The Lawyer of the Week- Episode 34, London, UK

Interview Transcript

Pamela: Hello, my name is Pamela DeNeuve and I’d like to welcome you to Lawyer of the Week. We’re very privileged to have Dana Denis-Smith with us today. And let me tell you a little bit about Dana. Dana Denis-Smith is the founder and CEO of legal business, Obelisk Support, a tech-enable business that matches work to thirteen hundred highly skilled lawyers that want to work flexibly around their family commitments. Dana is also the founder of First 100 Years, a five-year project charting the journey of women in the legal profession since 1919. Before becoming an entrepreneur, Dana worked as a journalist. She later trained and qualified as a solicitor with Linklaters in London and Amsterdam.

Dana has received numerous accolades for her work, being recognized as a Legal Innovator by Legal Week and The Financial Times, and as Entrepreneur by Management Today and Daily Mail. In 2018, Dana is a finalist for Legal Personality of the Year at the Lexis Nexis Awards. She holds a BSC in history, an MSC in political economy, both from the London School of Economics. Married to a barrister and mother to a daughter, she now lives in London, having grown up in Transylvania, Romania. Welcome, Dana. Welcome. So happy to have you as our Lawyer of the Week!

Dana: It’s an honor. Thank you very much. So, I’d like to ask you our Lawyer of the Week questions, and our first question is: when and what made you decide to become a solicitor? That’s a very good question because I was meeting my husband-to-be, and the numerous publications he brought home, as you said, I started off as a journalist straight out of high school. And it never crossed my mind to be a lawyer at that point. In a way, I was a challenger of the system, because that’s what journalists do. And I grew up under communism and the rule of law was pretty problematic, so I didn’t have a desire to be in the justice system as I was growing up.

So, having started as a journalist, I began developing much expertise, there didn’t seem to be a lot of depths in my journalism, for some reason, so I thought law was interesting. I met a lot of interesting people through my fiancée, and I was reading all these publications and I seemed to be very interested, and one day I said, “I think I’ll qualify as a lawyer,” and you know, it usually- that’s how it works with me. I only need to realize the foot for the action to follow, so I embarked on it very quickly. I thought it was also centered on something that was quite, you know, journalistic because I thought it was all about language and words, and I felt it would transfer quite well. I had that skill in that space, so that was really kinda how I started.

Pamela: Oh, that’s very interesting. Now, did you- were you all married while you were studying to become a solicitor?

Dana: I was, actually. So, when I started my education, I was already married. And I was one of- I started doing the conversion courses in the evening because I kept my job- day job- as a journalist, and I started looking for training contracts very quickly after. So, it was really a new journey and a new life, I guess, quite rightly put by you. I didn’t think of it like that before, but yes, I was married at that point.

Pamela: Interesting. Your husband must be very supportive and a very fascinating man, to support you during that journey of being newly married and you’re now studying to become a solicitor.

Dana: He was, actually, extremely disappointed. At our wedding, obviously, we had a lot of his colleagues and he was being congratulated for not making the usual lawyer mistake of marrying another lawyer and marrying a journalist. And he said, “Yes, I am different.” And as I was- when I broke the news of my interest to him, he wasn’t very enthusiastic. He basically said, “I don’t really know why you want to do it. If it’s for money, it’s not the right way. You know, it’s very hard work.” So- and he said, “You know, I think you are- you have talents that go beyond that profession. Really, you don’t need to do it.” I did it anyway, because that’s what we do.

Pamela: That’s really great! So, tell me a little bit about your practice when you were a lawyer- when you were practicing in- at like, Linklaters and then the law firms.

Dana: Yeah, so I trained. I didn’t practice very long but when I started and I qualified as an employment lawyer that was, if you like, the area that I liked the most. I was very lucky and they had a program calling people to a charity called The Free Representation Unit, where you know, it would give you an insight into the other side of employment disputes, where people were unrepresented and obviously, when you’re in a very large corporate law firm, you end up always on the corporate side. So, my experience in the firm was very different from the experience of the charity. But I really enjoyed it because I realized I enjoyed advocacy, which if you’re a solicitor, you don’t really get to do. I like the discipline of preparation for it, but I also learned how important it is to have that help and representation for people that are going through a very traumatic experience. It taught me first-hand how, you know, close these relationships are. They are a kind of family type of connection between the employer and the employee. And when it goes bad, it’s very bad and very quickly and so to be able to articulate the case better and to win for them, was really, really rewarding, so I really like that. I like the fact that in a way, it was also back to being a journalist because it was a personal story for them. Every single person I represented had a trauma of a different style, and so that was interesting to be able to put that into words, that maybe sometimes they weren’t articulate enough to put them on paper themselves. So anyway, so employment was my direction, but I decided I wanted to go into business.

Pamela: Wonderful. So, tell me a little bit about your first business and what was the most challenging part of beginning your new business?

Dana: In my first business, it was quite easy because I literally said, “I don’t want to continue to be a lawyer in the law firm. I want to do something with the brilliance today for a new me.” And so, I asked myself, “What can I do?” and so I, very quickly, went through my strengths and I said, “Well, I can write. I have a good analytical mind. I’m really well-educated. I’ve been in the city. I understand the cultural background. And I’m really interested in international politics, so I can just do political risk analysis and economics.” And so, I started a business in that space. Easy-peasy. Expert entrepreneur called doom because you end up- basically- you basically end up with a business that is only as big as you can produce. Anyway, so my first business was very much- very much a consulting business, where everybody wanted my opinions, my forecasts ideas politically and all these things, which was very interesting, but nobody really wanted my freelancers. They always wanted me. And so, I realized that, looking to run a business and set something up that was bigger than me.

And so, I kept looking for the idea and so Obelisk was my second idea. And it came around probably from, if you like, a kind of a bit of information I stored away when I was working as a lawyer, this realization that a lot of talent was being left behind, the people that were progressing were the ones that could give it all and there was no compromised space for people to work without, you know, having the same kind of ultimate ambition to rise to the very top, which not everybody does. And so, I have that information, but obviously, I did nothing with it until I went on a trip to India and saw all the rage that outsourcing you know was in fashion and law firms were selling work to India and the Philippines and everybody wanted cost-cutting and other stuff and I thought, “Why are they sending the work so far? There’s so many people that are talented so near.” So, I started thinking, “How can I create a model that can be trusted by both sides?” And create a more local labor market, if you like, where everybody ends up winning and inclusive to be more rather than being left completely out. That’s how the business came around. From this discovery of needing to be more efficient within the labor market and not leaving people behind.

Pamela: Oh, so you- 1,300 lawyers now are working in your organization?

Dana: It’s probably more than that by now. It’s hard to update. I think we should just say a thousand plus. The number grows day by day, basically. There’s a lot of people. This new way of working coincides with changing work, generally speaking. A lot of people are asking, “What is the future of work?” And I think, in a way, I asked the question at a time when it was definitely not fashionable in the legal profession. A lot of people weren’t really thinking about returning anybody- young, old, or of any gender. So, we were kind of the first saying, “There’s something really wrong here. And maybe the firms don’t really know how to address it.” Or maybe they don’t ask for the solution but anyway, this was 2010, so much has changed in the last few years, which is a great thing.

Pamela: Absolutely, absolutely. Well, that’s wonderful! Now, I first- you first came to my attention on Twitter when you were doing The First 100 Years. Tell me- tell us- more about that.

Dana: That is my other full-time job without having two time capacities to do it. So, I guess I became- again, part of the same experience I had with my business because as you can imagine, when I first came on the market saying it isn’t right that people with skills shouldn’t be engaged if they have a need for different ways of working, I had a lot of pushback. So, success wasn’t open by any stretch of the imagination. So, I became very aware of the kind of, if you like, the negative aspects of diversity conversations around the need to change, but I felt we were trapped in a very negative rhetoric. And again, it’s one of those thoughts that you put away but you don’t necessarily do anything with. And then one day, my husband’s alumni magazine arrived. As usual, I opened it, and I came across this photograph from 1982 of one of the very large law firms having a party and there was only one woman in the middle.

And suddenly, I was struck by the lack of historic context to the diversity conversation. I suddenly felt, “I now understand why I don’t understand and I also understand why it’s all negative.” Because you have no sense of progress, because you have no starting point. So, I asked people, “When have woman started to be lawyers?” And everybody gave me a different answer. Invariably, it was a longer period of time than the reality. So, I suddenly felt women are talking about advancing, but without the, if you like, the tools to be accurate and therefore persuaded. Then I realized that I knew nothing about the whole history. You know, when I went and I identified ninety nineteen as the year of woman actually being allowed to enter the profession, I realized that I had- even though I was a lawyer, I had no knowledge of anybody from before. And if the knowledge exists, that it was within very, very isolated information whether they were academics, some people may be barristers, but there was no consensus. There was no embracing of the history of woman.

And so- because once the thought crosses my mind, action immediately follows. That’s my personality. I immediately decided to set up a project and, you know, fill my days with more exciting historic research. So, I just wanted a change. I guess the conversation and frame it slightly differently and look at this positive story to learn to then press the accelerator on the changes we really need to see, if rather than asking for all the changes, some of which have actually happened. And also, you know, it’s very easy to say things are not moving, but when you look in the past and say we went from zero woman to 50% of the profession, that’s a huge transformation. So, we should own that and we should be positive about owning that because it’s more positive than a negative one. Anyway, so that’s the motivation. The motivation was to create a really easy to understand, accessible library and go out and honor the various stories across the profession, and bring them into one unified platform, and make it free for all and easy to understand. You know, ideal, but hopefully followed by action and hopefully achieving at least 50% of that.

Pamela: Curious, did you find more information about the first solicitor in 1919?

Dana: Yeah, so we did. So, we- I started the project and I’ve put together this quite comprehensive timeline over 100 years, so a lot of research went into that and we identified all the first woman, we sourced their photographs, we tried to find local articles that, you know, mentioned their arrival. But obviously, you know, even though in 1919, there was a new law stuff that you cannot reject the woman because she’s a lawyer, it still took three more years for the first woman to be coming through, because they needed to do the training. But before 1919, their application will be rejected because they were women. But it didn’t, you know, fast-track them without doing what all the men did. So we, you know, have another- we’ll have a lot of, you know, centenaries to celebrate over the next hundred years. We keep celebrating the first hundred years, you know I mean?

Pamela: Well, that is so fascinating! That’s really exciting to me. I love history and I love the history of women, and the ones who were the pioneers. I can’t wait to read it myself! Now, tell us about some of your biggest- I would say they all- were you about to say something? No?

Dana: No, no, no. I was just coughing, sorry.

Pamela: Okay, alright. So, can you tell me about- or tell us about what your biggest challenges are?

Dana: Generally speaking? With the business, or the project, or keeping it all together?

Pamela: Probably keeping it all together. Yeah, I think the challenge- the challenges- are quite different. Being an entrepreneur, being responsible for a lot of people’s salaries, you know, every month, still changing the convention around the market because all the flexibility is more accepted, the nature of how fragmented is the flexibility we want to offer. It’s not accepted, so we accept the concept where we don’t accept the reality. We’re still pushing a lot of people out of work because they don’t fit an ideal that I’m not quite sure is properly defined. So, I still feel there’s a lot of people being left behind from the marketplace and they don’t really have a voice, so we keep pushing for that- us to be their voice, so that’s a kind of different challenge of trying to say to clients, you know, “Just because we are a good business that cares about its purpose, it doesn’t make us a business that isn’t able to deliver the excellence of service you expect.” It doesn’t follow because you’re a good business, that you can’t be anything but a charitable business. So, there’s a lot of work around communication- really getting them to accept that it is possible to do good and be profitable and be a well-run operation.

On the project, I think the biggest danger is the fact that I do love history. I have a degree in history and I’m becoming a little bit of the expert in the project, so I feel the threat of of my first business recover- you know, coming back to haunt me. So, I am very keen to fund it and get the participation of the professional in the widest possible way. And really engaging students, get them to write, getting people to submit content and discover people for us, rather than always us leading because we have a huge archive already. So, really that kind of outreach and amplification is critical, I think, at this stage of the business- of the project- and we obviously have to curate the whole of the next two years anniversary coming up in December 29.

It’s a huge program and, as I said, it’s completely run by volunteers, so it’s quite an ambitious project that is basically backed by a bunch of passionate, crazy people that put so much time of their own into it, which is just fantastic. But it is, you know, it requires quite a bit of management and, you know, I do also have a seven-year-old child. I still have my husband, who is a great- a great supporter and researcher for the project. So there’s, you know, all these different- different trucks that I’m trying to ride, if you like, but I’m trying to keep to those, rather than add new bows to my instrument. I think if I focus on these three things and I deliver, I can then start something new. So, my focus is not trying to spread to things.

Pamela: So, are you going to have like a celebration for the two hundred years?

Dana: I think we’re going to have a repeat celebration. One of those loop celebrations. You know, when you press the- what’s like- the shuffle button on your play. It’s gonna be a bit like that. It’s gonna be always on. Next year, for sure. That’s the plan because to be honest, I want everybody to remember the anniversary- what it means. I want women to really understand how important it is to know their past and how much stronger they will be. And that’s only achievable by different ways of saying the same thing numerous times- on repeat.

Pamela: Well, that sounds wonderful! That’s something I think I might even want to come across the pond to attend.

Dana: Brilliant, brilliant.

Pamela: So now, what legacy would you like to leave?

Dana: Me personally? Well, it’s a difficult one, isn’t it? Because obviously, always starts with the family, being the first stage of legacy and that is just to be remembered for being a neighbor and a positive role model to my own child and to my family. But I think we need to start thinking beyond that as woman, so I’m very interested- the idea of legacy in public space for women and how important it is to collect your own history, and to collect all the artifacts to keep your story together whilst you’re alive, so you have something meaningful to pass on. So, one level- really the legacy is more than I inherited- you know, a few photographs black and white, and to instill in my own daughter a sense of the importance of capturing her ideas, not just treasuring her things, and putting them on paper- really keeping hold of them.

And on a bigger level, obviously, the legacy of this project hopefully would be to be a reference point for generations to come. You know, sometimes you do things without necessarily asking to be judged today. I’m just hoping that everything we do now will be of help and new knowledge and a really rich archive for the next generations. It’s very hard to judge yourself. I’m definitely trying to make people understand they need to have this as a foundation for any public life.

Pamela: Yes. Yes, we encourage peak performance- that’s what I work with, lawyers for peak performance- and one of the things I’ve noticed with you is that you’re an action taker. So, what would you say to someone who maybe struggles with having their idea and then actually executing it, or putting it out in the world, which you have been able to do?

Dana: I would say partner with somebody that can help you get it done. You know, ask yourself what are strengths? And you know, in a way, if you struggle to identify them, there are tests out there that can help you see yourself in the mirror in a way that maybe you can’t quite see without help. And then ask, what does this need to be- you know, to take off? And find something that can complement you and co-found. You don’t have to be a lone wolf. You can collaborate and still achieve, and feel a sense of pride that you’ve done it. So, you don’t- you know, not everything has to be done- actually, I’m not a big fan of stuff being done in isolation, as a one central character that owns it all. So, it’s fine, it’s doable. If you have an idea and you don’t know where to start, there are people that are happy to help. It’s extraordinary. You just need to say, “I’ve got this idea. What do you think?” And you’re already starting the conversation. And you never know where it takes you. So, just don’t keep it in your head. Get it out of there.

Pamela: Great! That’s wonderful advice. And I noticed that you are up for the- let’s see- the 2018 finalists for the Legal Personality of the Year at the Lexis Nexis award coming up. So, that says that you have made a- you have made an impression upon your- the legal community of that you- you’re trying to make a difference and you’re succeeding, to maybe not to your most highest degree, but you’re really succeeding. Whether you’re impacting others and you’re helping others- others who- in the law firms, for example- helping others in the law firms who don’t fit the mold of the work- you know, being a thoroughbred racehorse to go full force 150% and also making a difference of, “Hey! We women really count here. Let’s find out our history.” So, I would say with that- with your legacy- that one word stands out to me is that you care.

Dana: Yeah, totally. But I think, you know, some- you don’t think, you do it. Because it’s not- because you think of the outcome. I didn’t set out- although, I am, you know, very ambitious and I’m not the apologetic type of person. I don’t like to think small. I didn’t set out to be remembered. I set out to do the best I could do to change something. So, you know, all the recognition is amazing and obviously, I think to me, it’s a recognition of the fact that the face of the profession is changing now. We’re going in that direction and I am- I have a slight concern about the implications of not owning our new role because that can result in all of us losing. Are we going to be paid less? Are we going to lose in status? Is that- you know, we have enough research now to say whenever a profession is dominated by women, they end up losing at a category. So, I don’t want that to happen. I want us, as professional women, to be able to maintain our income our place in the legal profession and all that comes of it, just as when the man had before, without having to pay literally for wanting equality.

So, I think there’s still work to be done beyond, but I think without the knowledge and the foundation to be able to rebuff ridiculous arguments, you make it more difficult for yourself. So, you basically say- it’s like, you know, when a firm is established 1819 or whatever, you say, “Wow! You’ve been going that long?” It’s a sign of pride it’s something we say, “Yeah, I feel the solidity. There’s respect. There’s all these things.” You know? We have to feel the same way. It’s a profession established in 1919, a hundred years ago but we’re not going to be paid less, or we’re not gonna be less a lawyer than the men before just because we’re the majority. So, I guess for me, I mean the reason I’m a finalist is because, obviously, I drive change for the business purely on a business level.

But my legacy to the profession is to say, just because you’re woman, you don’t have to be discounted for the next century. Can’t be a century of cheaper woman in law. You know, so we must be careful and must understand what we are asking for and shape the future in a way that we’re not losing out. So, although it’s not a kind of, you know, I haven’t changed the law or I haven’t impacted, you know, legislation, I think I recognize the changing face of the legal profession. The importance of women knowing what they want as the next century. So, I assume that may be linked to the recognition but I only do it cuz I care, you’re quite right. And because I have a daughter. It’s a good combination for me because I’m not afraid and that always helps.

Pamela: Yes. So, the final question that we ask our Lawyer of the Week is: name one thing, or more, that you do to manage your stress levels.

Dana: I cook. You see how fast that came? So, I cook every day. I’m quite- you know, I like to make sure we all eat well and healthy and everything. And I designed that time quite helpful in terms of drifting and, you know- but I did see, for example, that maybe if you asked me ten years ago, I would say, you know, “I like to cook and have a glass of wine.” I would say the glass of wine is no longer helping the stress, so it’s mainly cooking by itself, without the wine. Yeah. So, I like to do that and to make sure that we are all together as a family and we catch up. And I just love when my daughter says, “You haven’t asked me how my day was today.” I just think that’s so wonderful that she, you know, she leads that way and she then tells us about her day and it just puts it all in perspective, you know? And it kind of gives us that sense of personal progress, if you like, which is always and forever changing when you have a young child. So, it’s a really good antidote to the rushing around that we’re known for as parents.

Pamela: Mm-hmm. Wonderful, wonderful. Well Dana, thank you so much for being the Lawyer of the Week and I really intend to keep up with your progress because everything you’re doing is just so amazing to me in making a difference and that’s what’s most important to me is that we make a difference, that we try to make a difference. And thank you for sharing your journey with us today. It’s very much appreciated.

Dana: It’s an absolute pleasure and yeah, I look forward to welcoming you to our event and to staying in touch.

Dana’s Links:

LinkedIn

Obelisk

First 100 Years