Media Women in Law

Obelisk make headlines in Wall Street Journal

A UK Law Firm is Championing Flexible Working Conditions in a Highly Traditional Environment, by Andrea ChipmanĀ (first published on 17 September 2013).

Getting talented women with children back into the workplace is a challenge for many professional employers. Encouraging women to “lean in” in high-powered working environments is particularly difficult if they have been “leaning out” for a number of years.

Although many professional women continue to struggle with the compromises necessary to combine a challenging career with family life, the problem is especially acute for those working in the legal sector. While other professional services, such as accountancy, have been quicker to introduce more flexible working schedules and a greater variety of routes to advancement, work styles and career structures in many large law firms remain little changed. The resulting status quo is an environment where women make up 70% of staff lawyers but just 15% of equity partners, according to the Careerist, a blog about legal careers.

For Amanda Sermon, a mother of three children under 7, the balancing act became a familiar one during a demanding, but fulfilling, 13-year career as an in-house attorney at BP; at one point during her seven years with the company’s mergers and acquisitions team, she was commuting weekly from London to Calgary, when her oldest child was less than a year old.

In March, Ms. Sermon decided she was ready for a change, taking a position as client services director at Obelisk, an innovative legal services firm that seeks to offer an alternative workplace to lawyers, many of them women, who are looking for a more flexible approach that still allows them to maintain their skills.

“It just felt the right time for me to be moving on,” she says. “I’d always done full-time work, but the opportunity Obelisk presented was really different and really resonated with me as a working mother.”

Established in 2010, Obelisk offers flexible contract and other legal support, as well as multilingual translation services to law firms and in-house corporate legal departments. Many of the company’s 440 lawyer consultants previously worked at top London firms, and the majority have left to raise families, although some have chosen to give up a full-time workload in favor of a more flexible work-life balance that supports other interests such as music and the arts.

Obelisk has continued to add consultants, and turnover has increased tenfold in the past financial year, according to co-founder and Chief Executive Dana Denis-Smith.

Ms. Denis-Smith points out that Obelisk’s structure provides opportunities for both male and female lawyers who are looking to take a break from traditional legal working structures for a variety of reasons, yet don’t want to abandon the years of training they have invested in their careers. Still, the founders, both of whom are working mothers, envisioned the firm with parents in mind.

“I don’t think motherhood creates a disability,” she says. “There is a huge supply of talent and no shortage of people who never thought they could have an opportunity to come back and work on different terms.”

Ms. Denis-Smith says her business model was based on her concerns about the number of women lawyers dropping out of the profession when they have young children, before reaching partnership level. She concluded that many would be willing to take on work that is not “top-end” in complexity, in exchange for substantially reduced time pressures and the ability to set their own schedules and, in many cases, work from home. In addition, she says, the high-level experience of her legal recruits is clearly attractive to Obelisk’s target client base.

“I recognized that the cost at the bottom end of the process is very high for clients,” she added. “I wanted to give something that was good quality but better value. There is no difference between the top law firms and us, except that they have made huge investments in infrastructure and overhead.”

Yet Ms. Denis-Smith acknowledges that marketing the business around its ethical mission has been less successful than emphasizing its ability to provide high-quality, lower-cost support services to clients.

“We’ve come on a very interesting journey,” she says. “In a way we had to put aside the passion and go ahead with the business proposition, which was how cheap can you be. I was saddened by it because there is a lot of talk about how to get mothers back into the workforce, but we couldn’t talk about it.”

Paul Owers, a partner at private-equity firm Actis and an Obelisk client, says that he is supportive of the company’s mission, but agreed Ms. Denis-Smith faces a challenge in selling some clients on the business model.

“At first blush, there is a sense of needing to be an enlightened buyer, as you aren’t buying a full-service law firm product,” he says. “But I think once you’ve spent time listening to and understanding what Obelisk are offering, it makes a lot of sense: a high-quality drafting capability provided by an experienced, City-trained lawyer at a very competitive cost.”

In a world where, traditionally, the options have been either to outsource entire functions or keep them in-house, he adds, Obelisk’s option could prove to be a useful, flexible alternative.

Obelisk’s working-parent consultants themselves range from those looking for a more family-friendly way to remain in a client-facing position to those preferring a significantly more low-key role.

Ms. Sermon now works part time for Obelisk, including a day a week in London meeting clients and the remainder working from home, and says she enjoys the opportunity to help other working mothers design a workplace and schedule that works for them. “There is a huge gap in the market for this sort of service,” she added.

Other Obelisk consultants say they value the opportunity to do intellectually demanding work from home, rather than being pressured to spend extended periods in a client’s office.

Jennifer Howitt, a banking law specialist and mother of two young sons, says she appreciates the opportunity to work only on weekends and evenings if she wants, adding that she tells the company which hours and days she is available and receives work that fits into those time slots.

“In terms of the kind of work you do, you certainly wouldn’t get the all-nighter deals that you would in a law firm, but it’s enough to get your brain going and you still use the skills you have,” she added.

To be sure, Some still prefer the rewards of working in a traditional law firm environment. Ali Sallaway, a partner in dispute resolution at international firm Freshfields Bruckhaus Deringer LLP, specializes in litigation, global investigations and regulatory enforcement in the insurance and financial services sector. Although she has two young children, Ms. Sallaway says she never considered leaving an environment that she finds deeply fulfilling on both a personal and professional level.

“I love the high-end, most complex work and working for the best clients,” she adds, noting that her work includes cases involving multi-jurisdictional global investigations, bribery, corruption and fraud. “It’s the work that matters. It gives me great self-esteem. I was probably a bit of a workaholic before children and probably still am.”

Yet, Ms. Sallaway says that even she has made compromises in recent years to gain greater flexibility. After a two-year period in which she virtually never saw her toddler, the birth of her younger son led her to seek a greater degree of balance; she now takes off days at short notice when her schedule is less intensive.

Regardless of their own choices, Ms. Sermon, Ms. Howitt and Ms. Sallaway agree the legal profession needs to become more accommodating and should follow the lead of other service industries, such as the big accounting firms, which have been quicker to allow senior employees to work from home where necessary, using technology to keep in touch with the office and with clients.

“I don’t see why lawyers can’t job share,” says Ms. Howitt, although she acknowledges that such a model would take “a lot of organizing.” Many firms remain stuck in traditional work patterns in which they are required to demonstrate that their lawyers are always available, she says, “but a lot of clients don’t require that.”

Larger legal employers have begun to take note. Freshfields, Ms. Sallaway’s firm, has even established its own in-house support service, Freshfields Continuum Network. The network employs former partners and associates to work on a variety of contract assignments and provide specialist advice to clients and input on large due diligence projects.

“There is a realization that you aren’t just going to miss female talent if you don’t find better ways of working; you will miss male talent too, because there are men who also want more flexible work,” Ms. Sallaway says. “It’s all in the attitude of everyone involved.”

Indeed, Ms. Sermon goes further, predicting that traditional law firms are likely to come under increasing pressure to revise the traditional talent management structure that is now in place for lawyers, allowing some to “take their foot off the accelerator” for a time, and embracing longer-term consultancy-type arrangements for others. In this regard, Obelisk could provide a model for other firms, she says.

“Pyramid structures and [traditional] partnership tracks are not sustainable,” Ms. Sermon says. “It’s a progressive structure that accountancy and management consulting firms have moved away from. I don’t think companies in the future will have a 100% permanent workforce.”

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