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 Barclays, 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, Barclays in Legal Ops, 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.
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