in a number of key areas, such as cyber security.

“We’ve got cyber security installed across all of our devices within our firm to ensure that there’s no phishing that comes through, and if it does, it’s been captured. Unfortunately, you still have firms that are relying on people just trying to do the right thing, but you really have to take that next level to ensure that you’ve got all the cyber security not just in your device but also in your emails as well. They’re two different things, and that’s something that I’ve learned along the way. Having cyber security in your device is not necessarily going to cover your emails off, so it’s very important that you work closely with your IT provider around that,” she added.

“So, we are very vigilant. We’ve got our multi-authentication set-up as well. And I think the other hat to be across, if you’re a business owner or someone that’s starting out as a law firm owner, marketing is a really big one as well. Just being up to date with what are the common marketing trends at the moment. You really need to be able to stand out and have some authority in your industry. That’s what you’re trying to achieve. You want to establish authority and credibility in your industry, and it’s a question of how do you go about that as effectively as possible.”

And while Ms Barlas “absolutely wore all the hats” for the first year or so of owning a firm, she said it was definitely a struggle having to juggle it all.

“Whilst I was happier as a business owner, in comparison to working for someone else, I was still putting a lot of hours in day-to-day, and that wasn’t working. And unfortunately, when you do start a small business, you’re doing everything. That’s just the reality of it. But what you want to be trying to do is scale. So, it’s about doing things to help you scale, to get you out of doing the day-to-day so that you’re able to work on the business and enjoy your life. And that’s something that I’m always striving to do every day,” she emphasised.

“Since starting, we’ve now got three people contracted into the business that work alongside me to assist the business with the day-to-day operations. And what that does for me is it allows me to focus more and get my time back to do those marketing initiatives to work on business development and all those things that are necessary to scale. And so, as a result of that investment with my team, I’ve been able to get that time back.”

However, Ms Barlas initially struggled with wanting to have control over everything, something she said many lawyers struggle with and is something she had to “train” herself out of.

“That’s what I’ve had to do as well, just to say I need to let go of control, make sure I’ve got the right processes in place to assist my team and still do the quality checking because that’s very important. I should be able to trust my team to be able to do the day-to-day that needs to be done between me and all of my other team members. And I have that trust in my team, and now I love the feeling of not having to be always in control of everything,” she concluded.

“Enjoy the journey of being a business owner. It’s not about just focusing on the end, but focusing on the journey that you’re going through; it’s a blessing. It’s a big risk in a way, but it’s such a rewarding experience to be able to have that level of freedom, to own your day and your work life and just enjoy it. Enjoy the learning. Learn, be a sponge. Go out there, network with people, build relationships. You can be out there meeting people and connecting. So just embrace it all and wake up every day feeling grateful for it.”

The transcript of this podcast episode was slightly edited for publishing purposes. To listen to the full conversation with Melissa Barlas, click below:

Lauren Croft

Lauren Croft

Lauren is a journalist at Lawyers Weekly and graduated with a Bachelor of Journalism from Macleay College. Prior to joining Lawyers Weekly, she worked as a trade journalist for media and travel industry publications and Travel Weekly. Originally born in England, Lauren enjoys trying new bars and restaurants, attending music festivals and travelling. She is also a keen snowboarder and pre-pandemic, spent a season living in a French ski resort.

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