Dana Denis-Smith is an entrepreneur, ex-lawyer, and journalist.
I founded Obelisk Support to keep City lawyers, especially mothers, working flexibly around their family or other personal commitments and to provide clients with an affordable and quality legal support solution onshore. obelisksupport.com has been recognized for its championing and ground-breaking work. I was personally recognized as the 2015 Outstanding Innovator by the Legal Week for "constantly finding new ways to get alternate ways of working accepted and has helped provide a voice of reason in a hotly debated area.” The FT Innovative Lawyers Awards recognised our innovative business model and I was named one of 10 European lawyers shortlisted in the Individual Legal Innovator category.
What prompted your interest in the legal profession?
My future husband was studying to become a barrister and invited me to one of his student dinners at Gray’s Inn, London (one of the 4 Inns that you need to join to become a barrister in England & Wales). These dinners were compulsory, and he had to go 10-12 times per term. It was a pretty Harry Potter-esque experience! But I got really interested in what went on in the legal profession after that and started reading the materials he used to bring home.
Tell me a little about your background and how it influenced what you do now.
I was born in Transylvania, Romania, under the communist dictatorship of Nicolae Ceausescu. Law was the last subject that I would have taken up as a career – it was so closely associated with the political regime, and, to me, it seemed to be an instrument of oppression. So, I focused my studies mainly on sciences – further maths and physics I enjoyed particularly and I contemplated a career in medicine until I encountered chemistry in high school and hated it. As communism collapsed, a new career seemed possible suddenly – journalism. I embarked on it out of high school, first as a local reporter and then coming over to London to work for various outlets, from the BBC World Service to the Economist Group. I went to the London School of Economics to study history as a mature student and stayed on for a master in political economy and was about to embark on a Ph.D. at Oxford in History and then I decided to join a profession first rather than disappear in the library to become an academic. I joined Linklaters, became an employment lawyer, and then left as a junior lawyer as the road to the top seemed to be a long one for people like me.
Journalism certainly influenced me in setting up Obelisk Support as writing was based on output, breaking a story, not the time spent in front of a desktop. It was quite the opposite –roaming and being curious were rewarded as you were likely to get an exclusive, so there were few questions asked about where you were at 9 am. Like law, it was intense, and there were tight deadlines, but you had a sense of freedom to be creative and in charge of your destiny. I wanted to bring that sense of freedom to law and ensure that we no longer lost talent for the wrong reasons – such as having a child, not being able to commute into the office etc.
My sciences background certainly equipped me with the ‘numbers’ confidence that many lawyers seemed to lack. It’s served me well whilst I tried to run and grow a business. I have always been interested in how things are being made as my dad was an inventor in mechanical engineering so tinkering, trying new things and being open to test new ideas has been something I was used to at home and I think really shaped the way I problem-solve.
You have been an outspoken advocate for greater equality in the legal profession. Since you began working in the industry, how have things improved or not improved and why or why not?
Things are improving especially for white women - we finally have women take up leadership positions at large firms – including my old firm – but there is a huge gap between those with a mainstream or prestige education and those that come through a non-traditional education route or from minority backgrounds. Whilst for white women the next battle is accessing senior roles, for the others it is being one of access to the profession at all to start. And then there is the perennial attrition problem and struggle to continue to work around families. One of the issues I address with my business by encouraging enterprises to allow remote working and a more agile way of delivering legal work to be inclusive and ensure the talent stays in. We also have a barrier around female founders in legal and especially legal tech– having access to finance, to clients and being properly backed makes all the difference to how a start-up starts in life and scales. We don’t have many women who scale and raise in legal and that means the future landscape will not be shaped by their participation, which is a loss to the ecosystem.
What is one thing that each of us can do to help women in the legal profession?
Put your money where your mouth is! Instruct women, buy from female founders and invest in diversity. Women are here and it is worth remembering that the future of legal is female so ignoring this demographic is not a smart move.
Tell me a little about your First100 years project.
The First 100 years started with a mission to celebrate the past to change the future ahead of the 2019 centenary of women in law – until 1919, women were not deemed to be ‘persons’ in the eyes of the law and so all the professional bodies could use existing legislation to refuse their entry. IN 1919, the UK Parliament brought new legislation in – the Sex Disqualification (Removal) Act 1919 to remove this barrier and so women could finally become lawyers. I wanted to use this legal landmark to really reassess the role of women in law and to highlight just how far we’ve come. It ended up galvanising all corners of the legal profession in the UK, Ireland, Australia, Czech Republic and beyond to reassess and acknowledge women and to celebrate them. We ended up doing a lot of wonderful things – from donating our entire video archive to the London School of Economics, we got the first artwork depicting women on the walls of the UK Supreme Court – Legacy 2019 by Catherine Yass- told our stories through podcast, a touring exhibition and by publishing a book, “First”, which happens to be a first to chart the journey of women in law over the last 100 years.
What is your one piece of advice for a new lawyer?
Make a 5-year plan and reassess; regularly reassess to realign to your value as a legal life can really suck you in and deprive you of perspective. But there is more to life than law and it’s great to remember that to keep you grounded.