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Q&A: Melissa Barlas – “I live by the adage, ‘If you're really good to people, they’ll be good to you.”

After working as a paralegal and then as a lawyer for conveyancing firms, you set up Conveyed as a sole practitioner in Melbourne two years ago. Can you tell us what attracted you to the law and conveyancing?

It all started from when I was a very young girl. My father has always been in the building industry and I was exposed to lots of discussions about property. As a result, I developed a real appreciation for the property market and what’s involved in the industry. So, I have since followed my passion into property law and I’ve been in the conveyancing industry for close to 10 years. Now I’ve got my own practice and I haven’t looked back since.

You were named Sole Practitioner of the Year recently in the Australian Law Awards, which is a great achievement for such a new firm. What are the factors that you think got you across the line for this accolade?

First, can I say the win was a shock, but it is really rewarding when your industry does recognise you for the hard work that you put in. Winning the award is definitely symbolic of a lot of the hard work that I’ve put into the business and I’m incredibly proud of the achievement. I don’t just accept the award on behalf of myself, but for other industry colleagues as well. There are a lot of people who deserve it.

One of the ways you have been able to build Conveyed’s client base quickly is through podcasts and social media, including The First Home Show podcast that you host. Do you have any advice in this area for smaller law firms, in particular, given that marketing is not always their strength?

As lawyers, we’re not trained to be marketers. We’re trained to be doing hands-on client work. We’re trained to problem solve. We’re trained to run files. So, marketing is just not on the register for a lot of us. For me, especially being a law firm owner, I’ve had to wear a lot of hats and I’ve had to train myself to think about marketing strategies. Understanding your target market is definitely one of the first steps to take for all law firms, so when I started Conveyed I really focused on my target market, which is definitely Gen Y.

Then I asked, ‘Well, okay, what does my type of client like to do every day? And I knew that one of the things a lot of millennials like to do is listen to podcasts. Then I said to myself, ‘Great, well, if that's my audience, I really want to be able to relate to my audience and cater to them as much as possible’. So, I started The First Home Show podcast, which is dedicated to first-home buyers, who I think are the most vulnerable and need to be the most empowered in the property market because often they may not be sure about what's happening around them, and they rely a lot on other people’s advice.

I also participate in a couple of other podcasts – I’m co-host of Property Chats, which I release about every four to six weeks with mortgage broker David Pettitt from Yellow Brick Road in Caroline Springs. I’m also co-host with Mohit Pachauri from Capital for Castles and Amir Sehat from BT Property of another podcast called Wealth From Walls that I also distribute on my social media platforms. With my target market liking podcasts, I’m also very active on social media. For me, getting a lot of organic growth through social media, and especially LinkedIn, has been quite powerful. If there’s one tip that I can give, it's that if you are trying to target an audience that's very active on socials, you need to be active as well. With TikTok, Instagram, LinkedIn and Facebook, I always try to post at least once every couple of days, if not every day, just to keep in front of people’s faces.

You sound busy, juggling podcasts and social media with your legal work and having to run the firm itself. How do you ensure that you don’t lose focus on the primary job of being a lawyer?

I still wear multiple hats in the business, but I used to wear a lot more in the first year of my practice. Since then, fortunately, I’ve had a really good team that I've grown into the business. I have a couple of women who are absolutely amazing. Between the three of us, we've got 40 years of conveying experience and that’s been really good in terms of getting my time back. As time goes on, you do develop a team and then they can be additional resources for you to get your time back to do other things. As I’ve slowly grown the business, it’s been more manageable to do some of those marketing initiatives and focus on growth planning.

How do you approach management and leadership of a small but growing firm?

There's a lot of command-and-control style of leadership in our industry, and I just want to be a thought leader to change that as best as I can. I consider myself to be more of a collaborator-leader within my business. It’s really important for me to bring my team into discussions about where the business is going, rather than just delegating tasks. I want to have those conversations so that my team feels like they’re a part of something bigger, and so that it makes them feel like they're more connected to the values of the business. A lot of law firms still fail to do that. There’s still this big hierarchy in our industry, especially with medium and top-tier law firms. Granted, you can't include everyone in discussions when you start to get too big, but certainly as you are growing as a business that is really important. I live by the adage, ‘If you're really good to people, they’ll be good to you.’

I also try to match team members with their strengths. For example, with my team I’ve shuffled them around to ensure that we've got the right person doing the legwork for the conveyancing side of the business, and the right person doing the admin. Understanding your employees’ and your contractors’ strengths is a really important aspect of leadership.

The legal sector is known for having significant mental health issues. How do you manage this factor?

The key is to treat everyone who you work with well. From my own experience, I remember in some private practices where I worked previously that I felt really unsafe at times in the sense that if I said that I was struggling, I was worried that my job security would be on the line. That happens a lot, and it needs to change big time in our industry.

For me, it’s about having an open-door policy in my business. If my staff are concerned about something, whether it's within the business, whether it’s outside the business, they know that they can call me and I'm not going to tell them that they are not resilient enough, or that they’re not emotionally intelligent enough. They know that I'll be very supportive, and the question I would ask them is, ‘What can I do to support you?’

Is the profession making sufficient progress on the mental health front?

Not enough, if I’m honest. There's a lot more awareness about it in the industry overall. We talk about it, we encourage it, but whether it's being implemented in a widespread way is a question mark for me. I'd like to see more instances where that is happening because I still hear the same feedback from a lot of my peers who are working in private practice. I mean, after COVID-19, a lot of firms have said, ‘Right, you all have to be back on deck in the office. We want to see what you’re doing.’ Where is the trust in your team when that happens?

Granted, if that's coming from a good place where you want to give people the ability to speak to senior lawyers readily, then okay. But if it's because it's coming from a place where you want to be overseeing and controlling what everyone's doing, that's not a good thing. Overall, there is more that firms can do to implement better mental health measures and a better culture.

Where does Conveyed go from here? What is your growth aspiration?

I work to a five-year vision for the business. We want to become a national brand, so our aim now is to start targeting Queensland. That's a really exciting move for the business, and that goes towards our five-year vision for Conveyed. We’re taking on one state at a time and just growing our team and having a person on the ground in each of those states.

For me, it's about growing the business brand, and then hopefully when we have this conversation in five years, you’ll see our offices in every state.

Do you have any other final messages for law firm leaders?

When times get hard, always remember what your purpose was to begin with when you started your business, especially if you are a small law firm. Remind yourself of what you are passionate about, and follow those passions. If it's the law, remember your purpose – you are going to come across challenges, but we do have a very supportive industry and you can always call out to others and you can call out to me. Finally, just be mindful of the culture that you create for your employees. Make sure that everyone’s happy. In turn, if you are good to people, they’ll be good to you.

This is an edited version of the conversation with Melissa Barlas. For the full podcast of the interview, click here.

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