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Q&A: Sean King – "If we picked a super traditional Times New Roman font for our brand it wouldn't match who we are and we'd confuse people."

In our Q&A, Sean King, co-founder and director of Canberra-headquartered professional services firm Proximity, explains why an integrated service offering and multidisciplinary teams have been the driving force behind the business’s growth, and how a rebranding initiative has set the tone for the future.

Formed in 2011, Proximity was a finalist in the New Law Firm and Law Firm of the Year categories at the 2020 Australian Law Awards. How has the business fared during COVID-19?

We’re flat out. A big portion of our work is for government clients, and government has to respond to COVID-19 in so many ways. We’ve done work for its Digital Transformation Agency and for departments such as Services Australia, which processed the JobKeeper payment scheme. So we’ve been really busy because government has been busy. There has been uncertainty, though. We also do a lot of work for Airservices Australia and it’s funded by airways service charges. So, rewinding to the start of the pandemic, several of its projects were put on hold overnight.

Overall, however, we’ve expanded significantly during the past 12 months and have hired approximately 50 people in that period. There’s an element of good management and planning to this – having the systems for people to work efficiently from home and having the right support structures. But for every bit of good management there’s also a healthy dose of good luck. If you’re in the wrong sector, you’re just in the wrong sector.

What’s the smartest thing the firm has done during the pandemic?

Some organisations were very quick to cut staff and reduce pay. We had to make decisions on those issues as well, but we’ve reaped the rewards of not having done that and by making value-based decisions that mean our staff have wanted to stay and have felt supported during COVID-19. The way you respond when you’re put to the test is telling.

In the past 10 years, Proximity has evolved from a two-person operation to a professional services firm with a team of about 110 people who provide consulting, legal and commercial services to government and large organisations. How have you handled such growth?

A big part of success comes from spending the time early in the piece to get the foundations right, including underpinning business systems and processes. When you first start a firm, it feels as though you can get away with not doing that work, but at some time the failure to do so acts as a brake on growth. We’ve always invested ahead of the curve.

Has it been hard to maintain staff quality given such rapid expansion?

That’s where the culture piece is important. There can be a temptation to hire anyone who has the skills you need and to forget about the firm’s individual culture. We’ve resisted that temptation, which means we have had to forego some business opportunities. The flip side in the long term is that such a targeted recruitment strategy fuels growth because it’s sustainable. You get known for the culture of your organisation. We don’t have the 120-year history of some of the big national or global firms, so we need point of difference – and our people and culture is one of those.

We’ve still got a start-up mentality and it has forced us to be creative and think about our points of difference and stick to them. That is attractive for people looking for something different in their careers – those who want a different way of working, or to have the chance to flex their skills in areas other than legal.

So, pre-planning and having a clear vision has been crucial for Proximity?

Yes. Of course, you can’t know exactly how things will unfold. Back on day one when James Dunn and I set up Proximity, did we envision where we would be today? Absolutely not. But we knew we wanted to be a multidisciplinary business, not purely a legal business. We could see the benefit of combining the consulting, commercial and legal services teams because general counsels are now responsible for risk and a whole lot of things, and they’re thinking with a broader business lens rather than a pure legal lens. If you offer that collection of services, it’s naturally attractive to clients.

You and James started your careers in the graduate program at DLA Piper. How has that big-firm experience helped with Proximity?

DLA Piper was a great training ground and James and I got exposure to a whole bunch of big national projects, including in the government sector where you’re dealing with issues that touch the lives of millions of everyday Australians. The biggest impact it has had on Proximity is the kind of work we do. In general with law, if you’re a small business, you focus on small clients. If you’re a big business, you focus on big clients. Even from day one, with just a handful of staff, we were working on these multi-billion-dollar projects because that was our background at DLA Piper. So that’s part of the reason why the business has scaled up quickly and continues to grow because we geared up for a different end of the market.

Was it hard getting large government clients across the line when you first started?

We didn’t bring our DLA Piper networks and relationships across because of restraints of trade – we were super conscious about that. So we had to find a new client base within government, but because government is so large that was possible. I was telling staff at an internal event recently that on our first day at Proximity, James and I were thinking ‘what are we going to do today?’ We worked out the clients we wanted to contact and it was almost as simple as starting at the top of the phone book, so we called the Australian Customs and Border Protection Service – now it’s part of the Department of Home affairs – and went from there. We found it easier than we had anticipated because we weren’t trying to offer exactly the same thing as other firms.

We had this idea about working with clients on-site and in the early days that was a huge part of our delivery method. Clients were interested in that model because they felt like some of their lawyers had become removed from their project teams. They liked the fact that we could work with them closely. At the same time we could speak to them about other commercial aspects of their operations outside legal. We were also less risk averse as we weren’t over-qualifying our advice. We were happy to call it as we saw it because we were focussed on getting the best outcomes for their projects rather than protecting the firm. We just wanted to give clients the best fulsome advice. Most of those early clients have stuck with us throughout our 10-year journey.

How do you approach staff management and motivation?

We have a culture where we want people to be very collaborative, whereas a lot of firms are more geared to getting the maximum potential out of their staff through competition – that is, to get promoted or to lead a job via a motivation model. Ours is a much more egalitarian and collaborative model. There’s a lot of praise in our organisation, but it’s not so much about individual kudos and becoming a partner, or being a rainmaker. We need people to fit the mould of being very motivated from a team perspective.

How does that approach translate to managing projects?

We have a best-for-project resourcing model. We don’t say ‘that job’s for Mary’s department’ – we ask what skillset does a particular job need, who has the capacity to do it and who has the interest?

We take the same best-for-project approach to working out who will lead the job. Quite often that’s not the senior partner. If you’re a partner and have a couple of million-dollar jobs and then someone gives you a $10,000 job, you can’t be watching that matter as closely. But if you give that $10,000 job to a great junior or mid-career professional it becomes a real learning opportunity for them on a smaller job where they can do well and make a good impression on the client and peers. This approach has a good utilisation benefit across the firm, and it also has a good wellbeing side-effect. I’ve seen times at other firms where a lawyer in one partner’s team is run off their feet and working until midnight, while another lawyer is equally stressed because there’s not enough work and they can’t meet their billing targets. Our model helps overcome that problem.

Proximity announced a rebranding to celebrate its 10-year anniversary. Why was that necessary given that the firm has been performing well?

When you start a business like we did 10 years ago, you’re just in doing mode and you need a logo and a brand and you just get it done. Ours served us well for the past decade, but now the depth of services we provide has expanded and we’re doing a lot more general management consulting than we were in the past. I’ve learnt through this process that a brand is much broader than the logo and the colours. It’s about understanding who you are and what you do and why you do it. Out of that flows things like the visuals, the language you use, and how you communicate. So it’s been a chance to have a brand that not only reflects who we are, but which also enables clients to understand us better and determine if we are the right organisation for them, or not. People can self-select and you end up working with the clients who value what you value and the staff who value what you value. You don’t waste time with the people who aren’t a good match because they have a different value set.

You have gone with bright colours and a less-traditional look than many other law firm brands. That is deliberate, no doubt.

A lot of our staff said they embraced the fact that we’re a bit different and that we should shout that from the rafters and be bold about it, rather than looking like other law firms. The rebrand is a chance to visually represent that difference. If you want a conservative organisation that comes with 150 years of history and doing things the way they’ve always done things, then we’re not the right organisation for you. So we shouldn’t try to look like that. If we picked a super traditional Times New Roman font for our brand it wouldn’t be who we are and we’d confuse people. So that was the rationale behind the rebrand.

What are the key challenges for Proximity as it seeks to keep growing?

One big challenge is continuing to distribute the leadership. When a firm is smaller, people may work for the organisation partly because they like its vision and identify with the leaders. Then at some point the organisation becomes far bigger than that original group of people. We’ve reached that point at Proximity. We’ve been on a journey in our corporate services team where we went from having James and me juggling all of the corporate services functions, to then bringing on three or four general managers, to now where we have specialists managing each function..

In the past 18 months we’ve really built up our corporate services leadership team – with a head of HR and a HR team, with a head of technology and a technology team, with a head of communication and marketing and a support team, and with a substantial client engagement team. That’s all about devolving the corporate leadership to people who are genuine experts in their field, rather than us muddling our way through as generalists. The next evolution is about pushing the leadership and decision-making to people in the client-delivery side of the business. They’ll all have a really crisp understanding of the vision of the business and be able to make decisions to realise that vision. If you try to keep leadership too central with a small group of people, you can only take things so far. We want to devolve the leadership, but in a way that still avoids the creation of silos, or making everything too competitive and losing that team-first approach we have. You want to have KPIs so you can measure how you’re going and make smart decisions, but you don’t let that become some kind of ranking of people or a league table that cruels collaboration. We want to keep a one-team feel where no one is doing things for ego or purely personal interests. They’re genuinely doing what’s in the interests of the business, and being a great colleague.

Outside of work, you stay active with activities such as skiing, hiking and working on your farm. How important is that for your wellbeing and work-life balance?

I really like my job and career, but it’s only one part of my life. I love my family life and it’s been helpful not to define myself based too much on my career because then it can consume you, especially when the business has been growing quickly. You don’t want to 100 per cent live and breathe work. I love anything that takes me outdoors. At this time of year we’re skiing and horse riding, and in summer it’s hiking and biking. On our website you’ll see that we want people to have a life outside work and we have flip photos for staff profiles that show what people are interested in outside work. Our staff really like that because it gives them permission to be who they are and to bring their whole self to work. At the end of the day we’re all humans and we want to have interactions with other people. Work is part of us, not all of us.