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.
Women in Law

“For all the moms out there, I was playing for you today.” Serena William’s on court interview after finishing runner up in the Wimbledon final on 14 July 2018 resonated with me. I have spent the past 8 years championing women back to work – when they believed they were ‘just a mum’, I believed they could be whatever they wanted to be.

Irrespective of their profession, I cannot think of a better role model for mothers to return to work than Serena – she acknowledged in the press conference that a couple of months before she didn’t know “how I was, how I would be, how I would do, how I would be able to come back; it was such a long way to see light at the end of the road.”  Do these questions sound familiar to new mums? Of course they do. But hearing the self-doubt that does not spare even a most accomplished athlete like Serena Williams is both familiar and refreshingly honest.

In a survey we carried out for Obelisk Support, all those we interviewed said they stopped work because when they became mothers they couldn’t juggle work and family and often they found employers not being open to flexibility.

Last week, Obelisk Support turned 8. I founded the business to change the way work was outsourced in the legal sector to be more inclusive and for sure, not to alienate a fantastic talent pool – mums. Our mission from the outset, was to empower lawyers to get back to work from home and thus to make sure that talent remained active in law.  About 80% of our 1,000+ consultants are women looking to balance personal responsibility and work, and many would not have thought working flexibly would be an opportunity available to them in their chosen profession. Since 2010, we have seen the stock of working mothers rise and rise and it is great that last week we had the most visible returner mum to date take to the global stage in Serena Williams, just 10 months after having her baby girl.

With a little help from Serena, here’s what I learnt in 8 years of championing lawyer mums back to work:

#1 Take the Opportunity

One of our first client jobs involved a mum of 3 coming all the way from Bristol to work for a couple of days in London. She needed to cut her teeth on a routine corporate due diligence transaction to able to measure her level as a lawyer; she had been out of work for 7 years and was keen to earn some of her money to spend on Christmas presents, as it was just around the corner. Taking the opportunity was the best decision she made – not only did she secure further assignments with Obelisk, while working from home, but with time she ‘graduated’ into a permanent role in a local firm.

#2 Take it One at a Time

Especially when returning on a freelance basis, taking it one job at a time is a great approach not just to understanding how clients work, but also how you want to work. There are new ways of working that allow you to test the water before committing to a full return. Sometimes the flexibility is offered after a settling in period, once the client gets comfortable with the lawyer skills set and communication style. Getting back to doing even an ad hoc piece of work can help pave the path for a higher volume of work.

#3 Stay In the Game

There is no doubt that having a longer career gap makes clients ask more questions, and a lawyer can find it harder and harder to explain away the gap. Some businesses carry out ‘gap analysis’ of CVs that go as far as needing to prove the number of children by providing their birth certificates! If this doesn’t persuade you to stay in the game, however little, I don’t know what will. However, that’s not to say that we haven’t had returners such as Jane that show a long gap doesn’t make your return impossible.

#4 Work On Your Game to Get Better

Some clients refer to returning mums as “rusty.” Newspaper headlines welcomed Serena back in similar fashion earlier this year when she first competed after having her girl. But it didn’t take long before the ‘rust’ was shaken off and she made another Grand Slam Final.

If you have the will to work, then you can improve the skills and keep getting better. Excellent advice for those that think the law changes so quickly you can’t keep up and therefore it’s better to stay out. You’d be amazed how quickly the knowledge returns with a little positive focus on improving all the time.

#5  Continue On Your Own Path

Many mums don’t have their sights set on a career ambition when they first return. Whilst board positions or leadership roles could come, the pressure of achieving too quickly can also be a reason to drop work altogether. So take your time, as long as you stay on the ‘path’.

#6 Don’t Make Any Excuses

Once you decide to return, and businesses make decisions that rely on your presence and contribution, it is only fair that you take work on a ‘no excuse’ basis. Being professional is critical to success and your attitude at work can create the best or worst impression for a client. Once you commit, be reliable and understand that you are dependable at work and at home.

#7 Your Priority is Your Baby

I know of no parent that doesn’t agree with Serena in this respect. By being open, she has yet again given permission to working mothers to talk about their kids. We are no longer living in a time when kids need to be hidden out of sight but similarly, she said that she is disciplined in separating work from her time with the child. She has set a clear timetable to make time to train in the morning after which she spends the bulk of her time with her daughter.

#8 Be More Ready

Before starting a role, it is important to prepare –read about the client and the type of law, ask questions and be ready. Understand what you wish to achieve and how you need to fit in to do the best you can during an assignment.

Ultimately, The Choice is Yours

You can be whatever you want to be if you want to go back to work – and there’s no pressure to do that as having a child is a completely full time job. But to those that do want to go back to work, “you can do it, you can really do it.”

Making Work, WorkWomen in Law

On 12 July 2010, Obelisk Support was founded. Now one of the fastest-growing independent businesses in Europe, Obelisk Support has become a leading legal services provider with a purpose – to make human first a priority. To celebrate how far we have come with our clients and consultants, here is a true story that illustrates how putting human first and how working differently can make a big difference in the legal world.

Returning Lawyer

This UK-qualified lawyer trained at a City law firm from 1996 to 1998 and worked in their corporate department until 2000 in international securities offerings, M&A transactions and general corporate and commercial work. In 2000, she worked as assistant editor on Global Counsel magazine and in 2001, took a career break for family reasons and raised four children.

Twelve years later in 2013, she heard about Obelisk Support through a friend and with her children in school, she was ready to return to a professional career. She onboarded as an Obelisk consultant and in February 2015, interviewed to work for White & Case in their advisory practice within a busy private equity team. They wanted someone with corporate experience, someone who would be happy to muck in and help out. This was perfect for E who was selected out of four lawyers and joined the team shortly after.

E’s story is a very inspiring one for anyone who thinks that they’ve been out of the legal world for too long. When you are determined and hard-working, you can do it.

Corporate Lawyer

Bilingual French/English, this UK-qualified lawyer started her career as a paralegal and then joined Puxon Murray LLP in 2009 where she trained and qualified as a corporate solicitor.  It was a small firm (two partners) with a mainly SME- client base but she gained great experience in corporate, litigation and some IP, trademark work. She had done some translation work as well, and had experience in telecoms (company sale/ agreements/ regulation/data protection).

She left in 2014 as she really wanted to progress her career and became a freelance lawyer.

In 2014, she found out about Obelisk on LinkedIn and signed up as an Obelisk legal consultant.

In April 2015, White & Case asked for “a lawyer on 3-month contract, a lawyer to support some senior lawyers in their team with general corporate work, private equity and private company experience.” She interviewed with two other lawyers and was selected, starting right away. The 3-month contract ended up lasting over a year at which point, White & Case was so enthusiastic with her work that they offered her a permanent position.

For D, a freelancing career was a springboard to permanent employment in the legal industry.

Obelisk turns 8

Making Work, WorkWomen in Law

On 12 July 2010, Obelisk Support was founded. Now one of the fastest-growing independent businesses in Europe, Obelisk Support has become a leading legal services provider with a purpose – to make human first a priority. To celebrate how far we have come with our clients and consultants, here is a true story that illustrates how putting human first and how working differently can make a big difference in the legal world.

This UK-qualified banking lawyer started at CMS Cameron McKenna in 1991 and rapidly climbed the corporate ladder. After six years, she was recruited by ING as an in-house lawyer advising on corporate and institutional finance. Primarily responsible for advising all levels of staff in corporate banking (including senior management), she was vice-president of the legal department.

Six years later, in 2003, she took a three-year career break and, in 2006, worked for a British law firm until 2009.   

In early 2013, four years into her career break, she read an article in The Wall Street Journal about Obelisk and was very interested in the model and the commitment it made to reactivating female talent. Almost 20 years PQE, she was ready to get back in the legal world.

In December 2014, through Obelisk, she became legal consultant for her former company, ING. Her alumni experience gave her a unique insight into ING’s culture, making her both a perfect culture fit as well as the lawyer with the right experience. All her work is done remotely, from home. Her work was so appreciated that, in March 2017, ING asked her to take on some additional work on another project in corporate finance.

Obelisk also recognised her as one of its star consultants at our annual awards in 2016.

Obelisk turns 8

Making Work, WorkWomen in Law

On 12 July 2010, Obelisk Support was founded. Now one of the fastest-growing independent businesses in Europe, Obelisk Support has become a leading legal services provider with a purpose – to make human first a priority. To celebrate how far we have come with our clients and consultants, here is a true story that illustrates how putting human first and how working differently can make a big difference in the legal world.

This UK-qualified lawyer trained at a Silver Circle law firm and specialised as a corporate lawyer post qualification, before acquiring solid expertise in prime finance at two different investment banks. However after several years in-house, she found herself at a crossroads.

Balancing work and parenthood was difficult, even on a flexible schedule, and she had to consider her career progression.

A few months later, she stopped working at the bank. After a three-year career break, interested in flexible consulting, she contacted Obelisk Support and became an Obelisk legal consultant. Shortly after, the right role came up for her.

Linklaters  was looking for legal support within the Financial Regulation Group. It was a perfect match with this lawyer’s expertise. Given her seniority and depth of expertise, feedback from partners at the law firm was very positive. They found her very thorough and careful, very good at taking points away and working through them, and good at finding appropriate knowhow in the group.

Obelisk turns 8

Making Work, WorkWomen in Law

On 12 July 2010, Obelisk Support was founded. Now one of the fastest-growing independent businesses in Europe, Obelisk Support has become a leading legal services provider with a purpose – to make human first a priority. To celebrate how far we have come with our clients and consultants, here is a true story that illustrates how putting human first and how working differently can make a big difference in the legal world.

Tobacco Company

This UK-qualified lawyer trained at CMS Cameron McKenna from 2003 to 2005 and went on to work in their Mergers & Acquisitions department until 2007. Thanks to her experience, she joined the corporate legal department at Channel 4 where she supported on commercial and corporate work. In 2009, she went on to work for a UK Government Department, supporting aircraft financing transactions, commercial contracts and requests related to the Freedom of Information Act.

Then, she went on maternity leave.

In 2015, after a six-year career break, she was ready to get into the workforce and contacted Obelisk. We thought that she was both a great lawyer and a great person.

In 2016, a global tobacco company gave her the break she needed to regain her legal footing. They had “an unprecedented amount of M&A activity and were looking for a full time legal secondee to do M&A work.” They interviewed her twice and, impressed, offered her a role at the client’s offices. This was a fresh start for this legal consultant who’s been actively working for Obelisk clients ever since and won an Obelisk award in 2017.

Obelisk turns 8

Women in Law

For women who work in the legal industry, being a lawyer is a daily occupation that reflects years of study, practice and experience. It didn’t come in a goodie bag or as a perk of being single and young, like some of the comments below might suggest. Female lawyers are passionate about their job and at Obelisk Support, we know how challenging the path of women in law can be in a gender-imbalanced society. We deal with this everyday. Which is why we put out a call to female lawyers on social media, and asked this simple question: What are you sick of hearing?

All the replies we received are real-world examples of everyday sexism in the legal industry, coming both from men and women.  If you want to add to the conversation, don’t hesitate to contact me at [email protected] This is a work in progress and we hope that by exposing these sexist things, those who’ve used them will think twice in the future and will endeavour to be better humans.

‘We need to look more diverse when we do x, y, z event – would you be able to speak at this event?’

Sure – and thanks for mentioning my credentials and expertise when you asked me to speak… (But of course it’s an opportunity to get your own back by wowing the crowd with your expertise and insight!)

‘Can you put together the pitch book?’

I was asked to prepare it because I was the only woman on the team. The senior (male) partner inevitably got to assign the pages to whomever he wanted, and the only time I can remember leading on the pitch itself was when the GCs of the corporate clients judging the beauty parade were both female.

‘I’ve invited [name of male colleague of equivalent seniority] to the pitch – that’s OK with you isn’t it?’

Only hitch is that said male colleague had zero background in the sector and zero connection to the client. Help me understand: how has he been invited to the pitch, exactly?

‘You must be leaving for a better work life balance…’

No, and in fact my spouse noted years later that I had more all-nighters working in-house than I did in a firm.

‘Please make coffee for this client.’

When I was a junior lawyer at a Magic Circle firm in Paris, I was invited to join a client meeting and was very excited about the opportunity. When I walked into the meeting room, the lead (male) partner asked me to make coffee for the client. I was the only female lawyer in the room and felt humiliated to be asked to make coffee but walked out to do as I was told. The irony of it is that I’m a tea drinker and have never drunk or made coffee before. It turned out the coffee I made wasn’t very good and they asked someone else – a female secretary – to make a second batch.

‘“Dear Sirs”’

Heading in a correspondence addressed to an all-female law firm in Australia. Come on, is it that hard to do your homework? If you’re trying to sell me something or work with me, do your due diligence.

‘Do you feel guilty leaving your kids in the morning?’

Well, do you? If you’re asking the question, you’ve got some serious soul-searching to do but regarding the person you asked, it’s none of your business. There’s this thing called personal life, a detail really, and you’re obviously out of it.

Which brings me to my personal favourite…

‘If you’re here, who looks after your kids all day?’

I absolutely hate the “guilt” one. Seriously? Firstly, it’s not your business, secondly, are you implying that I should be at home with them right now?

‘Yes, well of course women take time out to have babies’

This, after mention of gender pay gap/ lack of women partners, etc. I proceed to explain that the pay gap exists from graduate positions onwards, and that career gap is only a small part of the reason for the pay gap, which is much more about entrenched discrimination and patriarchal norms in the profession and wider society…

‘What sort of work does your husband do?’

Seriously. Several years ago, I was interviewed for a position as a solicitor in a medium sized CBD commercial firm. There was a panel of three (all men). I was asked a series of questions about my family and childcare arrangements – namely did I have children (yes). They then asked who looked after my daughter when I was at work and what sort of work my husband did – was it flexible? These were serious interview questions in the middle of the interview!

If they’d been interviewing a man, I very much doubt they would have even thought to ask these questions. Imagine, ‘What sort of work does your wife do?’ and try not to laugh.

‘How do you manage at the Bar with children?’

Good question! How does anyone, really? I bet that no man is ever asked that question. This drives me insane, particularly when it comes from men with young kids.

‘How do you find working full time?’

Because, you know, I have suddenly become incapable of holding a full time job because of the fact I have kids.

‘Why are you getting emotional?”

When refusing to compromise on an issue for a client. A male counterpart would simply be considered to be stepping up to protect his client’s interests. ( No, I wasn’t crying at the time!)

‘But you have four of them, shouldn’t you be home?’

So, it’s ok to “neglect” two but four is unreasonable? Let’s draw a line somewhere, shall we? Two kids, three kids – fine. Four kids – big no no.

‘Oh, I thought you worked full time?’

It’s 9.30am! This coming from a woman without children. The fact I was at the office until nearly 8pm the night before had evidently escaped her when commenting on my “tardiness”.

‘You’re not the secretary?’

Particularly when I was a younger lawyer having to say when I telephoned another lawyer’s firm ‘it’s Jane Doe, solicitor’ otherwise it was often presumed I was a secretary – no offence to secretaries!

‘It must be so hard working when you’ve got kids’ (twins)

Yes, it bloody well is. But what is worse is the judgment that accompanies being a working mum and lawyer. You’re written off professionally (heaven forbid if you’re single too), you’re seen as an inconvenience, your career frankly nosedives if you dare to seek work-life “balance”. So your options are 1. never be around your kids because you’re trying to prove yourself at work, or 2. expect your career to falter.

‘We couldn’t find a woman, that’s why it’s an all male panel today’

If you’re finding it hard, what you’re lacking is determination. It is extra work, yes, but it’s worth it. Also: avoid having a ‘token woman’ and aim at two or more women on your panel. It’ll be more credible and genuinely more diverse.

 ‘We’re aiming for 26% female by 2030’

In real life, a male partner of a law firm said this at a women in law event. That is so offensive, why even bother trying!? Also – who came up with 26% as a goal? That seems so random. There aren’t 26% of women on Earth, it’s roughly 50/50. How about 50% as a goal?

‘We don’t believe in quotas, but rather getting the best people for the job’

Right. Then, why do you have an overwhelming amount of men, none of which are more qualified than the female lawyers, partners in your ranks?

‘We don’t need flexible work policies, we just support our people to do the right thing’

Somebody needs a refresher on 5 company mistakes that prevent flexible working?

‘Your poor little boy needs you’

I remember being livid (then very upset) when a woman said that my “poor little boy needed me” and how terrible that he was in child care. Meanie.

‘Maternity leave’

It’s parental leave or, depending on the terms, primary carer leave. I’m yet to see a policy that says “you must be female to access this policy.” Any language that ties workplace rights (or lack/limitations thereof) to being a woman will hold women back.

‘Are you married? Do you have kids?’

Usually the follow-up question to ‘No’ is, ‘Do you intend to get married/have kids?’ Yes. really. There are so many similarities between the legal profession and the clergy for women. Who would have thought celibacy and being childless counted as bonus points for the betterment of your brains? Think again, ladies.

‘Can you come back sooner from Mat Leave because your cover is costing me more than your salary!’

No kidding. Now that you mention it, I should probably ask for a raise. Am I right or am I right?

‘We want more women in management and on the Board!’ (Just kidding)

I went for an interview with a company who wanted more women in management and on the Board. They then proceeded to tell me that I could not have any flexibility to drop the kids off at nursery because then, everyone would want to do it  and 9.30am was not acceptable as a start time – despite the commute being a over an hour. So … this was a joke – right?

Continue the conversation by contacting us (details in introduction).

P.S. Thanks to all the lawyers who contacted me for this feature and to Dana Denis-Smith, Obelisk Support CEO, for sharing our media request on her social media channels. It definitely helped reach female lawyers around the globe.

P.P.S. Each comment has been anonymised but otherwise, reprinted without modifications.

 

Women in Law

What do most people picture when they think of what a women lawyer wears? If we go by popular culture, a super sharp black skirt suit with a luxuriously alluring white blouse usually comes to mind. How well this reflects reality is up for debate, but workwear for women in law has historically been something of a battle ground, and remains an unnecessary stress point for women in law today.

Workwear for Women Lawyers: Then and Now

As reported by this First 100 Year’s post, the fight for women’s suffrage, women’s fashion in turn began to emulate traditionally male styles, with sober suits included as a symbol of the new independent woman. However, the legal industry was still always one step behind, and until recently even the sight of a woman lawyer in trousers was considered risqué!

Today, as the wider office culture becomes more casual, with the suit more often reserved for high level meetings, how has the legal industry adapted its dress expectations, if at all?

Thankfully attitudes to women wearing trousers have mostly relaxed, but women in the corporate and professional setting still face additional societal judgement on their performance and leadership based on what they are wearing and how they present themselves. Only last month, a study found that people judged women who wore more makeup as having weaker leadership skills. At the same time, the sober suit that was once adopted by women to signify their liberation, has evolved into the uniform of the stifled, stuffy corporate identity.

The Pressure to Conform

Lawyers as a whole are spending an incredible amount of time and money on workwear. The high spend however does not necessarily mean that workwear for women in law is being treated as an enjoyable indulgence – in fact quite the opposite. There is the suggestion that many lawyers do not find it easy to dress themselves for work, spending an excessive amount of time – up to three months of the year – deciding what to wear, and are viewing sartorial choices for work as a stress point. There are two sides to the issue: law is typically seen as high paid, particularly in practice, and there is pressure to conform to high standards of dress for all genders and levels of employment. However, at the same time, there are wider culture changes with more allowances made for individuality in the workplace. Smart casual is that dreaded catch-all term that means different things to different people, so navigating expectations can become even more of a minefield even though the dress code is in fact ‘relaxing.’ Add to that the additional scrutiny that women face on how they present themselves, and workwear for women in law can become a real drain on mental energy, as well as the pocket.

Female Lawyer Workwear: A Fashion Expert’s View

How have fashion observers seen attitudes to workwear trends in law evolve? We talk to fashion expert Emilie Chanteloup, co-founder of digital magazine Imaginealady.com, who tells us what she is seeing in women’s approaches to workwear in the corporate and professional workplace.

“In people’s minds, the professional workwear dress code is typically a suit,” says Emilie, “and jackets are must-haves in any situation. But the question now is: is the suit really essential for a conventional client meeting?”

Then there is the question of colour. “Black, grey or navy are used by all women struggling with the ‘what to wear’ dilemma every morning,” Emilie observes. “Dark colours, base suits and white tops; are often how you can describe a workwear outfit in a law firm. Sometimes, they may attempt to go a bit out there by wearing a polka dot or cream shirt and get comments on how they look ‘different’. However positive or negative the comment can be, it’s still a comment and it can easily bring down a woman’s confidence. That may sound extreme, but the reality is in our Imaginealady street fashion stories, most of the female workers from law firms I meet mention the fact that the weekend is the time where they take back their freedom and allow colour into their outfits.”

What of the money being spent on work clothes? “Each week, 5 days out of 7, those women are having wardrobe frustrations because of the social pressure in their work environments. When Vogue, Elle and other fashion magazines talk about the last workwear trends and how to follow it, lawyers and women working at law firms are not even allowed to wear a bright yellow silk shirt with their black suit, creating a big gap between magazines and real life. So, how can you spend such a crazy amount of money without being a fashion follower? The answer is simple: the money goes on expensive pieces. Suits can cost nearly £600 with alterations or far more if they’re tailored. This is then justified as it gives people more confidence to wear an expensive brand suit. If nobody starts the workwear revolution, in 20 years from now, the workwear will still be described as the boring uniform to look like all your colleagues, while still spending a fortune. Wearing something is all about showing a part of who you are and who you want to be. So why hide your identity at work?”

Emilie touches on a very good point. In an industry where women still feel the need to work that little bit harder to be taken as seriously as their male peers, something as slight as the colour of their shirt is often seen as a risk to their professional identity. Female lawyers may find themselves dressing to make themselves more invisible to avoid unjust scrutiny of their presence and appropriateness in the workplace. This reality differs greatly from the broadly held view in the fashion world that traditional professional dress codes are on the way out.

Changing The Approach to Workwear

Dressing for work should be a more enjoyable part of our working routine, not another stress point. When you put on an outfit, it should be an easy decision that enhances your mood and prepares you for work; the clothes you wear should represent you as an individual, the pride you take in your work and what you hope to accomplish during that day.

Marianna Ferro, CEO of Flair Atelier online fashion tailoring portal, agrees. “It is difficult to generalise, women tend to be less aligned than they used to be when it comes to workwear. It’s safe to say that women working in creative sectors tend to go for bolder option, while others working in more formal office as banks or law firms tend to purchase updated versions of the classic little black dress. What is definitely happening is that women more and more are leaving behind the grey and dark blue formal suits at work and they are less intimidated about showing their feminine side. The trends we see are all about keeping it professional, without losing your identity. Whether it’s a classic cut in an unexpected colour, or a statement piece to complete a formal look, workwear is now a mix of confidence and comfort: crease-free fabrics, well-considered cuts, overall quality that make you feel great throughout the day so you can keep your focus on achieving, and not just appearing.”

The Bottom Line

Our choice of what to wear has never been broader, but many women lawyers are still expected to fit into a very narrow box of expectations. There is nothing wrong with one or two nice suits, but it can no longer be held up as the defining feature of a lawyer’s wardrobe. As women are becoming more ever-present and visible in the higher echelons of the legal profession, we can hope that more individuality and indeed, colour, will follow, as women lawyers are no longer judged as a category but on their individual identities and merits. There are enough pressures on our shoulders. The less time we are forced to spend worrying about what to wear, the better for all.