Frances Gibb meets Obelisk in the Attic

Frances Gibb, The Times Legal Editor, spent the morning at Obelisk HQ in Farringdon recently, getting to know the business and its founder Dana Denis-Smith, now that flexible working is fast becoming one of the key stories in the legal sector.

Frances interviewed Dana and spent time with the team in ‘the Attic’ – our top floor offices in St John Street – to find out how Obelisk is leading the way on flexibility and outsourcing, and to hear more about our key values and projects, such as the First 100 Years.

This is the piece Frances wrote for The Times Legal section. The photographs were taken at the Attic by Rory Lindsay, who usually spends his time taking pictures of celebrities such as Mariella Frostrup, Mitchell and Webb and Jonathan Ross. Thank you Rory for making Obelisk feel like Legal A-listers.

By Frances Gibb, Legal Editor, The Times

Law firms are increasingly allowing non-traditional ways of working to retain top women. Half of all solicitors qualifying each year are women — but at senior levels only one in four partners in law firms is a woman. The reason is not so much discrimination as a steady drop-out of women lawyers as they give up the demands of juggling a high-powered job with child care.

How to keep women in the profession right up to the top levels — whether partners in law firms or in higher judicial ranks — is a big challenge. And it is one that is getting worse: in July 2013 there were 8,115 women partners in law firms in England and Wales; a year later the total had slipped 7,985, while the total numbers of solicitors rose.

The idea that you qualify as a solicitor, work 24/7, become a partner and somehow fit in children along the way is unacceptable, argues Dana Denis-Smith. But equally, dropping out is no solution either — for the individual or profession at large. To meet this dilemma she has founded a company to help “bring back women (and also men) who drop out — while offering flexible and affordable solutions to clients”.

Denis-Smith, 39, who grew up in Romania, is a lawyer who initially worked at Linklaters but decided the environment of a big City law firm was too constraining. She set up an emerging markets risk advisory business and then, while on a visit to India, discovered the trend for firms to oursource their requirements, when they could use local women working from home.

At that time, the idea of flexible working and employing women working from home was too new and law firms were unreceptive. Now demand is “massive.”

It is five years since Denis-Smith founded Obelisk Support, taking its name from Cleopatra’s Needle on the Embankment — a “symbol of feminist power”, she says. Based in a small but modern attic room in Clerkenwell, she has built up the firm from an initial four lawyers looking for part-time work to 700 (mainly) women on its books — winning a slot in this year’s The Times Top 50 Employers for Women.

The culture towards flexible working has also changed. Recent research (by Timewise, the UK’s jobs board specialising in part-time and flexible work), has found that 46 per cent of people in employment want flexibility in their work. Law firms “don’t have to be persuaded” any more as to the benefits of flexible working, she says. Several, such as Allen & Overy, Pinsents, Eversheds, and DLA, have set up specific units with a bank of staff they can use and who will work flexibly to fill gaps.

Allen & Overy’s Peerpoint is a panel of “experienced, high-calibre lawyers available to work for Allen & Overy on a contract basis”. The idea is that it can “augment its permanent workforce at times of high demand” while offering the panel lawyers choice over when, where and how they work.

Wim Dejonghe, Allen & Overy’s global managing partner, has said that the traditional law firm model is under pressure and lacks flexibility. “In a low-growth environment, peaks in client demand are far more variable, so we need greater flexibility in our model. We also want to provide an option for those high-calibre lawyers who enjoy the challenge of working with top-tier clients without the added demands of working in a large law firm.”

Obelisk differs in not being tied to one firm. Denis-Smith’s main clients are big corporates where the structure is more geared to using women returners: “In big law firms, the partnership model can slow down decisions and mean everything has to be agreed by several people,” she says. “But with in-house law departments they can just make a decision.”

Working from home is often part of the deal. Denis-Smith, who is married to a barrister and has a daughter, puts her views into practice: everyone at her business works at least one day a week from home. The day of The Times’ visit, Jeremy Hopkins, who handles client relations and is one of eight-strong team that runs the firm, was in his shorts ready to go to a school sports day.

“Firms either want to replace a specific person and we can do that with one one or more people; or they might have a specific project over a period of months so we can come up with the staff to deal with that. We don’t have to persuade firms and companies any more of the benefits of the concept of flexible working — they realise the need for that.”

■ A five-year project to chart and celebrate the progress of women in the legal profession has been launched by Obelish Support. Backed by the Law Society, Bar Council, CILEx and Aspiring Solicitors, the idea of First Hundred Years is to create an online library of 100 stories with videos of women who have shaped the law and the profession — including interviews with current leaders and “role models”, Denis-Smith says.

The project will have a launch in October to promote crowd-funding, by which people can make individual contributions, along with submitting stories. “People don’t know their history — who the first woman solicitor was, for instance,” she says. “There is no archive like ours: it will help us place ourselves in history.”