Women in Law

“Sixty years ago, Ruth Bader Ginsburg applied to be Supreme Court Clerk. She’d studied at two of [our] finest law schools and had ringing recommendations. But because she was a woman she was rejected. Ten years later, she sent her first brief to the Supreme Court- which led it to strike down a state law based on gender discrimination for the first time. And then, for nearly three decades, as the second woman ever to sit on the highest court in the land, she was a warrior for gender equality – someone who believed that equal justice under law only had meaning if it applied to every single American…”

One would be forgiven for assuming that a woman wrote this tribute to the late Ruth Bader Ginsburg. It is in fact by Barack Obama. It is perhaps apt that as the first American President of colour, he could relate to Justice Ginsburg on several levels, including that of being a lawyer.

Tributes to Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s Legacy

Justice Ginsburg’s work has influenced and inspired many women and men. Her legacy cannot be underestimated. Recent tributes include Sheryl Sandberg, who said:

“She was first in her class and she couldn’t find a job. So she did what brilliant, ambitious women have always done when the doors of power slammed in their faces: she found another way. She built a world-changing career fighting for women’s legal equality one case at a time, taking apart systemic gender discrimination piece by piece.”

Hillary Clinton, another woman who broke barriers in her early career and more recently with her presidential bid, also paid tribute to Ginsburg:

“Justice Ginsburg paved the way for so many women, including me. There will never be another like her.”

Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s Legal Journey

Ginsburg was born on March 15, 1933. She grew up in a low-income, working-class neighbourhood in Brooklyn to Jewish parents. Ginsburg’s mother, Celia, was of great intellect but her education was cut short and she worked in a garment factory. Celia was a major influence in her life. Perhaps this early childhood memory was what fuelled much of Ginsburg’s work throughout her career in furtherance of women’s rights.

Ginsburg was only the second female Supreme Court justice and a hugely significant one at that, who was a champion of gender equality.

Perhaps even more significant than her considerable achievements during her tenure as a Supreme Court Justice (which commenced in 1993 under the Clinton administration and continued for nearly three decades) was the work she did as a lawyer before ascending to the Supreme Court. She changed the course of American law for gender equality and left a sweeping legal legacy.

Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Thurgood Marshall: Two Role Models

When President Bill Clinton nominated Ginsburg to the Supreme Court, he compared her legal work on behalf of women to the work of Thurgood Marshall on behalf of African Americans. Thurgood Marshall was an American lawyer and civil rights activist who also served as an Associate Justice and who argued the landmark case (before his appointment as justice) of Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka 347 U.S. 483 (1954). This case outlawed segregation in schools.

A comparison of Ruth Bader Ginsburg with Thurgood Marshall shows that social change comes not just from elections and demonstrations (as important as these are) but also from battles fought in court. The landmark Brown case was arrived at by decades of civil rights cases argued by Thurgood Marshall as part of his involvement in the NAACP Legal Defence Fund. Marshall went on to establish the LDF as a separate entity from the NAACP.

As Marshall had done for civil rights as an NAACP attorney, Ginsburg did likewise to lead the American Civil Liberties Union’s (ACLU) Women’s Rights Project to win historic court victories for gender equity from 1972-1980.
Marshall was noted for his ‘go slow’ approach to establishing more civil rights protections to African-Americans after founding the NAACP ‘ Legal Defense Fund in the 1940’s. This ‘building blocks’ approach, noted by Ginsburg of Marshall’s work, was what led to the court’s unanimous ruling in the Brown case. Ginsburg emulated this approach.

The parallels between Marshall and Ginsburg don’t only hold true for their legal careers, but also apply to their time as students.

Ginsburg who couldn’t secure a clerkship or law firm position despite having a top ranked degree, went on to co-found the Women’s Rights Project at the ACLU and then ascend the Supreme court after 13 years of being a court lawyer.
Similarly, Thurgood Marshall was denied admission to his home state law school in Maryland on the basis of race. Marshall went on to serve on the federal appeals court in New York before becoming the nation’s first black solicitor general and thereafter being nominated to the Supreme Court by President Lindon Johnson in 1967.

Professor Jonathan Entin clerked for Ginsburg when she was an appeals court judge and has written about the comparison between Ginsburg and Marshall in their work against gender and racial discrimination respectively. He notes that when Ginsburg began her work in the 1960’s she faced more ‘daunting’ prospects than Marshall in terms of legal precedent. When Marshall began his work challenging racial segregation in the 1930’s, the Supreme Court had already rejected some forms of racial discrimination (for example a Supreme Court ruling in 1914 had stated that denial of first class accommodation on trains to blacks violated the Fourteenth Amendment (McCabe v. Atchison, T & S.F.Ry 235 U.S. 151, 161-62 (1914).

Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s Work on Gender Discrimination

However, insofar as gender discrimination, the courts were still behind the times. Even in 1961 the Supreme Court, under Chief Justice Earl Warren, unanimously upheld the constitutionality of a jury selection system in Florida that discriminated against women on the grounds that “women are at the center of home and family life.” The observation reflected dominant social values at the time.

Perhaps somewhat surprisingly for someone who will be remembered as a warrior for gender equality, some of Justice Ginsburg’s most notable cases involved sex discrimination against men. Her first case in 1974, although unsuccessful, showed her willingness to work on behalf of men challenging gender discrimination. In this case a Florida widower asked for a property tax exemption that state law only allowed to widows. Ginsburg argued that rigid attitudes about sex roles could harm everyone.

Ginsburg sometimes said that one of her favourite cases as a lawyer involved a man whose wife died in childbirth, leaving him alone to care for their newborn son. In Weinberger v. Weisenfeld 420 U.S. 636 (1975)
Ginsburg convinced the Supreme Court that the section of the Social Security Act that denied fathers benefits because of their sex was unconstitutional. She won the case unanimously.

Some 20 years after she won his case, Wiesenfeld subsequently testified at her confirmation hearing to the Supreme Court in 1993. Mr Weisenfeld recently commented on his long standing friendship with Ginsburg and the case she won for him saying that ‘[we] found out three justices discussed the case before they even heard it. They were discussing how disgusting it was that a male wanted to stay home and take care of a child.’

Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s Work on Challenging Gender Stereotypes

Ginsburg wanted to shake up preconceived notions of the stereotypical gender positions in a family unit. In retrospect, this was decades ahead of her time.

It is interesting that she has inspired not just women but men in re-evaluating what the family unit should look like. One of Ginsburg’s clerk’s, Ryan Park, wrote a piece in The Atlantic Monthly, praising his former boss for inspiring him to become a stay-at-home father after completing his clerkship. He quoted her in saying that “gender lines in the law are bad for everyone: bad for women, bad for men, and bad for children”

I find this quote particularly interesting and inspiring as it shows the considered view that Ginsburg always took: thinking more laterally than simply the case she was dealing with at the time. The forethought that a child’s view of their parents is as important in shaping their own thought processes as how their parents view one another’s role is really a very holistic one. Ginsburg didn’t just take this view as a bystander, her own marriage was very much modelled on equal parenting- something, which at the time she was first practising law, was the exception, not the rule.

Latterly as a Supreme Court Justice, Ginsburg was famous more for her dissenting opinions than her majority opinions. She may have served as a more moderate liberal influence in a Conservative court during her tenure as a Justice, but the changes she championed as a young lawyer for gender equality were now there, enshrined in law.

Ginsberg’s comparison to Thurgood Marshall is both timeless and timely. Both fought for the marginalised in society. Ginsberg made it her life’s work to force the law to acknowledge and respect those who had not been heard and to enshrine such recognition in law.

In Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s own words “Real Change, enduring change, happens one step at a time”.

Women in Law

Touching on topics as important as Black Lives Matter, equality and making a difference, Bernadette Kisaalu, Principal Lawyer for BT Customer Experience and Chair of BT’s Ethnic Diversity Network has been talking to The Attic for Black History Month. Bernadette shares her legal journey and aspirations, the role models that have inspired her along the way and what she is doing to help improve equality in her community.

Please tell us about your professional journey

My first professional role was with Impellam Group, a leading global talent acquisition and workforce solutions provider where I worked as a Contract Risk Manager. At that time, I had completed all my legal exams but needed to secure a training contract in order to become a qualified solicitor. As a Contract Risk Manager, I worked with lots of different stakeholders in the business and was exposed to different types of legal work. Due to my passion and determination to become a solicitor, whilst working for Impellam Group, I applied for several training contracts and used my annual leave to do vacation schemes at law firms. Having completed a few vacation schemes, this confirmed that I didn’t want to work in private practice. Instead I wanted to work in-house, being at the heart of a business, seeing a matter from the beginning to the end and helping shape it. I have Rebecca Watson (Impellam Group, General Counsel & Company Secretary) to thank for believing in me, she saw something in me, and gave me the opportunity to complete my training contract in-house at Impellam Group. This was a company first, as I was the first trainee solicitor the company had taken on!

After qualifying at Impellam Group, I stayed with the company for a further two years before moving on to Avon Cosmetics. I joined Avon Cosmetics as Legal Counsel for UK and Republic of Ireland. At a time when their business model was transitioning from a direct sales business which primarily involved door-step selling from Avon brochures to online digital sales. My role covered a broad spectrum of legal work ranging from advertising to commercial contracts and personal injury law. After a few years at Avon Cosmetics, I decided that I wanted to become a subject matter expert and moved to Vodafone in 2014 as a Consumer Lawyer, looking after their Mobile portfolio. This was a fantastic opportunity and really helped my career to grow. One career highlight was taking part in Vodafone’s International Short-Term Assignment Programme (ISTAP). This gave me the opportunity to work for Vodafone Italy to develop an understanding of how their Italian consumer business operated.

In 2016, I then moved to BT, in a Senior Lawyer role in the Consumer Law and Advertising Team. This was an exciting time for me as, soon after I joined the business BT acquired EE. So, I found myself working in one of the largest Consumer Law legal teams in the UK. Four years on, I am now the Principal Lawyer in the BT Customer Experience Legal Team. I advise BT’s Consumer business (BT, EE and Plusnet) about how they sell BT products and services to UK consumers, in compliance with UK Consumer law and Ofcom regulations. With my team of three, I advise the CEO of BT Consumer, Marc Allera and his Senior Leadership Team. The business comes to us with questions like, “We want to create this new cool product for our customers, what should we look out for?” Things I look at include, what do we need to make customers aware of when they’re buying products and services from us online, or over the phone? What information should be part of the customer order journey? What terms and conditions need to be created? This creates a fast-paced work environment which I love, as no two days are ever the same.

What is BT’s Ethnic Diversity Network?

I’ve been Chair of the Ethnic Diversity Network (EDN) at BT since November 2019. The EDN was created in 1992 and has now been operating for over 28 years. It was created to promote and develop the professional image of BT’s BAME employees, with only 9 members. Today, the EDN has over 1,400 members. With lots of different ethnicities, it’s a strategic part of the business and has backing from the BT Board to empower and amplify the voices of BT’s racially diverse colleagues. The EDN also has an integral role in creating a community, especially since COVID-19 where colleagues are working from home and want to still feel connected to each other.

In the wake of the murder of George Floyd and the Black Lives Matter movement, the EDN really amplified and empowered the voices of our racially diverse colleagues. Having chaired an open conversation with Philip Jansen, CEO and his Executive Leadership Team, giving Black colleagues the opportunity to express how they were feeling and let Philip know what actions they would like BT to take. This elicited a strong statement from Philip, executive engagement with Black colleagues around the world and the production of BT’s Ethnicity Rapid Action Plan. This plan includes a series of actions to improve employees’ experiences through several measures including race awareness training, a reverse mentoring programme, mandatory diverse short lists and a new talent programme for high-potential ethnic minority colleagues.

We also connected with our colleagues in America and set up an Ethnic Diversity Network Americas chapter after creatively using internal social media tools to promote Black Live Matter and encourage candid debate in teams across BT.

What do you value in life and work?

In life, my family is very important to me. My parents have been together for over 43 years and I’m one of six children. Growing up my parents always raised us to first and foremost love and respect one another and to help each other wherever possible. Like any family we naturally have our highs and lows but, throughout it all we remain extremely close.

I also value my health. It’s too easy these days to become all consumed by work, social media and our devices that we forgot to take time out to maintain our mind and body. I try to strike a balance and regularly go to the gym, where I join spin class, pilates and kettlebells. At work, BT offers a lot of benefits and I practice mindfulness twice a week. This provides me with a great form of release, a time to reset and be still.

My work values are linked to discipline. If you’re disciplined, you’ll do the right things. It’s important that businesses and the people they employ are flexible and can respond and adapt to changes in business needs for example the present global issues such as COVID-19 and BLM.

How did your upbringing and education / experience help to strengthen your sense of core identity?

My upbringing and education strengthen my sense of identity. I was born to parents who were not British citizens (my father is from Uganda, my mother is from St Kitts & Nevis). My father came to the UK in hope of a better life, and my mother was the byproduct of the Windrush generation, she was brought to the UK as a child with my great grandmother. My mother was a chef and my father a qualified accountant for the Ministry of Defence, both are now retired. They worked hard and were positive role models for me.

I witnessed some of the challenges my parents experienced. For example, I recall countless stories from my parents telling me that they had been spat on and racially abused in the street and on occasion at work. I personally don’t know how my parents coped during these times. However, they always taught my siblings and I to rise above it and turn the other cheek. When I saw that my parents prevailed in the face of adversity to become successful professionals, supporting our family unit this really inspired me. My parents said, if I worked hard, I would be able to go on and do anything that I set my mind to. This gave me a great tenacity.

As a child, I grew up in predominantly white areas. The schools, college, and university I attended were all predominantly white. I was maybe one of two pupils who were Black or from an ethnic minority background out of a few hundred. I looked different, I had Black skin, an African surname (which very few people ever cared to try and pronounce or spell correctly), and natural Afro 4C hair which my mother neatly braided every Sunday. Inside our home it was completely different, there was a strong sense of Black culture, from the records my parents played (Aretha Franklin, Ella Fitzgerald, Diana Ross), to the books I grew up reading (Toni Morrison, Maya Angelou – I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings) and the traditional cultural foods my parents prepared for us. As a result, I always had a strong sense of my identity.

What does Black History Month mean to you?

As a celebration of the amazing contributions of Black people to the world history we know today, Black History Month is very important. The month of October acts as a catalyst for meaningful change. In the wake of George Floyd’s murder, it’s essential for everyone to have hard conversations and to allow some issues to come to the forefront. These issues need to continue to change and evolve.

Businesses need to look at what it means to be inclusive. It is time to educate others because students were never taught Black History in school. Not only would it be beneficial for all students to learn a more representative curriculum but, it’s important that Black students can see themselves in the lessons they are taught. Eradicating the achievements of Black people throughout the centuries, avoiding subjects such as Britain’s colonial past or teaching history from the perspective of white people only serves to drive further racial inequality in the modern day.

It is also time to be proud of everything that we’ve achieved, to acknowledge all the pioneers that’ve come before us, to celebrate what makes us unique and the progress we’ve made.

However as much as I love Black History Month, I wish there wasn’t a need for it to exist. If we shined a light on it every day, it would become mainstream. We are on a path to gaining equality. It would be great if we could get to a place like that.

Who are your role models?

My parents are my biggest inspiration and role models. Another role model is Michelle Obama. When I read her book Becoming, I was in awe. A lot of what she said resonated with me. She had a very important job as the first African American First Lady of the U.S. She taught Black young girls to dream big, that you can be anything that you want to be, particularly if you look or sound different. It’s important to have high profile people as positive role models.

Someone else who is important in Diversity & Inclusion is Rihanna. One of the world’s richest musicians, she really shines with her sense of business acumen. She launched two incredibly successful brands in cosmetics and lingerie. Rihanna was inspired to create Fenty Beauty after years of seeing a void in the industry for products that performed across all skin types and tones. I like the fact that she noticed a gap in the market via her own experience and did something about it. Her brand is now distributed in retail stores globally with a range of over 40 different shades from light to dark in what was essentially a whitewashed beauty industry.

Can you talk about the causes and non-profits you support?

Within BT, we support the Aleto Foundation to create lifetime opportunities for young people and shape the next generation of leaders. We aim at providing high achieving university graduates from BAME communities with real-life educational foundations to equip them in the corporate world.

I’m also a trustee of a charity called Sour Lemons. It was founded to address the diversity gap in leadership roles in the creative and cultural industry. Sour Lemons aims to be a disruptor. They challenge the systemic barriers that prevent diverse leadership from thriving in the first place. They do this by placing those who have been excluded from the conversation, at the heart of reshaping it via the ‘Making Lemonade’ Programme, “turning one sour lemon into lemonade at a time”.

The Attic wishes to thank Bernadette Kisaalu for sharing her experiences and for the inspiring work she does to support diversity and inclusion in the legal profession.

FIRST 100 Years of Women in law - book review
Women in Law

On Monday 23rd December 2019, we celebrate the centenary of the Sex Disqualification (Removal) Act 1919, which paved the way for women to become professionals in the UK. The First 100 Years project is the national campaign celebrating this centenary, focusing primarily on the progression of women in the legal profession since 1919. First 100 Years has been celebrating this centenary throughout this year in many ways, one of its latest being the newly released FIRST: 100 Years of Women in Law, which is the first book of its kind telling the story of women in law throughout the last 100 years in an accessible and informative way.

About First 100 Years

Set up in 2015 by Obelisk Support CEO Dana Denis-Smith, the First 100 Years project has been building an archive to tell the previously untold stories of the pioneering women who made history in the legal profession. From the first female solicitor, Madge Easton Anderson, in 1920, to Elizabeth Lane, who was the first woman appointed a County Court judge and then the first woman appointed to the High Court, right up to the present day with the first female President of the Supreme Court, Lady Hale, and future firsts, like future president of the Law Society I. Stephanie Boyce, who will become the first President from a BAME background in 2021.

First 100 Years is a multimedia project, telling the history of women in law in many ways to ensure as many people as possible can learn about the stories in a way that suits them; from the filmed biographical interviews, a podcast series, a unique music commission to an artwork commission for the Supreme Court, and now a book, there is something for everyone to learn about the inspiring female pioneers that shaped the profession today. The purpose of the project is not just to understand the history of women in law, but to use this to provide the context for promoting further gender equality in the profession, by assessing progress so far and how far we still have to go.

FIRST

FIRST: 100 Years of Women in Law seeks to capture the lives of female pioneers in law, past and present, to ensure we do not lose the stories of these incredible women. It does so following the format of the First 100 Years timeline, podcast series and exhibition, decade-by-decade, delving into the broader themes of each decade, including the wider historical context that impacted women’s place in the profession. It also goes further into the many stories of the individual women including biographical information and both archival and modern day pictures of the pioneers, making it a highly informative and entertaining read.

Lucinda Acland, a long-term volunteer on the project and the host of the First 100 Years Podcast series, and Katie Broomfield, an academic in the field and a champion of the project, have brought together archival material, material produced by the project through the video and podcast interviews and their own research to create this book. FIRST is the product of over five years’ worth of efforts in building the archive, which was not an easy task.

The project’s founder, Dana Denis-Smith, often refers to the fact that what she thought would be a history project, turned into an “archaeological dig” to unearth the stories because women’s achievements often go unacknowledged and their stories rarely told, so finding out many of the stories took a lot of work. The writing of the book itself, however, was done in a very short amount of time. It was originally not intended to be released until 2020 but due to an incredible amount of interest, the task was brought forward and the authors got it done in a matter of months in time for the centenary celebrations, and we are so pleased they did as it has been a huge success!

There was a hotly contested debate around the title, from the authors, publishers, editors, proof readers and the First 100 Years team. Being the first of its kind, it was important to ensure the title hit the correct tone. It had to transcend the purely feminist literature section of a library and be a credible history book in its own right, irrespective of the fact it featured women. In the end, it was actually The Attic editor Laure Latham who came up with the simple yet effective title: FIRST: 100 Years of Women in Law. It captured the essence of the project, with the name of the project in the title, but also the simple word “FIRST” alluded to the women featured as “firsts” in various ways, and is also signifying that there are many achievements for women in law to come – this is just the beginning.

Why is FIRST so important?

Ultimately, women need to understand their history to be able to place themselves within it. It has become apparent to the First 100 Years team over the past few years that, understandably, people could not accurately estimate how long women have been in the profession, or have known the many anecdotes that have since been shared, such as not being allowed to wear trousers in the courtroom, having no female lavatory facilities or women frequently being asked to make the tea in meetings. It is only by understanding the background can we both recognise how far we have come and make sure we fight to ensure history does not repeat itself. As Baroness Kennedy says in her testimonial of the book, “this is a vital and stunning piece of our history…the absence of women in the system of law was a gross impediment to justice” and we must ensure women’s place in the profession is cemented.

The Next 100 Years

As The Secret Barrister says in their testimonial of the book, “[FIRST] offers not only a unique celebration of the progress achieved by women in the law, but a vital reminder of how much work there still is to do”. Despite the progress of the last 100 years, there are still barriers to be broken and progress to be made, and there are plenty of plans in the works for The Next Hundred Years! You can get involved by following us on social media @First100Years and @Next100Years_, checking out all the many resources we have on our website www.first100years.org.uk and contacting us at [email protected].

Make sure to get your copy of the book by going to www.first100years.org.uk/our-new-book/

Here’s to the Next 100 Years!

Felicity Jones stars as Ruth Bader Ginsburg in ON THE BASIS OF SEX
Women in Law

Times have changed since 1959 when Ruth Bader Ginsburg had to endure a particularly cringy professional interview. After admitting she’d been rejected by 12 law firms, she lists some of the rejection reasons to her interviewer. “Last week I was told women are too emotional to be lawyers. One interviewer told me I have a sterling resume, but they hired a woman last year, and what in the world would they want with two of us?”

Stunned at first, the whole audience burst out laughing at the preview of On the Basis of Sex in Soho, London last week. Yes, people really discriminated a female lawyer because she’d be ‘too busy at bake sales to be effective’ and that’s only one of the obstacles that The Notorious R.B.G. had to surmount to eventually become Associate Justice of the Supreme Court of the United States.

WARNING: Spoilers.

Sexism in the Legal Profession

Not a major spoiler here: things did not change quickly for women in law in the 20th century. They did not change at all for an excruciatingly long time, and On the Basis of Sex is a perfect illustration of that slow progress on screen. It’s almost painful to watch such a bright mind as RBG be put down, rejected, humiliated, and undervalued time and time again – when she’s clearly a legal rock star.

Fortunately for all of us, she isn’t known as The Notorious R.B.G. for nothing. This biopic recounts her early days at Harvard up to an early case in her career. This case changed not only her whole life but the lives of all women in the United States. Throughout the movie, we see Bader Ginsburg subjected to blatant – and at the time, legal – sexism in the legal profession.

Though we would like to think that we’re past such discrimination, Things Women in Law are Sick of Hearing makes for a fascinating read and a quick modern reality check. Discrimination on the basis of gender, whether conscious or not, is still alive and kicking in the legal profession but some heroes like RBG are tackling it every day.

There’s more good news.

Mad Men gone Legal

If Mad Men were about brilliant lawyers, the resulting movie might be On the Basis of Sex. Aside from the plot, the 1960s and 1970s fashion, the global civil rights movement in the United States, the turmoil of society all make perfect backdrops for a groundbreaking case that slowly finds the right circumstances to unfold.

Like Mad Men character Peggy Olson fighting the double standard in the treatment and expectations of men and women, Bader Ginsburg slowly but surely carves a place for women in society with the use of her professional expertise. Unfazed, she keeps forging her path and slowly, manages to gain not just respect but admiration from her peers.

She does not take no for an answer and where others see challenges, she looks at the bright side of life and builds upon her successes to find solutions.

Ethics and the Law to the Rescue

Bader Ginsburg also uses the ethics of the law to her advantage. A sentence picked up early in the movie during her Harvard days gives us a clue that something is up: “A court ought not be affected by the weather of the day. But will be by the climate of the era.”

Also in RBG’s husband, Martin’s words, “how a government taxes its citizens is a declaration of a country’s values.” In essence, the law reflects society, the law guides citizens to conform with societal values but nothing is set in stone. Throughout history, the mark of a civilised society has been society’s ability to refine its laws to reflect the will of the people.

According to economists Matthew O. Jackson of Stanford and Daron Acemoglu of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, there are two possible ways to successfully change norms: dramatic and highly visible efforts to change behaviours spearheaded by leaders like Gandhi or Martin Luther King Jr., or gradual changes in laws over long periods of time, such as smoking regulations in America.

In the case of On the Basis of Sex, tax laws are the catalyst of change. Though tax statutes don’t make for electrifying bedtime reading, they make for a perfect climax in this movie. You don’t even have to be a tax specialist or a lawyer to understand the arguments of the case, as a 13-year-old in the audience later attested.

Felicity Jones as RBG perfectly articulates her defence of gender equality in plain English and using everyday examples we can all relate to. It’s not the virtuoso high-flying law you see in the TV series Suits – it’s John Adams legal perfection because it’s factual, irrefutable and just. As it should be.

Our Verdict

At Obelisk Support, we are huge advocates of change in the legal profession and supporters of gender equality. We are known as the leaders of diversity in legal services and our CEO is a woman. It’s no surprise that we all loved On the Basis of Sex, though we had initial reservations (as lawyers should). This could have been a boring Hollywood feel-good courtroom drama full of cliches and yes there a few, but instead On the Basis of Sex manages to pull an Erin Brockovich and is an inspirational movie with a kickass female protagonist. What else could we ask for?

We can ask nothing more of the Notorious RBG, obviously. She’s already done so much and despite her health, she is still hard at work as we write. What we can do, however, is make her proud and amplify her actions by channeling our own Notorious R.B.G.s and fighting for gender equality and against all types of discrimination in society.

That would be the perfect ending to a seriously great movie.

Thanks to The Entrepreneurs Network and the Female Founders Forum for organising this preview and celebrating role models and mentors in society.

Obelisk In Action

The year 2019 starts on a high note for Obelisk Support CEO and founder of The First 100 Years project, Dana Denis-Smith, after 2018 saw her voted LexisNexis Legal Personality of the Year. On 6 February 2019, she received an Outstanding Achievement in Legal Services prize from the Legal 500. The Legal 500 UK Awards recognise and reward the best in-house and private practice teams and individuals, with over 50,000 interviews conducted to ascertain the winners.

Taking place the same evening as the 20th anniversary reception of LegalWeek by Hyde Park (which we at Obelisk Support also attended), the Legal500 UK Awards in the heart of the City of London was a great gathering of ‘winners’ and got together the key players in the sector – across the profession from in-house to law firms and barristers chambers – for a night of celebration.

Gender Equality in the Legal Profession

At the Legal500 UK Awards 2019 last night, the Legal500 made a public commitment to the promotion of diversity in their rankings and encouraged firms in the room to put forward more women and people from minority backgrounds for consideration.

Legal500 UK Editor, Georgina Stanley, said that if firms do not put forward women and people from minority backgrounds then they “risk being an echo chamber for the status quo”. In an industry where gender balance remains a big issue, all of us legal professionals also serve as role models for future generations of women.

They showed their support for the centenary of women in the legal profession this year by awarding all the Outstanding Achievement Awards to women: Penelope Warne (CMS), Julia Salasky (CrowdJustice), Nilufer von Bismarck (Slaughter and May), Sharon White (Stephenson Harwood), Baroness Shackleton of Belgravia LVO (Payne Hicks Beach), Sandra Wallace (DLA Piper), and Dana Denis-Smith of Obelisk Support and the First 100 Years project.

Interestingly, all the awards for women were given by men. Surely, an area to improve on in the future.

Outstanding Achievement in Legal Services: Dana Denis-Smith

Every member of the audience received a booklet upon arrival listing 2019 winners, booklet which included a feature on the women being recognised for their outstanding achievements in legal services. This is what the feature on Dana Denis-Smith read:

“As the founder and CEO of Obelisk Support and as the founder of the First 100 Years project, Dana Denis-Smith has put her desire to help women succeed in law at the core of her professional life. The former lawyer and journalist founded Obelisk Support in 2010 to help City lawyers – especially mothers –to work flexibly around their family and other commitments, while simultaneously providing businesses with flexible access to lawyers. The company now serves clients including BT and Goldman Sachs. In 2014, she founded the First 100 Years project to chart the history of women in law and celebrate their achievements. 2019 marks 100 years since the Sex Disqualification (Removal) Act 1919 was enacted, allowing women to enter the professions.”  

Reflecting on her award, Dana Denis-Smith says, “I was extremely pleased that the Legal500 put the spotlight on women in law and was very honoured to be in the company of some incredible women leaders of the last 25 years.”

Legal500 Award Ceremony

Legal 500 Award Ceremony 2019

This year’s Legal 500 award took place in the magnificent 14th-century Great Hall of Guildhall in London, a medieval jewel of architecture with stained glass windows. The turnout was fantastic, a lot of smiles and tinkering glasses. The Legal 500 team took the stage expressing how we should promote diversity within our legal teams, especially individuals from BAME backgrounds.

Partner Charity: Save the Children

Legal 500 awards

It was a delight to have the Legal500’s partner charity, Save the Children at the awards. The silent auction included a Darth Vader portrait as well as a £400 red wine set (lawyers know their wines), and whoever contributed to the charity could see how their contributions helped the children thanks to a virtual reality stand showcasing real-time contributions. It was truly a heart warming and eye-opening experience.

2019 Winners

We were thrilled to see familiar names in the cohort of 2019 winners, including many clients such as Linklaters in Corporate/Commercial, Goldman Sachs in Banking, BT in CSR & Employment, Ocado and ASOS in Retail and O2 Telefonica in Telecoms.
We were also very proud to see names associated with Obelisk Support’s partner charity, The First 100 Years, including Sandie Okoro of the World Bank.

Congratulations to them!

For a full list of winners, click here.

The Legal Update

Are podcasts a part of your daily life yet? Research suggests that there are over 630,000 podcasts in existence today in more than 100 languages. In South Korea, 58% of people are podcast listeners, while the UK languishes behind at 18%.

In the legal sphere, there is also a growing number of engaging and diverse podcast series covering topics ranging from criminal cases-  such as popular modern podcast pioneer Serial – to industry current affairs and wellbeing.

Podcasts are a great way to learn, relax and broaden the mind. If you’re looking to increase your podcast listening this year, start with our list (in no particular order) of the best podcasts for lawyers we’re listening to in 2019.

#1 Resilient Lawyer

The resilient lawyer in question is Jeeno Cho, partner at JC Law Group PC and co-author of The Anxious Lawyer: An 8-Week Guide to a Joyful and Satisfying Law Practice Through Mindfulness and Meditation. Cho’s podcast share tools and strategies for finding more balance, joy, and satisfaction in your professional and personal life. She talks to lawyers, entrepreneurs, mentors and teachers about their approaches to mental, emotional, physical and spiritual wellbeing while navigating the demands of their professions.

#2 Legal Current

A staple for many podcast-loving lawyers, Legal Current by Thomson Reuters makes the list again as it continues to run a series of commentary on the business and practice of law. Based in the USA, it has a global outlook and explores many issues that affect legal practitioners in other countries.

#3 Legal Toolkit

Legal Talk Network’s Legal Toolkit is a comprehensive resource for people in law practice management. With a new episode every month, Jared Correia invites forward-thinking lawyers to discuss the services, ideas, and programs that have improved their practices. In January’s episode, Sarah Schaaf talks about how lawyers can optimise their payment processes with technology and automation.

#4 Sworn

From the makers of Up and Vanished comes a new series pledging to pull back the curtain on the criminal justice system. Host Philip Holloway is a defense attorney and former prosecutor with a background in law enforcement. He delves into the legal aspects of major cases as well as discussing the emotional consequences of their outcomes.

#5 Beyond Brexit

If you haven’t read/heard enough about the latest Brexit updates and opinions, check out PwC’s Beyond Brexit discussing all aspects of how life post March 29th 2019 will impact life and business in the UK. GDPR, trade negotiations, the economy and immigration are all discussed in depth with experts to provide some clarity in the face of increasing uncertainty.

#6 Happy Lawyer Happy Life

Of course we endorse the message Clarissa Rayward brings, and the infectious energy she brings to each episode will hopefully help you manage different life stresses, deal with grief, or give you the advice you need to launch a legal start-up, Happy Lawyer Happy Life makes for great listening and the popular Facebook page is very lively.

#7 The Gen Y Lawyer

This forward-thinking blog continues to explore the new age of law, with the first episode of 2019 focusing on Twitter and how Jaime Santos and Kendyl Hanks (appellate advocate and appellate litigation associate respectively) created their movement to highlight women in law and call out sexism in the industry.

#8 Modern Law Library

A great podcast by ABA Journal for lawyers who are avid readers as well as listeners. Lee Rawles interviews authors of recently published books to hear their unique insight on the next additions to your to-read list. Recent featured authors include Stewart Levine author of The Best Lawyer You Can Be: A Guide to Physical, Mental, Emotional, and Spiritual Wellness,  and Nancy Maveety author of Glass and Gavel: The U.S. Supreme Court and Alcohol.

#9 West Cork

An Irish true crime series made by a British couple, if you didn’t get a chance to listen to one of the most talked about podcasts of 2018, now’s the time. Even gaining praise from documentary high king Louis Theroux himself, West Cork puts the victim of the crime at its heart, with the makers ensuring heavy involvement from Sophie Toscan du Plantier’s family and their solicitor. Without the sensationalism that sometimes features in podcasts of this genre, the 13 part series explores the complexities around the unsolved murder and the accused’s High Court action against the State for wrongful arrest.

#10 The Happy Lawyer Project

Moving back to happier subject matter, Okeoma Moronu Schreiner continues her mission to help young lawyers find the formula for a happy life of accomplish and contentment in law. Through her podcast we hear the stories of legal professionals who have worked for change in their industry and community, and who have managed to find a way to create balance in their own lives. It’s an inspirational and uplifting series that will motivate you to refocus on your own personal priorities.

#11  UK Law Weekly 

Hosted by former university professor Marcus Cleaver, UK Law Weekly is a great resource for studying and practicing lawyers alike. The series focuses on the week’s legal decisions and news, therefore giving listeners analysis not just of topical talking points but specific cases that have recently gone through Supreme and other UK courts.

#12  Thinking Like a Lawyer

Hosted by Above the Law’s Ellie Mystal and Joe Patrice, this podcast takes on a range of topics that are talking points amongst the wider population, and in their own words ‘shine it through the prism of a legal framework.’ This results in lively and fascinating conversations around issues as broad as free speech, drones and droids, weddings and parenting. Definitely one for broadening the mind!

#13 LeGal LGBT

LeGal was one of the USA’s first associations of the lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) legal community, and this podcast consists of lively discussion with LGBTQ lawyers, policy experts and activists on the latest legal news affecting the lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) community in the US around the world.

#14 The Docket

Canadian Criminal Defence Counsel Michael Spratt discusses the intersection of the law, the courts, and government. He has spoken to guests such as former Canadian Supreme Court Justice and UN High Commissioner of Human Rights, Louise Arbour, and topics include political scandals, best fictional lawyers, and women and the law.

#15 Talking Law

The youngest podcast on our list, Women in the Law UK launched their new series on 7th January 2019. It is hosted by Women in The Law UK’s founder, the award-winning barrister Sally Penni, and produced by the BBC Radio5Live presenter Sam Walker. The first episode interviews Jodie Hill, managing director of Thrive Law.

Bonus: First 100 Years

To add to your ‘one to watch’ list, First 100 Years has recently launched a series of 10 podcasts following the course of the 100 years of women in law. In collaboration with Goldman Sachs and Linklaters, it charts the history of women in the legal professions. Progressing decade-by-decade, the podcasts will be 45-minute discussions between legal pioneers, historians, academics and legal practitioners based on key themes, including gender stereotypes, work/life balance and diversity.

Do you have an essential listen to add to our list of podcasts for lawyers? Let us know @ObeliskSupport

Women in Law

Returning to work after a career break is tough. If you’re struggling to find a way back, don’t give up hope. Though it may seem like there are many obstacles in your path, there are practical steps you can take to regain your confidence and find work that works for you. That’s the message that Lisa Unwin and Deb Khan want to give women with their new book, She’s Back. Lisa  set up her consultancy of the same name as she was tired of hearing similar stories from women struggling to return to work, and decided to channel her energy to provide tactics and strategies to help them. Simultaneously straight talking and empathetic, we guarantee you will walk away from reading our interview with Lisa feeling fired up and ready to take back control of your career…

Tell us about your own experience of returning to work, and how that led you to where you are now and writing the book?

“I had what I thought was a successful career. I had started out with Arthur Andersen in 1988. As the firm collapsed in 2001 after the Enron scandal, I moved across to Deloitte who backed the firm in the UK. I was director of brand and communication there, until the wheels came off. Our nanny handed in her notice just as our children were starting school. I quite suddenly found myself struggling to work out how I was going to manage bringing up my children and managing a demanding career, and decided to take a career break. There I was a few years later wondering what happened. I had 20 years of experience behind me, and no future plan. I looked around at the school gates and saw so many people in this situation: accounts lawyers, management consultants, all trying to get back to work. That led to setting up a consultancy – there wasn’t a business model or anything to begin with but I started out by getting sponsored by organisations to do some research to prove that this was a real issue, and began looking at ways we could help them. To put a spotlight on the issue I was doing lots of writing and getting people involved in the community, and with my business partner Deb decided to write a book, which came out this year and has been well received.”

What are the most common things you hear from women who have taken a career break?

“That they are leaving because of a lack of ability to balance young children and career. Couples are making decisions about whose career will take back seat in the months and years to come, but there is no long term plan for how to get back, so when the children get older and the time comes for the person to return to work – and it is still primarily the woman – they have no idea how to get back. I can’t claim to be an expert on gender roles generally, I can only talk about what we see in the circles we work with, but professional women tend to pair with professional men, and statistically marry older men, so in general when children come along it is the woman expected to take the hit and very few see it any other way.

The other most common thing I hear when women approach me is : ‘Can you help me, I am a mum with two children, looking for flexible work?’ Being a mum doesn’t differentiate you; and you are already defining yourself as a problem by leading with what you need to work around. It’s only after you hear this that you find out they have 20 years legal experience in the City! We need to change the approach.”

So, is there an issue with the way women perceive themselves when taking a career break?

“Yes, and I say that with complete understanding of how hard it is and the difficulties that we face – we are emotional after becoming parents, and so many people live far away from family support networks nowadays, it is very hard. I say women don’t help themselves because I did and said the same things myself! I started by thinking ‘ok I need something that will work around the school run’, so I was looking on flexible working websites. But only 11% of quality professional jobs are being advertised as flexible positions – employers often will be open to flexibility in discussions but they won’t lead an advert with it, so nor should you. Tell people you were 20 years working with big four firms and you’re looking for new opportunities to apply legal skills to – that is the difference. You are 5 times more likely to find work through introductions in your network than through recruiters, but they need to have something to tell that person other than ‘she needs to work flexibly!’

We often don’t acknowledge how vulnerable and lacking confidence we can become once we have children. We can start to remember differently how our work lives went and think we only got there by luck. You starting losing touch with that driven, confident side of you, because as a mum you don’t get told you’re doing a good job – you can do everything right but you will never know because you don’t have a performance review as a parent!”

Are there other things at play when it comes to a loss of confidence in your career?

“Ageism is a big thing, and again we have to fight against external and internalised attitudes. Employers and individuals need to stop seeing post-40 years as being past peak or entering final stages of our career – we still have 20 years of work ahead of us! I have done so much more in my 40s and 50s  professionally and personally than I ever did – or indeed ever could have – in my 20s and 30s, so don’t buy into the narrative that it is too late.”

What practical steps do you talk about in the book to help people prepare for and come back from a career break?

“First, everything is so much easier if you have kept in touch with your industry and colleagues  – if you haven’t it is much easier now to seek them out and reach out again – gone are the days of the gatekeeper PA and trying to book an appointment to meet senior people. Being on LinkedIn is essential as that is where all jobs and connections are. People are really willing to offer advice and take time to meet you if you reach out to them, especially those that know what you are good at. You need to have those conversations to bring the other side of you back out.

Take part as much as you can while you are out of the workplace – networking events, online webinars, parent meetings, whatever will put you in touch with the right people – it’s all in your hands to open the door and get out there.

Don’t feel it is insurmountable, remember that there are other ways to work and find paid employment – taking on freelance projects or by joining organisations like Obelisk – every little bit helps to add to your CV, keep your skills up to date, and keep in touch with peers. All this will make it easier to step up when you are ready.

And don’t put your head in the sand when it comes to finances, plan for your financial future!”

A big concern! How do you encourage women to think long term about their career and financial position?

“Again, it’s up to us. We can’t just leave it to legislation and employers – only 2% men took up shared parental leave last year, we still have a culture where men fear their career will be harmed if they do, and that will take a long time to change.

Women need to view work like a game of chess, and play the long game. We often look at cost of childcare for the first year or so and decide it is not worth it, but we should be thinking about what happens in 8 to ten years’ time. If you decide to step back completely, after 5 years childcare costs go down but your market value has gone down even more. Short term sacrifices are worthwhile if you want to continue your career so take the initial financial hit if you can, take a part time role, pass up a project or promotion if it helps you keep your foot in the door.”

One thing that we commonly see women returning to work find difficult is how to present themselves on their CV. What advice would you give?

“It’s important to see your CV or LinkedIn profile as a marketing tool. Employers spend on average just 8 SECONDS scanning a CV for suitability so your opening paragraph must be compelling – again don’t lead with what you want, lead with what you have to offer. Another thing people don’t often realise is that recruiters use software to scan for keywords in CVs first, so make sure you are hitting all the points from the job description.

When it comes to addresses your career break, don’t jump through hoops trying to justify it with irrelevant information about being part of the PTA and so on, as it comes across defensive. Appear confident about it! Just write ‘Planned Career Break’ and the length of time. Keep the most relevant information at the top with an experience or skills summary – don’t bury the good stuff on page 2, even if it did all happen 20 years ago. Finally if you have had lots of similar part time or short contract roles list them together and summarise details in one paragraph rather than listing bullets for each to keep things more concise.”

How should lawyers seek to update their skills to become more employable in technologically fast changing market?

“As a lawyer, you will know plenty of other lawyers, so talk to them to find out what you don’t know and what gaps you need to fill. It’s so much easier now than it used to be to keep up with technology and learn independently. There are many free resources on the internet, so search for YouTube tutorials and online courses. Most technology being used today is intuitive and designed to be user friendly, so it is often a case of simply using and learning as you go – just take the time to do it. Get to grips with social media management tools such as Hootsuite to make it easier to post regularly to market yourself.”

Lisa also agrees that being part of platforms like Obelisk Support is beneficial as they provide help keeping skills up to date, such as our recent LexisPSL introductory webinar, and regular events focusing on current developments in the industry.

Final thoughts

The bottom line as Lisa states is, no one will do it for you. There is support out and information there if you reach out and look for it. Your career and success before you took a break came about because of you and the work you put in – you are still the key to your own success.

Lisa and Deb don’t just tell you all the things you need to hear in She’s Back – the book also contains useful exercises that you can carry out to help you on your way. Lisa recommends that you find a friend to do them with you, so you can challenge one another and stay motivated. She’s Back is shortlisted for CMI’s Management Book of the Year 2019 and can be purchased on Amazon. You can find out more about their work on www.shesback.co.uk

Dana Denis-Smith
Women in Law

On Tuesday 7 November 2018, Obelisk Support CEO, Dana Denis-Smith, received an honorary Doctorate of Laws from the University of Worcester in England, recognising her achievements as an entrepreneur and philanthropist championing the rights of women in law. Here is how Professor Sarah Greer, Deputy Vice Chancellor of the University of Worcester, introduced Dana Denis-Smith to an audience of over 2,000 students, student guests and university faculty. 

Deputy Pro Chancellor, Vice Chancellor, Distinguished Guests, Graduands, and Graduands Guests, I am delighted to introduce you to Dana Denis-Smith.

I have had the privilege of following Dana’s work as an entrepreneur, influencer and champion for women leaders for the past seven years. She is, quite simply, a woman with the energy, ambition and ability to change the world.

Dana qualified initially as a lawyer with the leading Law firm Linklaters. In 2010, she set up her own company, Obelisk Legal Support Services, an alternative legal services company. The idea was born of a recognition that the inflexible working patterns of the legal world – with its long working hours and high pressured culture – offered little to attract and retain highly trained professional women lawyers, particularly after having children.

Dana’s concept was a company built around flexible, highly skilled legal professionals, most of them women, offering them an opportunity to work around their family commitments, using technology to facilitate their chosen working pattern, enabling many to work remotely from home. In a very traditional male environment, many were sceptical of the unique concept of what was described as a “Mum’s army”.

Typically, Dana responded by aiming high, and within a very short space of time, the company has become extremely successful. It offers women a truly alternative way of combining the career that they love and for which they have trained for many years, with caring responsibilities and work life balance. It has been named as one of the top 50 employers for women, and has recently been named by the Financial Times as one of Europe’s fastest growing companies.

Dana herself has been honoured with many accolades. She has been named as one of the 35 most inspirational Women in Business under the age of 35; been awarded the title of Outstanding Legal Innovator of the year; given the WEConnect International Best Mentor and Role Model Award and voted as one of Britain’s five most inspiring mothers for juggling a new business creation with family life. Earlier this year, she won the very prestigious LexisNexis award for Legal Personality of the Year 2018.

However, we are not just honouring Dana for her many business achievements, nor for just for the outstanding work she has done in changing women’s working lives.

In 2014, Dana founded a remarkable 5 year project called the First Hundred Years Project. To explain the purpose of the project, I need to take you back to just over a hundred years ago, and introduce you to another extraordinary woman called Gwyneth Bebb.

Miss Bebb was until recently completely missing from history. She was one of the first women to study Law at Oxford – for much of her degree, she was the only woman in a class of 400 men. She was a brilliant student, achieving a first class mark in her examinations – but she was not awarded a degree, because in those days, Oxford would not recognise women’s achievements and award them a degree. Nonetheless, she wanted to be a lawyer. A hundred years ago, women could not enter the legal profession – it was one of the very last professions in England not to admit women. Miss Bebb became a test case: she challenged the Law Society over its decision not to allow her to become a lawyer.

Miss Bebb did not win her case. The judge said, that according to the meaning of the relevant Act of Parliament, she could not become a solicitor, because as she was a woman, she was “not a person”. Despite her loss, the case attracted a lot of support. A great campaign gathered pace, with ordinary women uniting, challenging and pushing aside obstacles, refusing to accept their exclusion. Eventually in 1919, women were finally allowed to enter the legal profession after the passing of the Sex Disqualification (Removal) Act 1919.

Miss Bebb’s is one of those untold stories of women’s history that prompted Dana to set up the First 100 Years Project. The mission of the project is to ensure a strong and equal future for all women in the legal profession by raising awareness about their history and inspiring future generations of female lawyers.

It has created a digital museum which records the oral histories of the great first women – women such as our honorary Worcester graduate, Baroness Hale, as first woman President of the Supreme Court. But equally importantly, it records the stories of ordinary women such as Miss Bebb – ordinary, extraordinary women, whose stories would otherwise be lost to history.

Dana Denis-Smith

As the project has gathered momentum it has attracted support from the judiciary, Bar Council and Law Society. Our Law students at the University of Worcester have been working since 2015 on a Women’s Legal History project, researching and contributing stories to the digital museum on the remarkable women and the men who helped them achieve equality of opportunity. Over the past three years they have visited archives Oxford Colleges and the Inns of Court, written articles and a book chapter, and presented their research at academic conferences. Next year they will graduate on the hundredth anniversary of women being allowed to enter the legal profession.

The project has enthused and inspired them, and we have all been moved by the stories of these very ordinary women, who did such extraordinary things to enable our students to have the opportunities that they have today. That is down to Dana’s brilliant idea, and her commitment to creating positive role models for future generations of women lawyers. She is without doubt one of those shining and inspirational role models herself.

Today we honour Dana for her own considerable achievements as a woman, lawyer and entrepreneur. But in honouring Dana, we also honour the memory of every one of those ordinary – extraordinary – women – women who changed the course of history in their own quietly remarkable way. In recognising Dana’s courage and determination to make meaningful change in the working lives of women lawyers, we recognise the quiet courage and determination of those ordinary women who won the battle, to ensure that every woman in the cathedral today has the freedom that we now enjoy and expect – economic freedom, the freedom to choose our own career without discrimination, the freedom to do what we were born to do.

Deputy Pro Chancellor, Vice Chancellor, Distinguished Guests, Graduands, and Graduands Guests, I present to you Dana Denis- Smith, for the award of an Honorary Degree of Doctor of Laws.

Dana Denis-Smith

Women in Law

How do we deal with upheaval as individuals? We have to adapt, be open to the changes ahead and listen to advice. In the legal profession, it is no different – as the world in which we practice law changes rapidly, lawyers need to be ready to rethink how they work.

That is the premise of a new book by Michele DeStefano, law professor and founder of LawWithoutWalls and MoveLaw. Legal Upheaval: A Guide To Creativity, Collaboration and Innovation in Law introduces readers to 7 essential experiences that lawyers must master to achieve innovation, transform their collaboration with clients, and create solutions at the intersection of law, technology and business.

With some urgency, the author encourages lawyers to think and behave differently in order to drive the innovation that so many in the industry are calling for. We were lucky enough to chat to Michele, and she is just as infectiously passionate in person as she tells us about the process of writing the book and the need for lawyers to be more ‘open’…

You are recognised as a ‘legal rebel’ by the American Bar Association – what does that mean to you?

To me a legal rebel means someone who isn’t just talking about what needs to be fixed in legal practice, both in training and practice, but is actively taking risks to do things that are different. Ironically, since the law is slower to change than other industries it’s not that hard to be considered a rebel!

There certainly is a lot of talk about innovation at the moment – in the book you define it as ‘lasting incremental change that adds value’, how much of that are we seeing right now?

There are various ways to define innovation, and it can be a hackneyed word. But there is some consensus in law that innovation is still about small steps – small change is difficult but is easier than asking for ‘big bang’ innovation, especially in a world of people that like the status quo.

However, lawyers and Heads of Innovation I think still inaccurately focus on the technology side of innovating, and it’s starting to frustrate in house teams and clients. Not every innovative solution has to be a technology. Will tech be involved in improvement? Yes probably, but we need to first change the view of the way legal services are provided. The focus needs to shift from what lawyers do, to how we do it; how we are utilising and leverage tech in order to improve our service and provide better legal products. If we look at design thinking, there was a similar trajectory that law is now learning from: there is lots of literature on the design thinker perspective on improving service, and we’re starting to see people from a design thinking method background being hired to work with lawyers to help them work through pain points and affect change in their service.

You put great emphasis on encouraging lawyers to be more collaborative and well-rounded in order to drive the changes needed in the industry…

Yes, that is something we typically struggle with. It’s a chicken-egg scenario: is the law attracting a certain type of person – those who are more introverted, more risk averse, more sceptical, but are great at complex problem solving – or is it that through the way training and practice churns and burns us that we create them?

That’s not to say being risk averse and sceptical are bad things, because in so many ways it’s our job to be those things to protect clients. We need those qualities, but it’s important to not be that all the time in the way we approach everything we do. Be a human! Use that fantastic lawyer mind but let’s work together and build on each other’s ideas to create a better service for those we work with.

Tell us about how you try to encourage openness with Law Without Walls?

With Law Without Walls, we have created a learning programme that is multidisciplinary in every way – people of all ages experience levels and type of discipline: academics, public servants, law firms and law schools from across the world come together into teams to co-create a Project of Worth – a practical solution to a real business problem designed to bring value. It’s extremely rewarding to watch the teams, especially the lawyers, change and grow in the way they ask questions, think about problems, approach meetings etc.  Especially when you hear that their teams back home notice the difference too, so much so they are asking them ‘who are you and what have you done with Craig?!’ That impact is exactly what we aim to achieve.

How was the process of writing Legal Upheaval? What did you learn from it and was there anything that surprised you in the conversations you had?

It wasn’t so hard to write but it was hard to edit! It took two years of interviews and I had enough for three books but had to edit it all down to one.  Interviewing is really a tough field – it requires listening beyond listening, there is no ‘I’ or ‘me’! We should be doing more interviewing training in law school.

Obviously I knew going in that the topic of innovation was being pushed, GC and in-house counsels are constantly saying ‘innovate or die’ but they don’t exactly know what it is or what they are asking for. Can you really measure it if you only know it when you see it? There’s an analogy to be made there with the diversity movement – calls for diversity initially were very vague, so firms would say ‘oh we have a female working with us’ – no mention of what level they were at, but okay!

It was only over time that the questions became more focused: what % of minorities are in our organisation, what % on my senior team are diverse etc. Now, clients are asking for your flexi-time policies, because without that you cannot support diversity – diversity doesn’t truly exist without creating an inclusive culture and environment.

It’s the same with innovation – who is going to lead it? What are you hoping to achieve? If you don’t want the same thing to happen as diversity, where you are racing to  meet client demand instead of forward thinking and define innovation for yourself, now is the time to be asking serious questions. Part of being a great innovator  is self awareness.

Another thing I was surprised by was the amount of in-house counsel complaints on simple matters – particularly over advising. There is a disconnect there, and I don’t know why or what is happening. Perhaps it’s because we are taught to see the trees not the forest, so many lawyers are missing the bigger picture of how their documents are used in day to day business practices. In-house counsel can read the law, they don’t want to receive reams of information that they have to filter and rewrite. We need to spend more time sitting back listening and asking ‘why’ in what we are doing. Of course, that makes people uncomfortable, especially the more senior we get, as we think we know the answers and we are taught to find answers for ourselves.

From your experience as a professor of law, is there a change in approach to teaching? Are students coming in with different expectations now? 

It is a bit like moving the Titanic. I don’t know if students are all that different – for hundreds of years they have come in with bright eyes and big hearted missions, that won’t change, but the next generation may have different expectations of the culture of law. Unfortunately law schools are much slower to move and the tenure systems that are in place very much encourage status quo and professors keep on teaching the same things they have taught for years. So, though there are some great things being done in law schools across the world in terms of bespoke programmes being created, it’s not reaching every student that it should. But it’s not just up to the schools, it’s going to take the whole village to move and change way we train and retrain lawyers.

What do you hope people will take from the book overall?

My hope is that people will leave with hope. Lots of articles about law as an industry are negative, but we should realise that some of the traditional habits that have made us successful so far are also characteristics that we can utilise to get over hurdles. The mission of the book is to get every lawyer to try a problem solving group project with the mindset of an innovator and try to adopt some of those skill sets and characteristics.

My three rules of engagement are Open Heart, Open Mind and Open Door – it does sound corny, but they are essential. Yes, effective people are good at editing out the nonsense and saying no to things, but innovators are different. They let go of preconceptions and allow themselves to be more open to accept seemingly silly ideas. That’s something that those in the legal industry can adopt and build on, and take that brilliant lawyer brain to fine tune and turn them into the really good ideas. We can approach creative problem solving collaboratively through just a small shift in thinking.

Michele’s efforts to encourage collaboration struck a real chord with us here at Obelisk. While this change in mindset is a challenge for all lawyers given their traditional education, DeStefano concludes it is overall good news for women lawyers, because on balance they are better at the necessary skills: having an Open Mind, Open Heart and Open Door. It certainly gave us hope that we are on a real cusp of change in the legal industry, and that small actions being taken today are laying the groundwork for a more open and inclusive future.

Legal Upheaval is available on Kindle and in Hardcover Edition from 1st October

 

Women in Law

The journey to the top of a profession is often accepted as being a lonely one, particularly for women. It is one that involves fighting the status quo in small and big ways every day at every step of the way. The perception of the unapproachable, uncompromisingly independent woman going it alone persists in popular culture, and still permeates into real life. Rather sadly, a detailed study by HBR of female CEOs across industries found that most respondents expected little or no support both at home and at work, relying only on themselves to get to where they wanted to be.

Is this the harsh reality, and are there actions ambitious women (and men) can collectively take to change the picture? Obelisk Support places great importance on providing a support network for our consultants, and seeking opportunities to connect with leaders and mentors in the legal field. We believe no woman should have to go it alone while carving out a successful career in law. Here is some advice on creating better support networks for aspiring female leaders.

Advocate for Yourself – and Others

Forming a network that supports your efforts to move up and provide greater value to an organisation and/or clients often means speaking up that little bit louder about what you are doing, rather than waiting and hoping for people to notice and to care. We are all too often reluctant to self-promote – a trait that is more likely to be seen as negative in a woman than it would be from a man. However, female CEOs interviewed by HBR described how self promotion coupled with internal acceptance of their leadership ambitions ‘unlocked their ability to take charge of their own development: seeking out stretch assignments, learning on the job, and learning from the people in their networks.’

Of course, it is easier said than done. If you find the idea difficult, one place to start is with your social media posts. See it not as self advocacy or promotion, but as your story to tell. Sharing the highs and lows of your career journey within an online network can help you become more comfortable about selling your strengths and your ambitions in the workplace.

An important part of advocacy is holding up other people as examples and supporting them too. That can include people you work with, people you know, or people outside of your circle whose work you admire. The more you make a habit of talking about the efforts of others, people are more likely to take interest in and rally round those of your own.

Nurture Informal Support Networks

Your career support network must not simply consist of professional associates – your family and friends also play a significant part. Aoife Flood, Senior Manager of the Global Diversity and Inclusion Programme at PriceWaterhouseCoopers identifies support networks as a series of circles – personal support and advocacy as the widest circle, then professional and workplace, with you the self-advocating individual at the centre.

As a mother and a member of a family or partnership, you cannot get to where you want to be in isolation. Sometimes, this will involve difficult conversations at home about expectations and roles within the family environment. Sharing the emotional labour load is a challenge for many professional women, so be honest about what support you need. Outside of the family, talk to your friends about ambitions and life goals on a regular basis – when you are going through a difficult patch you need the people who know you best to reaffirm your aspirations and offer an outside view on what can help you get there.

Ask Directly for Help

Women in male-dominated spaces such as law are often so used to being grateful for what they have managed to do, in spite of the obstacles, that they forget that they have a right to lay out their long term goals and to tell people what they would really like to achieve beyond what they have already accomplished. They also fear that asking for support may be perceived as weakness or entitlement. But those who have succeeded in their career path didn’t get there without asking others for assistance – from departmental improvements to formal or informal mentorship, sometimes the support is there waiting for us, we just need to take a deep breath and ask for it. That’s a sign of strength, not weakness: female CEOs interviewed by HBR in 2017 showed a higher level of humility and a willingness to learn and improve on the job, ‘[demonstrating] the ability to harness the power of others to achieve needed results, and the recognition that no one person defines the future of the company.’

The response you receive will also give you a definitive answer either way as to whether the environment you are working in is where your talents will be nurtured and valued, or whether it is time to seek a new direction.

Stick to Your Core Values

Resist the temptation to emulate the paths of others and try to completely match the habits of high profile career gurus or influencers – they do of course have some nuggets of wisdom, but ultimately you can only build support networks when people have genuine belief in your authenticity and motivations. If you are not sure of yourself, your values and what drives you, it is harder to align with like-minded people and articulate what you need and what you want. Remember ,your success isn’t someone else’s perception of what success looks like, it is getting where you want to be.

With that in mind, it is important not to force relationships – as per the advice in our article on networking, go in with a genuine desire to meet and learn from others.

You are responsible for your own success, but that doesn’t mean you always have to do it solo. There will be times when the guidance and encouragement of others will be crucial, so keep yourself open to support networks around you. If you are in need of some inspiration, here are some quotes from women who succeeded – in their own way, on their own terms, but by no means in isolation…

What Female Leaders Have to Say

“No matter who we are or what we look like or what we may believe, it is both possible and, more importantly, it becomes powerful to come together in common purpose and common effort.” 

Oprah Winfrey – philanthropist, actor, broadcaster, entrepreneur… the list goes on for the woman who sees nothing as being out of her reach

“To me, leadership is about encouraging people. It’s about stimulating them. It’s about enabling them to achieve what they can achieve – and to do that with a purpose.”

Christine Lagarde, french lawyer, politician and MD of the IMF has never been afraid to speak about the reality of being a woman in a male-dominated space

“I try to seek out and surround myself with people who just percolate fresh, original, and creative ideas.”

Martha Stewart – former stockbroker and model, who created a media empire around her cooking and home improvement talents

“Lead by example: support women on their way to the top. Trust that they will extend a hand to those who follow.”

Mariela Dabbah – author and career consultant, and founder of the Red Shoe Movement and Latinos In College, Dabbah uses her platform to support women and Hispanic people on their path to success

“I do have something to say that others will value, whether they are men or women. The first step is really knowing when to speak and the second step is to speak up because it really makes a difference.”

Barbara Humpton – U.S. CEO of Siemens. She has held senior leadership roles at other major technology firms, including Lockheed Martin, and Siemens Government Technologies, which works with the federal government on energy and infrastructure projects.