Building an inclusive, values-driven, and purpose-led legal profession
What spurned the passion to build a business with the vision to make legal work more inclusive? How has giving people a voice, storytelling and an insatiable curiosity helped to build a multi award-winning organisation supporting thousands of accomplished lawyers thrive throughout their career? What was it like to start a business pregnant with only £500 investment?
Rebecca Burn-Callandar, presenter of Sound Advice: Get Year One in Business Right at Sage and former editor and chief writer on all topics related to entrepreneurs and small businesses at The Daily Telegraph and Sunday Telegraph speaks to Dana Deni-Smith, CEO and Founder of Obelisk Support and Founder of the Next 100 Years project to explore the back story to Obelisk Support, what makes it successful today and learn more about its ambitions moving forward.
Listen to learn:
#1 How being a journalist and a love of giving people a voice inspired the model for Obelisk Support
#2 What spurned a passion to make the legal industry more inclusive to allow those with a disability, facing discrimination or who needed to work flexibly around caring responsibilities or other commitments to still follow their vocation
#3 Lessons learnt to build a successful business as a sole female founder
#4 What’s next for Obelisk Support and Dana’s ambitions to make legal work more inclusive
Sound Advice: Get Year One in Business Right - How to start a business when you're pregnant
“[Dana Denis-Smith] is not just bringing the wings of change – but is a hurricane.”
Making legal work more inclusive: The backstory
Born in Transylvania, Romania Dana’s passion post-graduation was to be a journalist. To give people a voice through using the medium of media to give issues a bigger platform. As a journalist she experienced freedom. No one watched the clock. Rather she was valued on the quality of the story produced. Journalism provided the opportunity to be curious, to listen, to learn and to dig deeper to understand each person’s personal story.
Studying journalism at the London School of Economics (LSE) also provided the opportunity to meet people training to be lawyers and barristers. Passionate about justice and equally curious, a kinship was formed along with a lifelong love of the legal profession and the inspiration to study law.
Yet the reality of practicing as a lawyer proved different. As the only married trainee in a city law firm – work / life balance was important from the start – and not always aligned to the traditional expected long hours driven by the billable hour model.
A need for change
As a qualified employment lawyer, Dana saw first hand how organisations managed restructuring and the treatment of employees. Yet, it was representing self-represented people in tribunal cases for 3 months that had all faced discrimination that in Dana’s words “marked me and made me realise we need to be better employers, better in the workplace and we have to change something deeper.”
In this podcast Dana explains how the experience radicalised her and gave her the mission to make work more inclusive as she used her legal and journalism skills to listen to their stories, believe their struggles and provide them a voice. Where each win – no matter how small – was life changing.
Connecting the dots
The Lehmans collapse. A trip to India. Falling pregnant. These seemingly unconnected events came together and enabled Dana to connect the dots and spark the idea behind Obelisk Support.
It was to prove a difficult path to start. A commissioned report exploring what it would take for legal teams in the FTSE 100 to outsource legal work to mums at home and work with a company like Obelisk Support highlighted a catalogue of excuses rather than seeing the lack of diversity for what it was.
Investors too were sceptical – not of the business idea which they agreed was solid – but of their concern for Dana’s commitment as she was mother to a young child under 5.
Yet, Dana was convinced she could not give up as she listened to a growing number of stories from women who had qualified and then faced discrimination because they became mothers. Outraged, these stories “gave her wings” to persevere and find a way to close the gap to meet the needs of the clients – who were frustrated with a lack of a solution to their challenges – and the needs of the legal consultants.
With just herself and her baby daughter for the first 3 years, Dana engaged the first forward thinking, receptive clients presenting an innovative and economic (vs charitable endeavour) solution to their problems. These early adopter clients quickly saw the benefits of how being flexible provided the opportunity to get work done more affordably without impacting quality or delivery times – and create a more diverse and inclusive legal team.
“Until we sort out all the ‘isms’ – sexism, racism, ageism – our daughter will inherit these. As long as those things exist your business [Obelisk Support] must exist because they need you to bridge the gap.”
Evolving as a business leader
Today Obelisk support is a multi award-winning, successful business, which has supported thousands of legal consultants and worked for many blue-chip companies. So what lessons were learned along the way? Dana cites her top 10 learnings:
#1 Surround yourself with the right people that both challenge and support you
#2 Ensure robust recruitment processes to hire the best talent aligned to your business goals
#3 Be consistent and behave in a predictable way
#4 Be agile
#5 Be fast
#6 Remain curious
#7 Get the right tools in place
#8 Remain focused
#9 Be resilient
#10 Continually work on yourself to be a better a business leader
Going from a team of 1 to 5. From £500 to half a million pounds. Acquiring our first office space on the 13th January 2014. Learning the rhythm of business – leap, consolidate, repeat. Each of these experiences and others Dana shares in the podcast provided an opportunity to learn and improve.
Making legal work more inclusive – where to next?
Dana’s vision for Obelisk Support?
To help many more people achieve the flexibility and the way of working they need at during different life stages when personal and professional requirements need to adapt.
To enable Obelisk Support legal consultants to feel supported and valued – able to work on quality projects with good clients as part of the Obelisk Support community.
To support many more clients meet their increasing demands with access to affordable, quality, diverse legal talent through new ways of working.