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Q&A with Shona Tarulli: "The truth is that I suffer from imposter syndrome, so I'm always working that little bit harder to prove myself."

Your firm is relatively new, having been set up in July 2020, but you have already been named as a finalist in the 2021 Australian Law Awards for Sole Practitioner of the Year, and a finalist in the Women in Law Awards in the Sole Practitioner category. What’s been the key to your rapid rise?

The recognition is unexpected, but it’s nice to receive credit for the long hours and hard work since I launched the firm in Kingscliff in New South Wales. The truth is that I suffer from imposter syndrome – so I’m always working that little bit harder to prove myself, but I still feel as though I’m not doing enough. That pushes me to keep improving. The awards nominations give me confidence that I’m doing the right things and moving in the right direction.

Tell us more about imposter syndrome and how it affects you?

Imposter syndrome is a psychological state where you tend to doubt your own abilities and have a fear of being exposed as an imposter or a fraud.  I’ve always been competitive and working in a profession such as law where your peers are often very accomplished, it’s easy to feel as though you’re constantly competing to stay up with your peers. The competition is really with myself, though. I come from a working-class background and I’ve always felt the need to prove I have the right to be in the room. I believe this competitive urge has been a driver of my success, but with the firm growing so quickly it still feeds into my imposter syndrome because I think, ‘Hang on, what gives me a right to be here?’

You have previously practised in top-tier and in-house legal environments before going it along with Tarulli Lane. How did you get into the law?

I grew up in Yass in country New South Wales and then moved to the Gold Coast in Queensland for high school. I was 17 when I first went to law school at Bond University.  At that time I felt way out of my depth. So I stepped away from the law and moved to Melbourne and worked at MinterEllison as a secretary initially, and it was the best thing I could have done. I learnt a lot. One of the partners eventually sat me down and said ‘I cannot promote you to be a lawyer, you need to go back and finish your degree.’  That was the kick up the butt I needed to go back and study. I went back to the Gold Coast and was older and more mature and had the benefit of having worked in a law firm. I did really well at university and worked fulltime at MinterEllison on the Gold Coast while I studied. I then spent some time in Melbourne again before coming back to set up my firm in Kingscliff.

What benefits did working in a law firm have for you when you went back to study?

Some colleagues might think that’s not how it should be done, but it’s made me a much better lawyer and I progressed faster as a graduate lawyer because of that real-world practical experience. It was the smartest thing I’ve done. It’s also symptomatic of my career in that I continue to do things that don’t follow the traditional model. My way is paying off for me.

How else have you broken the mould?

I stepped away from the law to have my daughter at the pivotal moment of becoming a Senior Associate in a big firm. I wanted to spend as much time with my daughter as possible and could see that might be difficult with the pressures of being a Senior Associate in a large firm. So I thought, ‘Okay, I want to have this career in law and to be successful, but maybe I can do it in a different way’. So I set up Tarulli Lane and I’ve proven that it’s not taboo to have a career outside a typical 9-5 corporate life. I have a child and a life outside of work, but I also get a lot of my work off the back of running a flexible firm. I have big corporate clients that you might not expect a really small firm to have. But I’m servicing them well and I often find that if I’m speaking to say, the general counsel of a large-scale property developer, they feel comfortable saying, ‘Look, I need to finish this call to go and get my daughter from swimming’. Whereas, if they were on a conference call with a big-law firm it could be difficult to say that. So my scale and flexibility helps my relationships with clients.

On that first day of opening your firm, how did it feel to be waiting for clients to come on board?

I was really strategic in the way I did it. Essentially from day one, I took on the role of General Counsel for a former client, prestige property agency Kollosche. It was almost like having a safety net, and it gave me income from the start. I still perform that external GC role for Kollosche and the relationship has become even stronger and it’s helped my firm grow. That being said, sitting there on the first day of opening my firm was really scary, wondering if the phone was ever going to ring. It did! I pitched my business model around there being more to life and law than just corporate life. People have been supportive and clients have referred us. The other thing is that the firm is built around me and relationships. So word of mouth has been important and still is now. People don’t say ‘Call one of the big firms’, they say ‘Call Shona’. Clients know they’re going to speak to me and won’t be passed along a chain of lawyers. That’s really attractive to a lot of clients.

The phone is now running hot, you have family duties and you’re a sole practitioner. How do you avoid burnout?

It’s not easy and all rosy. Running a firm is hard work, but I’m conscious of the reason that I went out on my own and it’s working for me and my clients. I make it very clear to them that I’m not a 9-5 lawyer. They may get an email from me at midnight, and they know they don’t have to respond right away. They may call during the day and I could be at the park with my daughter. It’s about balance, and also I’m not burning out because of the imposter syndrome I mentioned. The more I’m doing, the happier I am. But I do get to do activities and play group with my daughter and it’s on my time and my terms. I’m in control of my work and my life.

Has COVID-19 helped or hindered you in establishing Tarulli Lane?

Well, remember that I started as a sole practitioner just after the pandemic began, but the transition to working from home and virtual practice has been a help. I’d set up the firm from day one so that I didn’t have to be operating out of a major city, or sitting next to my clients. I can serve my clients remotely – and do it really well. The model is working well.

As a property practitioner, you advise on residential property contracts, commercial property deals, and retail and commercial leasing. Why did you opt to focus on property law?

I certainly didn’t go to university thinking I’d follow this path. When I came back from Melbourne to study at Bond University, I had to work fulltime to support myself. I was offered a position in the property law team at MinterEllison on the Gold Coast and it was a game-changer for me. The partner I was put under, Bryce Melville, was a great mentor I also worked in MinterEllison’s Melbourne office under one of Australia’s leading property lawyers, Max Cameron, and that was also pivotal to my skills development. So I really fell into property law by virtue of having great mentors and soon realised that it’s a very exciting practice area. I know that property law has not been seen as exciting or ‘sexy’ for law graduates, but I’d argue that it is now.

You act for large-scale developers, national leasing aggregators, high-profile private sector clients and listed companies. What is it about property law that you like?

It’s fundamental to many different practices. You can’t do a lot of M&A deals without a property lawyer, and you can’t do some tax law without a property lawyer. Every single piece of business is touched by property law. People in M&A talk about these big money deals they do. But if you look at something like a commercial lease and factor in rent over what could end up being a 30-year term, you’re locking your client into a massive transaction. If that was explained to more law graduates, property law would be seen as a lot more interesting. I just really love it. I’m a transactional lawyer – I talk fast and do things quickly and that’s property law.

Does it help as a sole practitioner to specialise in one area of law, rather than being a generalist?

Yes, I’ve been really lucky to be so specialised. I have a really bespoke offering. For example, I recently started consulting to another couple of law firms on the back of my property expertise. If I’d been a general lawyer, I wouldn’t have had that opportunity.

On your website, it says everything Tarulli does is on a fixed-fee basis to provide clients with cost transparency. Some firms struggle with their payment model. How is it working for you?

Having been in big law, I’d seen the frustrations of clients who received a fee estimate for a narrow scope of work and then that scope would blow out. That leads to bill shock and it damages relationships. I said, ‘I’m not going to be that person who tells the client that this is the fee, and then it isn’t’. I’m not the cheapest in the market, and I’m not the most expensive, but it’s a fixed fee. Clients are willing to pay that little bit more to know there are no contingencies. That’s made it a successful model.

Does it also make you more disciplined in terms of determining your fees?

It definitely drives efficiencies and it’s made me really disciplined to establish precedents and work flows so that it’s a profitable model. I could have hurt myself at the start if I wasn’t disciplined or if I didn’t adopt this model. There have been some long hours and some unpaid hours, but it’s really paid off.

With the firm growing quickly, where does it go from here and what are your plans for some support staff to share the load?

That’s one of the really big challenges for me. I didn’t anticipate how quicky the firm would grow. I didn’t do any modelling at the start in terms of what the firm looks like when it grows legs. I’m now playing catch-up and working with an accountant who is assisting with the business modelling. We’re looking at what the business will look like this time next year, and in five years. The biggest struggle will be making new hires. If I make a hire, they have to be an extension of me, and they must maintain the integrity of the firm. People don’t necessarily come to Tarulli Lane, they come to Shona Tarulli. So I have to find someone who has the same values and vision as me.

So your new hires will set the tone for the firm’s future growth?

That’s right. I also acknowledge the opportunity I was given early in my career and I wouldn’t be where I am today without those mentors. So it’s important to me to be there and to develop new hires and to allow them to grow. It’s not just about someone coming in and giving value to my firm, but me being available and adding value to that person – to be a true mentor.

Will you stay specialised in property?

I would love to say that in five years we may have a corporate area of practice given that property does feed into many other areas of law, but I’m really committed to our niche. It’s working well for Tarulli Lane – and I love it.