Mum’s Army

Obelisk founder Dana Denis-Smith on building her team of lawyer mothers.

By Charlotte Edmond for Legal Week

Convincing mothers to sign up to flexible working was never going to be a hard task. Persuading general counsel to use teams of working mums for their outsourced work on the other hand was always going to be more demanding.

Five years on from launching a venture aimed at offering truly flexible working and giving lawyer mothers a viable route back into work, Dana Denis-Smith now has 800 people – mostly women – on her books. Her company, Obelisk, holds places on panels at companies including BT and Barclays. She has just been awarded Outstanding Legal Innovator at Legal Week’s inaugural Legal Innovation Awards.

Against a backdrop of law firms struggling to retain female lawyers after they have had children, it is in many ways unsurprising that her business has found traction with a band of ambitious but time-poor lawyer mums desperate to keep their hand in with law while also raising children.

Having initially qualified at Linklaters, Denis-Smith left in 2007 to launch a business intelligence venture, leaning on the contact-building and networking skills she gained while working as a journalist for the Economist Group and Reuters before she studied law. She struck upon her idea while on a delegation to India with UK Trade & Investment in 2010. This was at the height of law firms’ interest in the country as a legal outsourcing venue and the trip included a visit to one such supplier.  

While there were several examples at the time of legal outsourcing being used successfully by clients, Denis-Smith found herself questioning whether GCs would be happy with the level of service offshore and the potential for confidentiality breaches at some outsourcers.

“On one hand law firms were increasingly turning to India for a cheaper option,” she explains. “On the other hand the buyers were saying ‘I’m worried about document security, I’m worried about supervising, I’m worried about politics’. I just couldn’t see how the two tied up and if GCs really realised what these ventures were.”

Bumps in the road

Based on the germ of an idea to offer a UK-based alternative to Indian providers, staffed with part-time, fully trained, experienced lawyers, Denis-Smith commissioned some research in the summer of 2010 to see whether the FTSE 100 would be willing to use outsourced providers for their legal work. The answer was fairly emphatic: no. Citing concerns from confidentiality breaches to quality of work, the research found that in-house teams were both dissatisfied with what was on offer at the time and unwilling to consider an alternative.

Undeterred, and at this stage pregnant herself, Denis-Smith began seeking funding to turn what was to become Obelisk into a reality. She wanted to create a respected and flexible career that fitted around lawyers’, particularly mothers’, lives, directly servicing the in-house community. The business needed to be a brand in itself, rather than a white label provider for law firms, that would be welcomed on CVs when and if lawyers chose to return to full-time work. This was about giving women a worthwhile role when they couldn’t commit to the hours and stress of a permanent City position.

“Although I received a lot of positive feedback about the idea they struggled to see beyond the fact that I was pregnant,” she recalls. “It was unsaid, but the message was pretty much ‘great idea, shame about the bump’.”

Soon after the birth of her daughter, Denis-Smith resurrected her efforts to get her idea off the ground, contacting the Law Society to see if it had any names of mothers looking to return to work. She was given four CVs, which through word of mouth grew to 15.

“That period was like a tea party – I travelled around the country and had tea with lots of mums. It was all very Avon Lady-style initially. I turned up and had to be honest: ‘You don’t know me from Adam, and it’s just me with this idea, but I believe in it and if we stick together it might work out.’ They were desperate for that solution in a way I had not appreciated.”

Obelisk’s break came when Denis-Smith managed to convince Goldman Sachs to give her a chance, winning what grew to be a fairly sizable document review ‘re-papering’ style project in several languages.

Armed with a case study it was far easier to prove the proposition worked, although that didn’t mean it was an easy sell to in-house teams. With the FTSE 100 dominated by male GCs, most of the key decision makers were also men. While many initially wrote off the venture in its early years, others were keen to support it having lost members of their own teams after they had started a family. 

“When you are a new kid on the block and there is no law firm hovering over you, nobody knows who you are,” she says. “They thought we were just an army of mums. We had all kinds of jibes about being disgruntled desperate housewives.

“I kept thinking ‘I know this makes sense, it just might take them longer to buy it’. Whenever I got pushed back I wanted to know what made them uncomfortable and what they objected to. People were fascinated by the back-office model and kept trying to deconstruct it. Taking people’s time in units and breaking it down to a micro level was a whole new concept. They worried about what would happen when they needed 20 or 30 people’s time, but it actually came in the shape of 60 bodies.”

Denis-Smith recounts a tale of one GC who, on being introduced to her for a second time once Obelisk started to get traction, feigned having never met her, having clearly dismissed her as a ‘crazy mum’ on the first occasion.

How it works

Under Obelisk’s model, lawyers specify when they are available to work from home, with the company managing who gets what work to ensure it is delivered on time. Although the business supplies full-time secondees and contract workers, that is not its bread and butter, with most lawyers working an average of just over 20 hours a week. Consequently, great volumes of people are needed to ensure the working day is covered: Obelisk now has more than 800 on its books, recruited largely through word of mouth, with average earnings of around £3,000-£3,500 a month. More than 90% of the workforce are women, the majority mothers. Obelisk itself has just eight back-office staff, including Denis-Smith. 

“Lawyers are used to high wages,” she says. “But when you think about the fact that they don’t have travel expenses, they don’t have to buy their lunch, they don’t spend money in a cafe and they get to pick up their kids as well as doing worthwhile work, I feel we are offering a decent solution.”

Currently on its third iteration, a custom-built technology system underpins Obelisk, with workers logging exactly when they are free and how much time they have spent on a project. The system is designed to be user – ie lawyer, not client – led.

“The thing with technology and lawyers is that it can only be so complicated or they won’t use it,” she points out. “The question is how do you get them to use it – it’s got to be more for them than us. We are trying to be efficient rather than add more and more layers, so it has to be something that is easy to use rather than an extra thing to do. We are not a legal process outsourcer trying to plug into clients’ systems. If we didn’t have cloud and fast broadband we wouldn’t be here.”

Longer term, Denis-Smith has ambitions to move the business beyond the legal sphere, perhaps into the accountancy sector. The technology platform would remain the same, enabling her to move the business from a turnover of “a few million to a hundred million”.

Changing attitudes

In the time since Obelisk’s creation, the use of legal outsourcing, insourcing and flexible workers has grown significantly. A notable development has been the establishment of low-cost legal centres in UK cities such as Glasgow and Manchester by an array of leading firms including Allen & Overy, Herbert Smith Freehills and Ashurst.

Denis-Smith is yet to be convinced by this nearshoring trend. “This is nothing to do with the needs of the client and everything to do with the needs of the law firm to grow profits and governments to create jobs. Grants are offered; people initially have low wages and then they become upskilled and then the wages go up and then people look for the next local delivery centre.”

GCs’ enlightened attitude towards outsourcing is largely born from a need to manage costs more effectively post-recession. Obelisk’s role as a regular adviser for companies including Vodafone, Barclays and BT highlights a changing attitude – albeit a slowly changing one – among in-house lawyers to legal purchasing. It is not unusual now for panels to have an array of legal advisers reflecting the different levels of complexity of advice required – from large international law firms to smaller providers and flexible workforce providers such as Obelisk and Axiom. 

“GCs have learnt to buy in a smarter way,” says Denis-Smith. “There are different layers of legal advice used to get the best value. You can turn to India or wherever for plain document review work, you can turn to flexible providers like Obelisk for more complex matters or when you have different languages involved, and then you bring in big international firms for cross-border deals and counsel when you go to court.

“There is a lot of pressure around how you are viewed internally; [people question] how much value you bring and the point of having your own in-house team. When GCs start thinking about why their job needs to exist they start considering how they can transform their department to be viewed in the best light. That’s just a common sense approach to doing your job better.”

The first 100 years

In recognition of how far the legal profession has come in terms of the roles women play, Obelisk has launched a project documenting the journey of women in law from 1919, with the Sex Disqualification (Removal) Act allowing women to enter the legal profession, to 2019. Supported by the Law Society, the Bar Council, CILEx and Aspiring Solicitors, the aim is to create an online archive of stories about how women have changed the profession, featuring high-profile senior female lawyers including Cherie Booth QC, Baroness Hale and Shami Chakrabarti. See http://first100years.org.uk.