Q&A with the Australasian Law Management Journal

On 4 June 2018, the Australasian Law Management Journal published an interview with co-founders Kerri Shaw & Gemma Bunner touching on the launch of SBL. We have extracted the interview below:

In this Q&A, Shaw & Bunner Legal co-founders Kerri Shaw and Gemma Bunner explain why they spurned the safety of working for a major national firm to set up their own business in the Hunter Valley in New South Wales earlier this year – and how it has given them the flexibility and new skills that they so desired.

You both spent more than a decade with Slater and Gordon, a firm with significant resources and a never-ending flow of clients in your specialty area, personal injury law. How hard was it to give up such security?

Gemma – “It certainly was a leap of faith to leave a secure corporate job and lose a regular pay packet. A fair bit of courage has been required.”

Why make the move?

Kerri – “We both have young families and we were spending hours in the car every day to get to and from work and we didn’t see that as being sustainable, and we didn’t want to miss out on key milestones as the kids grow up. So we decided to go it alone. Our inspiration was two-fold. Even though we had well-established careers, Gemma and I were looking for a new career challenge and wanted to grow as lawyers while also expanding our knowledge and skills in relation to the business side of things. We thought the best way to do that was to open our own firm.”

Shaw & Bunner Legal is now operating out of a beautiful old former bank building in Branxton in the Hunter Region. How has working life changed?

Kerri – “We’ve definitely learnt a lot in the past few months coming from a large firm where different departments handled different aspects of the business, including marketing and accounts. We’re in the start-up phase and it’s just Gemma and me, so we wear many hats on a daily basis. We go from seeing clients to jumping on social media and then trying to make sure our trust accounting is up to date. It can be a struggle to balance the different elements, even down to ordering toner for the photocopier! But we’re enjoying the challenge.”

Gemma – All of those little things that we didn’t have to worry about in our former life, that all falls to us now. We have had one moment when running out of toner at the wrong time made for a bad day, but we’ve learnt to adjust and answer phones and manage IT if something goes down.  The key is to manage our competing demands and at the same time generate work, fees and cash-flow.”

One reason you set up the firm was to get greater flexibility. How is that panning out?

Gemma – “We’re completely mobile in terms of our technology, so we don’t have to be present in the office. If one of us has to be away from work because of the children, we can do a couple of hours’ work that night at home when the children are in bed. That’s working well. In respect to how that applies to clients, we recognise that people’s lives are getting busier and busier, so we’ve tried to accommodate different hours and times to meet with clients, or we might Skype them if it’s more convenient. This can make a huge difference for clients as opposed to the traditional notion of making an appointment between 9 to 5. Our clients are finding this approach quite refreshing.”

What has the reaction been from Hunter Valley residents to the presence of a new firm?

Gemma – “We’ve been really embraced by the local community. The closest law firm would be a drive of 20 to 30 minutes. While that’s not far, a lot of the locals don’t want to make that trip. A lot of people just call in to meet us and say gidday, which is wonderful. Our office is an old bank building and it’s been closed for many years and people are interested to see it reopen. Things are a lot more informal – certainly in our past firm clients would probably have to get through three people before speaking to their solicitor.”

For now, you are a two-woman firm. What are your plans for growth?

Gemma – “A licensed conveyancer is coming on board in July. She’ll be the first new staff member to join the team, which we’re very excited about.”

Kerri – “One of the areas in which we specialise is personal injury law, including experience with coal mining compensation matters, so being in the Hunter area we think we can be of real value to clients who will no longer have to travel to Newcastle and Sydney to see a lawyer about those issues. With ongoing growth, we just want to make sure that we provide services that are actually needed in the area. If people need commercial business advice, or family or criminal law services, for example, we’re open to growing in that way.

Have there been any hiccups?

Gemma – “One thing we’ve encountered is that people in a regional area often expect that a lawyer can address every legal inquiry. But we’re working really well to build referral relationships with firms that specialise in the work we don’t do.”

Did you bring any clients across with you?

Gemma – “No, we had to start completely from scratch. We had quite stringent restraint-of-trade clauses in our contract at Slaters, so that has been a challenge. In saying that, we recently opened our 60th file and we’ve done a lot in the local community that has generated support. We’ve been happy with the income from work so far.”

What billing model have you adopted?

Kerri – “We’re doing fixed-fee billing and have lots of experience with that model. We’re  fortunate in so much as we’ve never had to time bill during our careers. We wanted that to continue in our firm because fixed fees are great for lawyers and also for clients who want certainty regarding their legal costs.”

How do you plan to build your client base?

Kerri – “At first we struggled to know exactly what is the most efficient marketing tool for us. We’ve come to realise that because we’re working in a number of different areas of law and targeting different people, we need to be across a number of different platforms. For example, to get our name out to the local community we went back to what most people would consider old school and did a letterbox drop, getting brochures into a couple of thousand people’s homes. We also use social media for more targeted marketing.”

Gemma – “We’ve also kicked off a 12-month radio advertising campaign and, as part of that promotion, we’re doing an interview every month for a legal segment on the local AM channel. Again, that’s focused on a local, regional market. But, more broadly, I think marketing is going to be one of our main challenges as a small firm because we don’t have the marketing dollars to compete against some of the very large firms that operate in the personal injury space. So we’ll have to look at creative and smart ways to market ourselves. That’s why we’ve embraced social media platforms such as Facebook, which is much more cost-effective than, for example, Google AdWords, which we simply can’t afford.”

Kerri – “We both grew up in country towns – in Muswellbrook in my case and Lithgow for Gemma. These are towns based on generations of underground coal miners, so we understand the Hunter Valley market. That is an example of something that can set us aside from some of the larger firms that don’t have that unique perspective. Also, just getting out there and meeting people in the community and supporting events we are passionate about is a fantastic marketing tool.”

Gemma – “For example, we’re networking with the Chamber of Commerce, we have presented at the local Playgroup and we are attending a View Club meeting over the coming weeks. We see it as being integral to our success to build relationships with those types of community groups, not just to build a work-based rapport with them but because we value those connections – to give back. We’ve already been doing some pro bono work and we feel fantastic about that.”

 As the firm grows, what sort of culture do you want to cultivate?

Kerri – “Gemma and I are fortunate in that we share lots of the same values and we’ve known each other for a long time. In the future, we want to build a team. We want everyone’s contribution to be valued and we want communication. I see that as being a huge part of building a successful team. I’ve worked in jobs in and outside the law where if communication is lacking it can have a huge impact on the business and its clients. So we want to lead by example in areas such as workplace flexibility and ensure that any benefits are not just limited to us. We want such benefits to be available to the whole team, regardless of job title. We really want to move forward with such shared values as we develop and grow.”

Gemma – “With our culture, we want to promote positivity and help raise each other up. That goes for anyone else coming into the team. It’s also important to have a sense of humour in the process – that’s got us through some of the more challenging times in this early phase of the business.”

Running a small firm can be stressful. How will you protect your friendship?

Gemma – “We really value communication and have ensured that, no matter what’s happening, if there’s an issue that is bothering one of us, we just have to air it. We’ve only had one moment on the journey so far where we were concerned. We were proactive about having an open discussion about the problem and dealt with it. We just have to keep communication channels open. So far it’s working really well.”

Kerri – “There’s been a lot of pressure on us in terms of leaving secure employment to put our own money into a new business. So I agree that we have to be completely open with our communication. In business it’s not always going to be smooth sailing and it’s about how you deal with issues as they come up.”

It sounds as though you have no regrets, so far, about setting up your own firm.

Gemma – “We value having the freedom and the autonomy to make our own decisions in the way we do our work. It’s been really liberating to sink our teeth into a file and offer the service we want to.”

Kerri – “It’s really refreshing to turn up to work and put the key in the door with a smile on our face. It’s made a huge difference to our work and home life. Even with the challenges of the start-up phase, we’re enjoying every single day.”