Mum’s Army

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 such as BT. 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 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

Media Women in Law

Legal Week name Dana Denis-Smith as ‘Outstanding Innovator’ in 2015

Completing a triple-win of high profile awards, Dana Denis-Smith, the CEO of Obelisk Support, has been named as this year’s ‘Outstanding Innovator’ at The Legal Innovation Awards 2015.

The awards, which are open to law firms, in-house teams and alternative providers of legal support such as Obelisk, are designed to uncover and celebrate groundbreaking innovation in the delivery of legal services.

Dana’s pioneering vision and values impressed the independent judging panel, which included many senior figures such as Dame Janet Gaymer, Chair of the Management Board of the House of Commons, Oonagh Harpur, non-executive director, Government Legal Department, Peter Kurer, former GC and Chairman of UBS and Paul Philip, CEO of the Solicitors Regulation Authority.

This year’s awards – titled “Beyond Theory; Celebrating creative excellence in the legal profession” – set out to “recognise and reward the people who are driving the legal profession forward by applying imagination and ingenuity to take good ideas off the drawing board and turn them into products that improve the delivery of legal advice. The profession continues to develop and adapt but there are some within the sector who are setting the pace. It is time to acknowledge those practices, teams and individuals who are doing things differently.”

This latest award comes just weeks after Obelisk was named by The Times newspaper as one of the Top 50 Employers for Women in the UK, and Obelisk was given the prestigious Investors in People accreditation – recognised across the world as a mark of excellence in people management.

London-based Obelisk provides professional outsourcing to in-house legal teams and major law firms. The founding principle behind the business is to re-engage highly skilled lawyers who leave the profession to raise families. Through Obelisk, lawyer parents choose the hours they want to work, giving them the flexibility they need to combine careers with family life. By bringing her innovation to the legal sector, Dana Denis-Smith has created a triple-win formula for Obelisk’s clients, lawyers and their families.

Dana was presented with the Outstanding Innovator award by Legal Week’s Deputy Editor Charlotte Edmond at the ceremony in central London on Friday. The audience was told: “Dana has been at the forefront of the movement to promote flexible working, and in particular helping mums get back to work.  She is constantly finding new ways to get alternate ways of working accepted and has helped provide a voice of reason in a hotly debated area.”

Speaking after the awards, Dana Denis-Smith said:

“When I created Obelisk in 2010 I wanted to build a new type of legal business, in which flexible working is seen as a real strength by both our clients and our lawyers, we use technology to enable us all to work in different ways and we value people as human beings. Creating change takes an enormous amount of time and effort, but with awards like this from Legal Week, judged by such a senior team of people, it shows driving innovation and change brings real rewards.” “I would like to thank all the judges in this year’s Legal Week Innovation Awards for their support for what we are doing at Obelisk – mixing innovation with traditional values around treating people and families well.”

Obelisk has ambitious plans for growing the company by working with more clients and consultants, and this year Dana is launching a series of ground-breaking projects to drive change for women in the workplace, including the First 100 Years. Supported by the Law Society and the Bar Council, the project runs over the next four years, marking 100 years since the Sex Disqualification (Removal) Act of 1919. Inspired by her trio of recent awards Dana Denis-Smith said: “As an entrepreneur and a business leader dedicated to creating positive change in the legal sector, I will always seek to drive innovation and find new and exciting ways to make work work for our clients, our lawyers and their families. It’s what inspires me, and with more and more awards, it’s clearly inspiring for the legal sector too.”


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.”


‘Business with a heart’ wins Investors in People

Obelisk Support, the UK’s leading legal services provider, has joined the global elite of companies who lead the way in putting people at the heart of their business.

Obelisk has been awarded the prestigious Investors in People accreditation – recognised across the world as a mark of excellence in people management.

This latest success comes just two weeks after Obelisk was named by The Times as one of the Top 50 Employers for Women in the UK.

London-based Obelisk provides professional outsourcing to in-house legal teams and major law firms. The founding principle behind the business is to re-engage highly skilled lawyers who leave the profession to raise families. Through Obelisk, lawyer parents choose the hours they want to work, giving them the flexibility they need to combine careers with family life.

Dana Denis-Smith, Obelisk’s Founder and CEO, said: “I am extremely proud of the brilliant team of people we have at Obelisk and the talents they bring to the business every day. Valuing people as human beings, not as employees with staff numbers, is at the core of Obelisk’s mission. When I started Obelisk I wanted to create a legal business with a heart, with people central to the business; from our lawyers, to our clients, to our staff.”

“Our reward for developing a great new offer for lawyers and clients can be seen in Obelisk’s continued growth, with 850 high quality ex-City lawyers now in our family and a stellar client list. Our reward for nurturing our team as best we can is this Investors in People accreditation for the central team as well as the lawyers. Having been through the stringent assessment for Investors in People, it is enormously rewarding to win the accreditation and join the global elite of companies who lead the way in putting people at the heart of their business.”

Investors in People, which was established by the UK Government to help organisations get the best from their people, is at the cutting edge of people management excellence.

Through a series of interviews with people from across the organisation and online data capture, Investors in People puts companies through a rigorous test looking for strong leadership, a compelling vision and a culture of improvement.

Paul Devoy, Head of Investors in People, said: “Achieving the Investors in People standard is something that any organisation should be truly proud of. Working with Investors in People inspires and enables leaders, managers and employees at all levels to build their skills, improve their performance and achieve their potential. We’d like to congratulate Obelisk on their achievement.”

Kitty Piper, a Resourcing Coordinator at Obelisk, said: “For me being part of the Obelisk core team is inspirational because I believe 100% in the message that flexible working is the future. I believe that a happier, more loyal and ultimately more productive team is achieved when people can be honest and really achieve a proper ‘work/life balance’ and when the other demands in our lives are acknowledged and not seen as a barrier to our value or contribution to the business. It is so simple, as it makes perfect sense for individuals and for businesses and their bottom line.”

Obelisk has ambitious plans for growing the company by working with more clients and consultants, and this year Dana is launching a series of ground-breaking projects to drive change for women in the workplace, including the First 100 Years. Supported by the Law Society and the Bar Council, the project runs over the next four years, marking 100 years since the Sex Disqualification (Removal) Act of 1919.

The world-class accreditation is expected to help drive Obelisk’s exciting new plans for expansion. Sixty per cent of Investors in People accredited businesses predict business growth, driven by increased efficiency, improved engagement, better customer service and effective working cultures.

Two weeks ago Obelisk Support was named in The Times Top 50 Employers for Women 2015, which recognises the most inspiring companies leading on gender equality in the workplace in Britain.

This ‘double’ marks a real milestone for Obelisk, which set out in 2010 as a true value-based business in a sector that is known for caring far more about profit than people.

Dana Denis-Smith, a former Linklaters lawyer, said: “Obelisk is a company built on values. We have a purpose beyond just running a business and making money. Obelisk is here to help bring positive change for parents, especially women, in the workplace, so to have our work and our values recognised by The Times newspaper and Investor in People in the space of a few weeks feels very special.”

“It shows the time is right for companies like Obelisk to reshape the workplace for women – placing much more emphasis on human qualities, not just business. In fact, when you get the balance right between work and family life, when you help create much happier and valued employees, you see productivity and profit rise as a result. But change needs momentum, and visibility, and awareness. Being in The Times Top 50 and now being named as an Investor in People business will bring Obelisk all these things during 2015 and beyond.”

Media Trending

Obelisk make The Times Top 50 Employers for Women

Obelisk Support has been named in The Times Top 50 Employers for Women 2015, which recognises the most inspiring companies leading on gender equality in the workplace in Britain.

London-based Obelisk provides professional outsourcing to major law firms and in-house teams. The concept behind the business is to re-engage highly skilled lawyers who leave the profession to raise families. From the 850 lawyers on Obelisk’s books, 96% are mothers. Through Obelisk, lawyer parents choose the hours they want to work, giving them the flexibility they need to combine careers with family life.

Obelisk was formed in 2010 by Dana Denis-Smith, a former Linklaters lawyer who started her own family four years ago. Responding to today’s announcement, Dana said: “I am delighted and so proud that Obelisk has been named as one of the top employers for women in the UK. I’m proud of the concept and the company we have created, proud of the Obelisk team and proud of the clients and consultants that we work with each day. Obelisk is a company built on values. We have a purpose beyond just running a business and making money. Obelisk is here to help bring positive change for women in the workplace, so to have our work and our values recognised by The Times newspaper feels very special.”

All the companies listed in the Top 50 have demonstrated that gender equality is a key part of their business strategy, with consistent commitment to progressing women in the workplace that covers their entire organisation, not just isolated areas. Having spotted that the legal profession was developing a “lost generation” of highly-trained female lawyers as a result of unfair policies and opinions around mothers returning to work, Dana created a new concept in professional outsourcing, driven by technology.

Dana said: “At Obelisk we let our lawyers choose the hours they want to work. The core team in London acts as a sales force and project manager for the work from clients, which it then allocates to our lawyers according to their reported capacity. By eliminating “time” and “space” constraints from how our talent pool works, parents with child-driven schedules are empowered to work. I knew this innovation would offer a reliable and cost effective service to legal industry clients.”

“My ultimate aim is to prove through the company that fully flexible working can actually work in the law and to inject a dose of realism into the profession. Most people in the upper reaches of the profession are aware of the talent drain, and understand that family, rather than making partner is most lawyers’ priority. With Obelisk, a legal career path, with the continuing stimulation of high calibre work servicing giants such as Goldman Sachs and Deutsche Bank, and family, no longer need to be mutually exclusive.”

The Obelisk concept, and the values that underpin it, caught the eye of the Times Top 50 this year, which is being published in a special supplement in The Times today, as part of Business in the Community’s Responsible Business Week. The Obelisk story made the inside spread in the supplement, and a special photo shoot was arranged to capture the Obelisk team in their office in Farringdon. Emma Tucker, The Times’ Deputy Editor, said: “The Times is proud to support Business in the Community’s campaign to improve women’s careers by publishing a special report, for the fifth year running, to celebrate the Top 50 Employers for Women. The supplement will bring to a wide audience the steps that these 50 organisations are making to create a fairer and better working environment for women and will also highlight the challenges still to be overcome in the wider workplace.”

Kathryn Nawrockyi, Opportunity Now Director at Business in the Community, said: “Congratulations to Obelisk Support on being included in The Times Top 50 Employers for Women 2015. They have recognised that putting inclusive behaviours at the core of what they do and making gender equality a business priority not only benefits the women they employ, but also the organisation as a whole and the clients, customers and communities they serve. Their dedication and commitment to driving change should educate and inspire other employers to make a difference, whatever their size or sector.”

Obelisk has ambitious plans for growing the company by working with more clients and consultants, and this year Dana is launching a series of ground-breaking projects to drive change for women in the workplace, including the First 100 Years. Supported by the Law Society and the Bar Council, the project runs over the next four years, marking 100 years since the Sex Disqualification (Removal) Act of 1919. Dana Denis-Smith said: “The time is right for companies like Obelisk to reshape the workplace for women – placing much more emphasis on human qualities, not just business. In fact, when you get the balance right between work and family life, when you help create much happier and valued employees, you see productivity and profit rise as a result. But change needs momentum, and visibility, and awareness. Being in The Times Top 50 will bring Obelisk all these things during 2015 and beyond.”

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 Chipman (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.”


First 100 Years – The Official Launch

When Dana Denis-Smith first spotted this photograph from 1982 she was instantly intrigued. Who is that lone woman in the blue dress, surrounded by so many men in black tie?

Trying to find the answer to this question has inspired Dana to create a fascinating video history project – called The First 100 Years – that Obelisk is running in partnership with The Law Society and The Bar Council.

The First 100 Years charts and celebrates the journey of women in the legal profession from 1919 to present day. The journey will be set out in 100 stories and videos that will combine to create a unique resource and online museum. This four year project has been timed to mark the centenary of the Sex Disqualification (Removal) Act in 2019.

The official launch took place in March – the month dedicated to Women around the world – at a reception at the House of Lords. Around one hundred guests gathered in the Clement Atlee Room to hear about the First 100 Years project and to pledge their support. In keeping with the spirit of the First 100 Years, which holds diversity at its heart, the room was full of women and men, both young and old.

The launch also attracted top names from across the legal profession, academia and the FTSE 100. Clifford Chance, Linklaters, Herbert Smith, Thomson Reuters, BT, M&S, Goldman Sachs, Deutsche Bank, KPMG, Oxford University, The Law Society, The Bar Council, the Inner Temple and 39 Essex Street were all on the guest list, and clearly excited to be at the Palace of Westminster to see The First 100 Years make its first official public appearance.

Our host Baroness Janet Cohen welcomed everyone to Parliament and the project. Lady Elizabeth Cruikshank, author of ‘Women in the Law’ ran through the timeline from 1919, and Madeleine Heggs, who has been a qualified solicitor for 60 years, gave her unique position on how far women have come in the profession and how far there is to go. It was clear from Madeleine’s stories that women in law have always faced enormous challenges when bringing up a family and working in a male-dominated sector. Although Madeleine pointed out one key difference; at least we have dishwashers today.

Dana Denis-Smith – founder and CEO at Obelisk – is herself a legal trailblazer, with a business that is pioneering the use of ex-City lawyers to provide high quality, flexible and affordable legal support to law firms and in-house teams. With over 850 lawyers, Obelisk is now the largest provider of its kind. Looking ahead to how The First 100 Years will help drive social and corporate change, Dana says:

“Many women practising law in the 1970s and 1980s would have found themselves lonely in professional circles. That is not a long forgotten past but the current journey of women in the legal profession today. We need stories – both past and present – to understand what the future holds for women lawyers. We are constantly preoccupied by the negligible change in the percentage numbers of women who are in the boardroom. By setting the debate in a historical context, it is easier to see the rapid rise of women in the profession in the last 30 years and understand how we can use that information to shape the future.”

To mark the official launch, Dana Denis-Smith announced that the First 100 Years project will culminate in 2019 with plans to erect the first monument dedicated to the skilled working woman in the City of London. After finding out that there are more monuments and statues across the capital dedicated to dogs, cats and sheep than women, Obelisk is determined that a monument should be put in place to celebrate the generations of skilled working women who have paved the way for their successors in the professions.

The launch was followed by a guided tour of the Houses of Parliament; from the famous green benches of the House of Commons (although we were not allowed to sit down on them, thanks to David Cameron’s recent ruling) through to the beautifully ornate House of Lords (where we could sit down). And in St Steven’s Hall – which dates back to Medieval times – we found out that Henry VIII used this vast high-ceilinged space for jousting and tennis – evidenced by a recent discovery of a 400 year old tennis ball up in the rafters. The ball is now on display in the British Museum.

Obelisk’s film crew were at Westminster to interview Dana and some of the guests ahead of our crowdfunding launch in October. Watch this space for more details. The filming took place at the Emmeline Pankhurst statue in nearby Victoria Park Gardens. So we were thrilled to be joined by Laura Pankhurst – the great-great granddaughter of Emmeline, who is currently reading law at Cambridge. And there was one other special guest at the launch; Dorothy Livingston, the woman in the blue dress from the photograph that inspired it all.

If you have a story to tell, please get in touch with The First 100 Years team at Obelisk.

Visit the First 100 Years website


Obelisk set to reach greater heights as Jeremy Hopkins joins the team

Jeremy Hopkins has joined Obelisk Support as Client Relationship Manager.

Jeremy’s appointment marks a key milestone in Obelisk’s growth and comes at a time when the company’s unique approach to legal support services is gaining increasing traction in the market with both major corporations and leading law firms.

Happy clients include BT, Deutsche Bank, Thomson Reuters and Goldman Sachs.

Jeremy Hopkins brings to Obelisk an impressive background in business development, marketing and project management. He is also well known inside both law firms and chambers for inspiring people and growing legal businesses.

Dana Denis Smith, Obelisk founder and CEO, said: “We are very excited to be welcoming Jeremy to the Obelisk team.  His knowledge, experience and philosophy align perfectly with what we are trying to achieve, and he comes ideally equipped to help us build on our strong existing client base of in-house lawyers and law firms. Bringing Jeremy into the team will help us build on our rapid growth, by attracting new clients and continuing to evolve our service delivery to meet client requirements.”

Jeremy Hopkins said: “I was delighted to be offered this opportunity to be able to join such a successful and forward-looking business where I believe I can use my skills and knowledge to make a real difference in driving the business forward.”

London-based Obelisk provides professional outsourcing to in-house legal teams and major law firms. The founding principle behind the business is to re-engage highly skilled lawyers who leave the profession to raise families. Through Obelisk, lawyer parents choose the hours they want to work, giving them the flexibility they need to combine careers with family life. By bringing her innovation to the legal sector, Dana Denis-Smith has created a triple-win formula for Obelisk’s clients, lawyers and their families.

Obelisk has recently completed a triple-win of high profile awards, with Dana Denis-Smith named as this year’s ‘Outstanding Innovator’ at The Legal Innovation Awards 2015 last week, Obelisk being named by The Times newspaper as one of the Top 50 Employers for Women in the UK and Obelisk being given the prestigious Investors in People accreditation – recognised across the world as a mark of excellence in people management.

Before joining Obelisk, Jeremy Hopkins worked at Clerkingwell Consulting, Riverview Law and 3 Verulam Buildings, 12 King’s Bench Walk and St John’s Chambers. He is also a regular writer and presenter on legal practice, careers and the evolving legal services market.

*Jeremy’s new role at Obelisk was covered by the New Law Journal.

Media Women in Law

Obelisk on CNN

Your top flight lawyer? She’s a stay-at-home mom, by Catriona Davies, CNN (first published November 2012).

For six years, Eve King worked as a commercial lawyer for a leading London City law firm, complete with its long hours and fat pay check.

But after she had her first child eight years ago she felt she had no choice but to swap the lifestyle for that of a stay-at-home mom.

“I gave it up because I knew I couldn’t be a city lawyer and spend time with my kids,” she said. “After that I discounted myself because I knew that if I had been out of law for a few years, who was going to be interested in me?”

Today, King is helping to run a company that allows highly qualified former City lawyers to work flexibly from home to fit in with family commitments.

Run by an all-woman core team, Obelisk Legal Support has around 100 lawyers and 250 legal translators on its books.

The company was founded in 2010 by Dana Denis-Smith and Charlotte Devlin in an attempt to harness the talents that are lost to the legal profession when women leave after having children.

The exodus from the profession is stark. According to the Law Society, there were 25,786 women solicitors in the UK aged 26-35 last year, but only 17,524 aged 36-45, and 9,622 aged 46-55.

Denis-Smith said: “At the starting point in their careers, 70% of lawyers are women, but at partner level just 12% are women.

“I had seen all these talented people dropping out of the profession around me and had the idea to go back and find out what all these women were doing.

“These women feel they have been forgotten and their skills don’t matter anymore.”

She added: “We have built a business around a skillset that has not been tapped into. We have fantastic lawyers of City caliber who can deliver results.

“We are using people that have disappeared from the market. I’m keen to challenge the idea that professional women with children should be given work out of sympathy rather than be seen as a fantastic business proposition.”

Obelisk works as a legal outsourcing company, taking on support work for law firms and in-house legal departments.

It then distributes the work to the lawyers on its books, who choose how many hours they want to work.

Mateja Simic, the company’s marketing director, said: “This is not a compromise on the part of the lawyer or the client. The client is getting ‘top brain’ for their money and the lawyers are totally committed.”

The idea has been popular with some top names in the legal profession, who are keen to see the gender imbalance redressed.

Helen Mahy, one of only a handful of women General Counsels in the UK, has agreed to become chairwoman of Obelisk’s advisory board when she retires from her job as group company secretary at National Grid next year.

She said: “There’s a hole in the market for somebody like Obelisk to tap a pool of talent that is otherwise being wasted. Nobody else is doing that.”

Mahy said everyone in her own team of 100 lawyers at National Grid was offered flexible working, but that was rare in private law firms.

“Most of their staff are willing to flog themselves to death, so (the firms don’t worry) if they lose a few good people,” she said.

“If law firms used a bit of creativity in helping women get back after a career break, it would be a huge benefit to everybody.”

Lucy Scott-Moncrieff, president of the UK Law Society, said: “The situation will only change if the legal sector takes resolute action by investing in specific career development support for women, improving support around maternity transition and addressing the lack of flexible working practices which continues to hinder women’s career development.”

While the vast majority of lawyers on Obelisk’s books are women, the firm also welcomes men who want flexible working. The lawyers were on average earning $160,000 (£100,000) before their career breaks, and are now paid an equivalent hourly rate.

“What do we want to say to our daughters?” said Charlotte Devlin, co-founder of Obelisk. “That law is a great profession until you have children?”

Media Women in Law

CITY A.M wake up to Obelisk

Dana Denis-Smith; from journalist to lawyer to two-time entrepreneur. Interview by Donata Huggins (first published on 21 November 2011)

Dana Denis-Smith is accustomed to starting new careers. She began professional life as a journalist, before changing tack and training as a solicitor with Linklaters in 2005. Just three years later she left to set up her own business, and then three years after that she set up another.

“I left journalism because I often felt that I wanted in-depth specialist knowledge in the topics I was writing about.”

Her problem with law was quite similar.

“I found myself fascinated by the deals themselves, not the document. Plus, I wanted to leave before the money tempted me to stay. Lots of City workers talk about wanting to start their own business, but all too often the comfortable stream of income holds them back.”

Denis-Smith’s business idea for what became Marker Global was a fusion of her past employment.

“I had noticed that there weren’t any political risk research firms that catered to the middle-sized business market. One or two big players dominated the market and they tended to be run by ex-security guys. I didn’t see why I couldn’t set up some competition that focused on using information received from the ground.”

It was to be a medley of the Economist Intelligence Unit, that she had worked for, and the big political risk players already in the market.

“It began in the same boring way that every entrepreneur seems to start: I bought a laptop with my last pay check and then sat in my room and started working.

Luckily her friends gave her a few small commissions to get started. They really were the low hanging fruit. It was no easy ride though. It took her a year to recruit all of the people she needed.

“I did so many interviews that in the evenings I wanted to be mute.”

If not busy enough, Denis-Smith hatched another idea three years later: Obelisk Legal Support. She realised that there were large numbers of ex-magic circle firm lawyers all over the world that were no longer working for personal reasons (usually having children), and their skills could still be used to do ad hoc, flexible work for their former employers on a more cost-efficient basis for the company.

“I just thought why can’t these firms give the work they would usually give to a paralegal for six months to these women and get it done just as well at a cheaper rate.”

Setting her heart on the idea, she set up a website, sought out the lawyers and walked into her old firm to pitch it.

“They asked me to apply to do the job in-house, but I explained that it was something I wanted to do myself. They weren’t interested in having a contractor – it’s very complicated and bureaucratic for large firms to employ small subcontractors, so I decided to aim at the mid-market. Thankfully, it worked.”

Two businesses in and a seven-month baby in arm, Denis-Smith has set her sights high.

“They’re both just start-ups and doing them both alongside looking after the baby can sometimes leave me feeling like a zombie, but I’m from Transylvania, so I think that’s fine.”

CV | Dana Denis-Smith:
Company name: Marker Global and Obelisk Legal Support
Founded: Marker Global: October 2007 Obelisk Legal Support: July 2010
Born: Transylvania, Romania
Lives: Bayswater
Studied: London School of Economics, undergraduate in international history, masters in political economy and BPP law school
Drinking: Red wine, mostly French
Reading: “I have a very mixed pile by my bedside: mainly politics, history, fiction and psychology.”
Idol: Catherine the Great
Talents: “Loyal, happy taking decisions and energetic.”
Favourite business book: “I read the Harvard Business Review because I don’t really have the time to read business books.”
Awards: Complinet’s Best Consulting Firm of the Year, 2009 for Marker Global; Management Today’s “35 under 35” list, 2010.
Motto: “To infinity and beyond.”
First ambition: “To be a cosmonaut; a Soviet-style astronaut.”
Work history: Solicitor at Linklaters, writer and analyst for The Economist Group.