Empowerment Of Women in the Legal Profession – Dana Denis-Smith – S6E23

Were you curious about who the first woman solicitor was and there is no archive about helping to place ourselves in history?

This week we’re super excited to be chatting with Dana Denis-Smith.

In order to address the issue within the legal profession, Dana Denis-Smith, an entrepreneur, journalist, lawyer, and women’s advocate resolved to take action. She created Obelisk Support in 2010, which provides a legal service about flexible work environments for female employees. She then founded the First 100 Years program in 2014, which looks closely at women’s contributions to the legal profession. This fearlessness has driven Dana to achieve an extraordinary amount of change in the legal industry.

Dana was personally recognized numerous times both in the legal industry and beyond. In 2015, she was awarded the Outstanding Innovator by Legal Week, was voted in Legal Personality of the Year and received an Honorary Doctorate of Laws in 2018, and whilst in 2019 recognized as an Outstanding Woman in Law just to name a few. Her works have transformed the careers of many women lawyers since then and served as an inspiration to others seeking to make a difference.

𝐒𝐨, 𝐰𝐡𝐲 𝐬𝐡𝐨𝐮𝐥𝐝 𝐲𝐨𝐮 𝐛𝐞 𝐥𝐢𝐬𝐭𝐞𝐧𝐢𝐧𝐠 𝐢𝐧?

You can catch Rob and Dana talking about:

  • How she had a lightbulb moment when she created Obelisk Support for the legal sector.
  • What can the legal profession do to further support women and their careers?
  • What inspired her to launch The First 100 Years?
  • And the advice she gave to those whose starting out in the legal profession.


00:08 Rob Hanna:

Welcome to the Legally Speaking Podcast. You are now listening to Season 6 of the show. I’m your host Rob Hanna. This week I’m delighted to be joined by Dana Denis-Smith. Dana studied International History and Political Economy at the London School of Economics. She started her career as a journalist, before training as a solicitor at Linklaters. Dana is the Founder of First 100 Years Women in Law, a project celebrating the journey of women in the legal profession. In 2010, Dana started her own business Obelisk Support, and since then, has been awarded Women in Law Awards for Special Contribution Award in 2020, the Legal500 Award for Outstanding Achievement in Legal Services in 2019, Lexis Legal Personality of the Year in 2018, and 1 of The Times Top 50 employers for women in 2015 and 2016. So wow, a very warm welcome, Dana.

01:05 Dana Denis-Smith:

Thanks for having me, Rob.

01:07 Rob Hanna:

Oh, it’s an absolute pleasure to have you on the show. Before we dive into all your amazing projects, experiences and achievements to date, we do have a custom icebreaker question here on the Legally Speaking Podcast, which is, on a scale of 1 to 10, 10 being very real, what would you rate the hit TV series Suits in terms of its reality, if you’ve seen it?

01:31 Dana Denis-Smith:

I will have to sit on the fence because I never saw it, so therefore, I’ll be right in the middle. On the 1 hand, on the other hand, let’s say 5 and I’m balancing my ignorance with my very, very basic knowledge around who the main character, that became most famous, that was in the series. So I’m afraid I think it’s a 5 through just trying to be fair to my knowledge.

01:54 Rob Hanna:

Well, 5 is good, because I have also given the show 5, and I’ve seen it, so great minds clearly think alike. But today is absolutely all about you, Dana. So would you mind by starting telling our listeners a bit about your background and career journey.

02:09 Dana Denis-Smith:

So I guess my background started in Transylvania. I was born in, in Romania, and I grew up under Communism, a very, very different kind of life to what I have at the moment, I’m based in London. So I grew up in a country where work to be honest, I guess the future was very predictable, but unwanted, it’s better to say. My first career according to what the party wanted me to become, apart from being a, you know, communist worker, I was going to be an electrician. And luckily for me, I love to table tennis, so while I was managing to do all the, you know, practical electrician training, by actually playing table tennis, and winning some competitions, to stay away from the kind of, you know, manual work that I didn’t really want to do, and Communism collapsed and saved me. So I, I that, I then got out of my electrician path and embarked on just, you know, sciences and further maths and that kind of stuff. And everybody had me down as a future doctor, although I was obviously becoming a future doctor, I didn’t know, doing some kind of electrical things in the operating theatre, I’m not quite sure how that was going to work out. And I loved the idea of being a doctor, but I then did encounter chemistry and that put me off a little bit. And 1 day I decided I’ll be a journalist. And I guess because of the political changes in the country, journalism became a career that you could, you know, think about, and it felt to me like the career where you could hold people accountable. And I loved writing, so I settled on a journalism path, just before leaving high school. After which I just went straight into reporting out of high school, I didn’t go to university, it was a huge disappointment for my dad, he was very firmly set on our, you know, all his 3 girls would go to university, and I just loved writing, I went straight into local journalism. And then I encountered international journalism for Reuters and realised that actually, there’s bigger journalism I could be doing, and I love writing in English. So I ended up in London, being a journalist, and then went to university as a mature student a bit later than my peers, and studied at the LSE as you mentioned, history and political economy, had a brief return to journalism, after which I decided to go and become a lawyer. So that was, and there we have it. I embarked on my legal education on 9/11, a very historic journalistic day when I was on my first day at uni, thinking, why am I here rather than covering this world event as a journalist, so you know, sometimes you pick your times, huh.

05:01 Rob Hanna:

You do pick your times and you’ll never ever forget that day, obviously, for, for very obvious reasons, but just want to go back to 2 things. 1 thing I absolutely love table tennis, so we’re gonna have to play a game at some point or a match, I should say.

05:11 Dana Denis-Smith:

Challenge accepted.

05:14 Rob Hanna:

There we go. There you are listeners, you can hear that. And then secondly, if I say, I’ll pronounce it incorrectly so I do apologise for everyone who lives there. But I’ve been to Târgu Mureș in Romania for my brother’s stag do from many, many moons ago. Is that a place that you know well, or would, would know of or would have visited?

05:34 Dana Denis-Smith:

I have visited and I don’t know it very well, but I know where it is. And it is in Transylvania, so it’s not too far away, maybe 60 kilometres, something like that. Not too bad.

05:44 Rob Hanna: 

Yeah. Because I remember we got a day trip to Transylvania.

05:48 Dana Denis-Smith:

Slightly bigger than where I grew up.

05:50 Rob Hanna:

Oh really? Well, what a small world. Well let’s move on because you did dove into, dive into the legal world. And you trained at a Magic Circle firm with Linklaters. What areas of law did you experience? And what skills did you learn from your time there?

06:07 Dana Denis-Smith:

So I was interested in Linklaters simply because they have such a blue chip client base really. So I was quite keen to kind of experience as much as possible. I spent half the time in finance. I tried to avoid the corporate seats, I heard the people never sleep. But then I went into finance one, so I didn’t sleep either. A lot of leveraged finance and transaction, which is really, really interesting, a lot of yeah, really not very complicated documentation, we had to be very well organised, and really understand the kind of timetable. Always a bit daunting when the client called and asked for something you weren’t quite sure where they were. And then I, then the second part I did litigation and employment. And employment really was the 1 that captured my imagination, I think it was because it’s all about people. I enjoyed, you know, the kind of people problems, it had a litigation aspect, I liked the fact I ended up going to court quite a lot. I went, I spent the last 3 months at Linklaters on secondment to the Free Representation Unit, where I did exactly the opposite of all the work I used to do at Linklaters, which was all be kind of corporate, you know, restructuring schemes, and that kind of stuff. Whereas at FRU it was all claimant work and, you know, people that weren’t represented, finally had somebody that could help them in court. And I really enjoyed it. I enjoyed the advocacy aspect. I enjoyed helping people and, you know, getting good results for them. But yeah, employment was the area where my heart stayed.

07:43 Rob Hanna:

Well it’s important that you do and it’s a good message there that you know, you do need to follow your passions and where you are most interested in because it’s super important as a career can be a long time. But let’s fast forward then. So from you know, being highly successful at Linklaters, in 2010, I believe you started Obelisk Support after travelling to India to explore your next entrepreneurial idea. So can you explain more about your business and what it does?

08:08 Dana Denis-Smith:

Sure, so I actually left Linklaters and I decided to be an entrepreneur. But my first business is not this 1, I actually explored entrepreneurship in a similar model with a network of consultants and experts. But in my previous line of business with, you know, political risk and writing, I realised, I think having qualified and spent a bit of time in the legal profession, I was a bit older when I qualified, remember, because I came quite late to going and becoming a graduate and actually suddenly having this moment of deciding to be a lawyer. And so I kind of figured very quickly that I wanted to fast track my career in a different way. And I wanted to have more control and more autonomy over where I was going to go. And I didn’t feel, you know, big law firm was the right environment to kind of allow my creativity to flourish, I guess. So by the time I went to India, I was already running my first business. And that’s why I went to India, I went on a government trade mission, to try to export my economic analysis into India. And then I had this lightbulb moment of creating a very different organisation built for the legal sector. I didn’t think I will ever come back to the legal sector to become a provider into that ecosystem. But obviously I’m glad I did.

09:26 Rob Hanna:

Yeah. And look it’s been a success and everything you seem to touch does fantastically well. What I want to talk about is around values and principles, because your founding principle is ‘to honour the principle of human first’, which I absolutely love. But what’s your meaning behind this?

09:43 Dana Denis-Smith:

It’s a very good question. So I think it’s got a you know, it’s a, if you like a hashtag almost, you know, it’s everything that we do, we do put this filter of human first, I guess for me, you know, obviously with technology and everything that’s happening and noise around I think we always stop to ask ourselves is this actually putting people at the heart of our work. And at the end of the day law is everywhere. And, we forget I think how many lives it touches and in so many different ways. And it was our way of articulating that people are central to the legal profession, to the concept of rule of law, actually, what’s the point of law itself. And I think by putting human first through that lens, through all our work, we remember that we are in the legal profession, the work that impacts a wider community than we think. And it’s a kind of shorthand almost of saying everything we do, we need to remember people are the end kind of recipient of it.

10:39 Rob Hanna:

Yeah, I love that. And I always talk a lot about it’s no longer b to b, b to c, it’s h to h, and it’s human to human. And that’s what we all need to remember, and I absolutely love your founding principle. And I want to stick with them Obelisk support, because my understanding is it works in 4 stages. So the first being talk to us, second, build your service, third, get started and four job done. So can you explain a little bit more about each of those stages to us please?

11:08 Dana Denis-Smith:

So basically, the idea behind business was that a lot of businesses don’t access legal support early enough, because it’s too expensive, because they make assumptions about many lawyers not coming across as human first, and putting people off trying to engage with lawyers that still, you know, there’s so many kinds of reasons why and assumptions that are negative around the legal profession. And so the concept behind the business was also to re-engage a lot of the professionals that need to work in a different way. We remember that, you know, covid has obviously opened the world’s eyes to the idea of remote working and flexibility. But in 2010, when we started the businesses and surveyed FTSE 100 GCs, and asked them whether they would also send anybody at home, everybody said no. So the appetite for working differently, for giving people more autonomy around how they work, and yet still deliver the work to the end client has really come a long way. So really for us it’s about, business, because we only really work with businesses, they have a need, you know, maybe they have, you know, commercial contracts, they need to negotiate, they maybe have an employment problem, it’s you know, they want to protect their intellectual property, whatever their business problem is, you know, they can literally say, I’ve got the job that needs doing, where do I go. So there are obviously different types of providers on the market. We’re 1 of them, and my idea from the beginning was to provide affordable, flexible and quality legal support. And so being able to give them the solution just for that in, you know, initial need, rather than requiring them to put us on a retainer or something, you know, what is the problem, we can narrow it down, and then understand who’s best suited to deliver the work and then, as you say, job done. So it really is about being as flexible as possible to enable as many businesses to access support rather than basically shun lawyers, which is kind of how most people think.

13:07 Rob Hanna:

No, I love that. And I think it’s so important. And again, it’s just testament to your values, and you as a human first, because, you know, affordability obviously will increase access, and everything that you’re doing is, is tremendous, because you know, everyone shouldn’t be put off. And the fact that your organisation does exist will hopefully give people that hope that hey, I can actually get legal representation and the right things that I need because I said time and time again, folks, it’s 1 of the best places most important places to invest, if you can, having the right legal support and any sort of initiative you’re trying to do. So it’s wonderful that your organisation exists. So let’s move further away because you’ve done so many wider things and I know you have lots of other passions and things that is true to you that you want to help push and change. Particularly you are a women’s advocate and witness skills women’s lawyer in the stages of helping them from professional and personal lives because sometimes they’re overlooked. So, what can the legal profession do to further support women and their careers?

14:05 Dana Denis-Smith:

Oh, where do we start? I mean, how, how long do you have? Well, I think there’s a lot of stuff that’s remaining and then obviously, you know, in a way we’ve been taken by surprise by the rise of women in the legal profession and the profession structures, weren’t ready for it. So recognising that the professional was structured for a very different demographic is the, you know, step number 1. It is becoming majority female, but the decision makers are not female. So we’ve holding on to structures that are no longer fit for purpose for the future. We have to recognise the woman’s priorities can be slightly different. We lose a lot of talent, we still lose a lot of talent, because of the flexible flexibility now, before it was inflexible everything, now we creating you know workplaces that are strict around which days of the week you have to be in and how you have to turn up even when they are flexible, generally speaking, so I think we have made some progress, but it’s still made not on really understanding woman’s challenges sufficiently to they’re very much, you know, echo chamber kind of solutions, as opposed to, from the ground up. We have a lack of women leaders, we have, you know, a lack of representation across all aspects of the legal profession. So maybe we’re seeing some improvements in some areas, let’s say, the lower tier tribunals, you know, many more women are going in and look at the Supreme Court, you know, 1 woman out of 12. So, you have this kind of massive gap, which, you know, optically and from a symbolic point of view doesn’t give hope to women that the change is possible in their lifetime. And that needs to be addressed. But there’s so many things around your gender pay gap is an issue, everything in a way, to me, that’s why I focus so much on the history of the beginning, because a lot of it is a historic lag. We’ve inherited all these histories, and we don’t understand them. And we never stopped to say, well what do they actually mean? The gender pay gap, for example, is a complete historic inherited factor from the First World War, the woman stepped into the war effort, they were paid less, and they never escaped it. So we understand some of those historic aspects, we can tackle them. I think there’s so many ways in which you can cut the problem. But as you know I’m focused on trying to break through find some solutions. Yeah, but there are loads and loads and loads of aspects where we can progress. But I think often, the conversation is negative and I like to keep it positive.

16:40 Rob Hanna:

Yeah, and I’m, I’m all for change. I’m all for positivity. And I’m all for like you say solution. Time for a short break from the show. Are you looking for a way to get your firm working more efficiently and profitably, while ensuring a better work life balance for your team? Well, if you haven’t considered our sponsor Clio, I’m here to strongly recommend that you do. I absolutely love working with Clio. Not only is it the world’s leading legal practice management and legal client relationship management software, it also has a really solid core mission, to transform the legal experience for all. Something I personally support. What sets Clio apart for me, it’s their dedication to customer success and support. There are lots of legal software’s out there, but I know from talking to Clio users that their support offering is miles ahead of the rest with their 24-5 availability by email, in app chat and over the phone. Yes, you can actually call in and speak to someone. Clio is also the G2 Crowd leader in legal practice management in comparison to 130 legal practice management software’s and has been for the last 14 consecutive quarters. G2 Crowd is the world’s leading business solutions review website. You can check Clio’s full list of features and pricing at www dot Clio dot com forward slash Legally dash Speaking. That’s www dot C L I O dot forward slash Legally dash Speaking. Now back to the show. So sticking with, you know, being proactive and doing things and doing good for legal community, you’re also the Founder of the First 100 Years, so the women in law project. So what inspired you to launch this?

18:35 Dana Denis-Smith:

A very simply a photograph in my husband’s alumni magazine. My husband is a lawyer. And it to be honest, he always opens all the post and all the magazines and everything. So this photograph was from Herbert Smith. And it was about something completely different. In fact, it was about the man. But I spotted it in the corner. And I was just fascinated by the fact that they had only 1-woman partner in 1982. And I was already alive by this point. And I therefore wondered whether there was more to this photograph and it was telling me, I actually something bigger about the journey woman in law, again, because a lot of the education we received in law school wasn’t focused on women. I mean, in 2013, it was when I saw this photograph, I, you know, the only names I knew in the legal profession were male names or the lords and all the cases were about lords and all the kind of famous names were men. And I did wonder when I saw the photograph whether there was something in it and why did we only have 1 woman in 1982? What was that telling us? And that’s when I started to research and I discovered that women were basically banned from joining the legal profession until 1919, and they needed to change the law, to enable them to be classified as persons. And I wanted to celebrate that because I thought it was such an important thing to focus on and educate and inform, and also bring out from all that history, the role models that we had no idea about. So that was kind of the first 100 years was creating a campaign to run up to the centenary of the Act of Parliament that allowed women to participate in the legal profession. And but it was also kind of way of, it was an oral history project as well, we filmed a lot of the role models of today, a lot of the first of our generation, most of them are still alive. And we basically made this kind of promise to the legal profession that the next generation is more informed, has more material and doesn’t have that kind of poverty of knowledge that we inherited. And also, then it became something much bigger than I thought, to be honest, because I thought we’ll just produce all these films, we will create this library, we will do some research and, the job will be done. But it became really evident that there was such a hunger for this information, woman needed role models in a way that I didn’t anticipate before. For me, it was about telling stories but I realised for them it was about making reality, you know, a feeling that they, they had a place in the legal profession. And before I knew it, it became a kind of movement out of my control. But that was a good thing.

21:36 Rob Hanna:

Absolutely. And we’re all for good things. And you’re touching on it there because the, you know, the aim of our understanding was with the First 100 Years project to create this online library of 100 videos about women who have shaped the legal profession since, I believe the Sex Disqualification Removal Act in 1919. So with that, who have you had the opportunity to collaborate with along that journey?

21:57 Dana Denis-Smith:

A lot of people to be honest, because 1 of the first early things that I learned that I didn’t appreciate was how expensive it is to make good films. We needed a legal profession to support because initiatives to really power them, they need to be bigger than the individual that founds the idea is not enough. And really I mean we collaborated with so many universities, so many organisations and they still do, I mean, we still have an exhibition that we call print and display, where people just take it off our resource page, basically. And they printed, print it in their own kind of studios, and they still going around schools around the country because they want to use the materials for teaching. We had a lot of the law firms support individual films. We had, you know, I guess the biggest collaboration was, was with the Supreme Court where we managed to commission and get this first artwork depicting women lawyers mounted in courtroom number 2, it was quite a complex project, I was very happy, worked hard. And, you know, we managed to fundraise to make it a reality because I hadn’t appreciated how visually women lawyers were not represented. So, it was an incredible, it really was so embraced by the legal profession and by the, you know, across the board, not just solicitors, not just barristers, actually the judiciary, they’ve been amazing, universities, it really captured the imagination of the profession in a way that I probably secretly hoped but I didn’t really believe it was possible. So huge range of people really made it possible.

23:36 Rob Hanna:

And a range of people and a range of hours from yourself because I understand you’ve also dedicated over 10,000 hours of pro bono time on the project. I’m big believer in the actions will outperform the words, but what did you enjoy most during that time? And what did you want your audience to really learn from the First 100 Years in terms of key takeaways?

23:56 Dana Denis-Smith:

I wanted them, I remember actually because you know, you sometimes you forget that when you’re a child things happen to you but you don’t know how they really will impact you in the future. So I remember a conversation when I was about 15 in my high school with Holly, a boy and he said to me, you know, name any famous woman that have ever, ever done anything? And I struggled, I think I said Mary Curie or something. And there was, you know, because we weren’t brought up to be able to roll off our tongue a bunch of women that are amazing. We just didn’t have the practice. So the first thing I wanted is if a woman is asked to name me some women lawyers that ever did anything, they have no hesitation to basically have a bank of names, they can just push out anybody that challenges women have achieved and contributed. So that was kind of you know, the basic aim was please, remember these people because they have made today possible for you, but at the other end definitely working in the Supreme Court and arts project, very complicated, very different kind of brain required and different types of team to surround us so, the range has been really incredible. So, I don’t know, I mean, like, for me, I think we’ve produced so many different types, I mean, we always had this idea of a multimedia project, because everybody has a different kind of sensory way of learning. So we said, well, you know, we can produce visual video, and maybe you know, the exhibition, and we have books, and we have photography, and we created artworks really something for everyone if they want to, if they learn in a particular way, they can still find a ways. And we had a podcast as well, to educate, decade by decade, the history of woman in law. So really it was about how people learn and think you have all the senses and thinking how can we take that to them. And we even had a commission of a classical music piece which I don’t think has ever been done for, you know, rep, you know, celebrating women lawyers, and because only 2% of all the music played in concert halls around the world is by women composers. So we commissioned the woman to produce piece of music, which was amazing. And she’s 1 of the rising stars of the music world at the moment. So I’m really proud that we also found a woman composer that is, you know, her kind of star is rising as well. So it’s really great to see that we can lift each other across different types of work, not just law, but it impacted beyond the law.

26:27 Rob Hanna:

Yeah, and it’s such a lovely story. And thank you so much for sharing that. And it’s great that you talk about how different people consume content as well. So I talk a lot about on the show about the WAV strategy, either written, audio and video and being able to dissect, you know, which way you can distribute that to get more people educated on what you’re trying to sell, promote, or try and inspire if it’s for a, for a cause. So thank you for sharing that, and I want to stick because with this, because the project is continuing, I believe with the Next 100 Years chapter. So what do you have planned for that?

26:59 Dana Denis-Smith:

I think the plan with that is to narrow in on the issues. So, you know, I think history taught us where the sticky points are. And I think it’s taking them a little bit like tennis, 1 point at a time and really getting them removed. So, you know, for example, gender pay gap. We did you know, we’ve partnered with an analytics company, and we did a, you know, study on where we are, then we create a report, think about new ways in which we can be addressed, trying to partner with organisations to help them tackle it, and recognise that it is a problem. And it’s okay, but it needs to be addressed and redressed. So really, we are, you know, again, women leaders, you know, new role models, because very often from the past, because we had so few, there’s so few names. And so we need to create the kind of role models of this generation and also leave a legacy and ask them about, you know, how they succeeded, what’s important to them. So we have a news film series called Next 100 Voices that focuses on leaders of today to ask them questions. We continue our annual awards, we’ve had them before, it was fashionable. And I liked them because we always have blind judging. So people that normally win might not always win with us, because we stripped back a lot of the identificating kind of aspects, and they really are bringing to the kind of surface really new names and I really love discovering new people that are doing things and sometimes our unsung heroes and celebrating them. So I think the kind of you know, the spirit of the first salary is continuous, we want to celebrate achievements, we want to empower women to stay in the field connected to legal profession. But when it comes to the kind of bigger stickier points, we want to go deeper and understand the problems and see what solutions we can come up with. So for example right now we have a survey out on mothers in the legal profession, because whenever we surveyed and we’ve had a couple of you, actually a few surveys at different points including covid, mothers ended up on a kind of side track of their own where they were just give us a lot of kind of, you know, you know, a lot of things in kind of free text around how much they were struggling and we said let’s take that and actually do something, to understand where they feel they are and what we can learn from that including for you know, fathers and other members of the profession right. So, we focusing on issues to understand where, why are we so stuck with them, and can we do something to unlock.

29:45 Rob Hanna:

Well you’re absolutely doing something so unlock and sticking with celebrating achievements, awards, role models and legacy something that I truly support all of. We have to talk about you because Dana, you’ve been awarded the Women in Law Award Special Contribution Award 2020, Legal500 Award for Outstanding Achievement and Legal Services 2019, Lexis Legal Personality of the Year 2018, 1 of The Times Top 50 employers for women in 2015 and 2016, and received an Honorary Doctorate of Laws, and many, many other things. How do you feel about all these achievements to date?

30:19 Dana Denis-Smith:

I’m going to say that I have been overtaken by my child. She’s won more piano competitions than awards I’ve had in, in shorter time. So I, no seriously, I, I feel very humbled. I mean, to be honest I didn’t, I didn’t even think I’d be a lawyer right. So when I was growing up, I mean, obviously I had a sense, we all grew up and we get angry. And you know, we feel there’s no justice in the world. Some of them because we teenagers, some of them, maybe they’re more justified, but it’s kind of almost puzzling as well to have had so much recognition to manage to kind of catalyse so much of the industry around some of the ideas I heard. So it’s kind of humbling, but also surprising. But I guess, you know, I have put the work in, as you said, it’s 1000s and 1000s of hours, and it continues to this day. I take great pleasure working on these projects and these ideas. But they’re I guess they’re not magical results, they coming out of the fact that I’ve put all this effort in and I’m really grateful people are noticing the work.

31:21 Rob Hanna:

Well, they were they absolutely are. And all of us on the show here are congratulate you on everything you’ve achieved. But you make a great point, because the awards are really just the tip of the iceberg. It’s all the legwork that goes beneath the water, you know, all of that hard work, dedication that finally does get recognised by you know, seeing the top of it. So thank you for all that you have done and sticking with, you know, accolades and achievements and features you’ve recently featured in The Sunday Times, ‘My mum’s army is out to shake up the legal profession’. Can you tell us more about this article?

31:52 Dana Denis-Smith:

But this was really about I think the category of articles called how I made it, but I don’t feel like I’ve made it, I guess how I made it to still survive in business today is really the kind of subtitles and the translation. So I think it’s just something that focuses around how you build a business from nothing, which is what I did. I didn’t take investment. I wasn’t a senior partner moving into setting my own firm. The climate in 2010 was a very different 1 when it comes to recognising the value of people that want to work in a different way. So my idea from the beginning was not to allow parents and people with caring responsibilities to leave the profession, because we were not prepared to give them jobs that were flexible enough. I wanted to focus on their contribution, their technical skill where they can bring, you know, young, old parents, people with all the parents whatever, what they may have going on at home, I didn’t want them to feel it’s all or nothing. So you know a win-win rather a 0 sum game. So my idea from the beginning was very much around, can we create jobs, can we bring work to people that need to work in a different way and the market wasn’t really open for it. So I guess it describes my journey trying to bring all these mum’s opportunities but the market wasn’t giving me any. So, and at the same time obviously I had my child so I ended up you know building this business, I don’t really know exactly how to build our so it was the dark ages of my life because it was constant. You know, obviously, we work. I mean, you know, you’ve had a young child, right? So you know how they don’t sleep and you’re trying to do everything around them and do your best and you’re not sure if it will succeed. And I guess there was this question mark around, well, how much more can I take? And still we’ve got to where we are, you know, we’ve all these, you know, 1000s of people that we work with and different consultants and a multi-million business. So you know it’s happy ending I guess in the story but the work is never done.

33:56 Rob Hanna:

Yeah, the work is never done. That’s a great message. But, you know, also, you have to carry on, you know, like you mentioned there, there were challenging points or things not being heard. But that passion, that persistence, that sort of, you know, real tenacity just shines through in everything that you’ve done and hence why you’ve achieved so much and you know, sticking with passion then I know, and it’s something I’m passionate about, we have a shared passion for this, but you’re very passionate about disrupting the legal profession. So what changes have you seen, positive changes since joining the industry, but what changes would you like to see? And I know where do we start, how long we got, but be as concise as you would like to be.

34:30 Dana Denis-Smith:

But definitely I think from a massive point of view, demographically, the professions completely transformed with the rise of women. And I think that will demand deeper changes because they will not stay. I think there’s a massive challenge generally towards legal professionals, you know, our reputation in the world. In terms of, obviously, you hear from the kind of you know, the human rights lawyers and the criminal barristers you know on strike very often. There’s that kind of narrative but actually we are basically under attack as a profession, in terms of what do, we what do we exist for, really being able to articulate to the wider society that need for lawyers. Why are we here for them and I think we haven’t already done a good job so we’ve ended up with a lot of the narrative being a negative 1 around, you know, greedy people that charge by the hour. 1 of the major changes I think it’s a good 1 is that we talking about mental health and well-being and do we really need to work around the clock. And I think the younger generation are a little bit more vocal, which is a good thing, because when I was training people weren’t challenging the demands from the top down. There were no reasonable demands. I mean, that was 1 of the reasons I said in the article in The Times you know, I, I wasn’t prepared to stay in the night if they couldn’t explain why, I, it was needed to be in the night in the office. But I was a bit older so I could ask the question, I wasn’t afraid that my future depended on that particular job. But if you’re starting off, and you’ve worked really hard, and there’s so few training contracts, and you want to impress, you might not have my view of the world, you know, there is a world beyond this training contract, and that can be paralysing and really damaging to people. And I think we should stop and not glamorise it anymore and say, well, what, you know we need to learn to define work, we need to learn to work allocated in an effective way so some people are not completely murdered by the volume and some people don’t have enough to do. We need to level the playing field so people can succeed without having to die on the job. So I think that kind of conversations are emerging are really good. They are striking to the very heart of many issues that we’ve known about but maybe we skirted around, you know, the whole point about culture in the law firms, in the legal profession, what is our purpose as lawyers, because if you are invested so many years and so much money to become a lawyer, I think you’re worth, you know, asking those questions and also, we should be asking for answers.

36:55 Rob Hanna:

Yeah, I couldn’t agree more. And I absolutely agree on the mental health point. It’s something very personal to me. And I’m a very big believer in sort of, you know, supporting whatever we can when it comes to promoting mental health and I was recently at Stephanie Boyce’s charity gala dinner where we start on Law Cares table and I think they’re doing tremendous work and previous guests we’ve had on the show the likes of Jodie Hill who runs Thrive Law, who really puts mental health and diversity inclusion at the forefront of her firm. Caitlin McFee whose also former Linklaters set up her own coaching business about rebalance trying to help people within the legal profession. So I think thank you so much for shining a light on that and all the work that you’ve been doing. And you know, undoubtedly, you’re inspiring the next generation of talent, you know, many students, the next generation of lawyers are looking up to you and will have followed your story. So what advice would you give to those looking to start out in the legal profession?

37:46 Dana Denis-Smith:

I think, well, it’s, it dependence. So first of all, don’t be discouraged, because it is hard to get jobs in the legal profession. But luckily the different types of jobs and different routes in. Never stopped being professional and having high standards because I think it matters, how you come across, how you present, I think we underestimate that we do make an impression really fast. And equally I think if you have passions that involve the legal profession or beyond, don’t give them up and never be afraid of having a future beyond law because it is possible to find, you know, that law is just the start of something more exciting, it doesn’t need to be the end all of everything and put pressure on a salary over, over their heads. I think it’s difficult when you have too much choice to make choices. But I think they should enjoy the fact they’ve got so much more excitement kind of ahead of them, then where even when I started, you know, it was a 2-truck kind of way that you could go and work your way up and then if you didn’t work your way up, you were out. Whereas now you can stay in, you can enjoy yourself and actually have passions on the side. So I think it’s much more balanced and a profession worth joining because of that.

38:56 Rob Hanna:

I absolutely agree and I’ve loved seeing the change. And I love that you talked about the professionalism point there. And it brings back to my grandfather who was a lawyer and run his own law firm always used to say, act with integrity not when people are watching, act with integrity always. And I think that mirrors what you’re saying there. And, you know, it’s been fascinating listening to your journey, what you’ve achieved, but also what you’re doing. You know, it’s, it’s really great to see people that proactively go out of their way to make a change. So as we look to close, if our listeners which I’m sure they will would like to learn more about Obelisk Support or the First 100 Years project, where can they find out more?

39:35 Dana Denis-Smith:

Each 1 of the organisations have websites. Definitely on the First 100 Years side we always work on volunteers and people that are prepared to help to spread the word, to get us more, you know, support from the ground up because movements never exist without support. If people are qualified lawyers or they’re paralegals they can obviously join the community on the Obelisk side and try to work with us. Equally they can just reach out to me on LinkedIn and I’m happy to connect. And I don’t know if I mentioned but from, I don’t know, I think it’s next week, I’m also representing women on The Law Society Council, so I hope to make a difference by putting the issue right on the table, at the top table.

40:19 Rob Hanna:

Absolutely and congratulations and that doesn’t surprise us 1 bit. Thank you so, so much Dana. It’s been absolute pleasure having you on the show today. So from all of us on the Legally Speaking Podcast, we’d like to wish you lots of continued success with your entrepreneurial journey, career and wider pursuits, but for now, over and out.

40:36 Dana Denis-Smith:

Thank you.

40:49 Rob Hanna:

Thank you for listening to this week’s episode. If you liked the content here, why not check out our world leading content and collaboration hub, the Legally Speaking Club over on Discord. Go to our website www dot Legally Speaking Podcast dot com for the link to join our community there. Over and out.

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