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In Conversation with: Dana Denis-Smith

By Emily Wigoder

Romanian entrepreneur and campaigner Dana Denis-Smith is the founder and Chief Executive of Obelisk Support, a network of over 1000 legal consultants who deliver legal services to clients worldwide, providing work for those who want a less traditional legal career, with a more flexible structure.

In 2014, she founded the First 100 Years project, aiming to celebrate the stories of pioneering women in the legal industry. As well as producing an exhibition, a book, “First”, detailing the history of these women leaders, and 65 films of leading women including Baroness Hale, Baroness Scotland and Dame Rosalyn Higgins, the project has commissioned the first piece of art representing women in the Supreme Court’s collection. As of 2019, Dana has continued the work of the First 100 Years project with The Next 100 Years project, building on this legacy to shape the future of women in law.

Dana has received a variety of awards, having been recognised by the Legal 500 for Outstanding Achievement in Legal Services in 2019, voted LexisNexis Legal Personality of the Year in 2018, and awarded WEConnect International Best Mentor and Role Model Award in 2017.

As part of Women’s History Month, Dana met with the President of OWLSS to discuss her career, and the challenges faced by women in law.

Thank you for coming to talk to us today. As a woman who has achieved so much in the legal field, many might think you had a cookie-cutter career path. However, your story defies such classifications. What would you consider to be the turning point in your story?

So, the first thing I should probably clarify is that I’m not a barrister – I recently did an interview in which this mistake was made. The turning point for me was probably meeting my future husband. Meeting him and his friends, and learning about the world they were working in, I found myself fascinated. It made me want to join the legal profession.

I didn’t really have a plan. The law is perceived as being about stability and an established order. My nature is that I tend to challenge things rather than go along with them so I definitely find being an entrepreneur more natural to me than being a lawyer.

Having spent several years at Linklaters and founding a business in emerging markets in 2008, you then founded Obelisk Support in 2010. What is so special about the business model at Obelisk? Why hasn’t something like it existed before?

In business, we look for an idea that creates an opportunity. I wanted to go into a city law firm as a solicitor to see what deals happen and how businesses are run. Being at a firm like Linklaters is relentless – you end up working all hours at the office and I began to notice that whilst the men were climbing up the ladder, the women were falling to the side.

I decided I didn’t want to be a partner, and left the firm. I then set up a business outside of the legal world, and this distance gave me the clarity to assess what I’d experienced within it. The economic crisis in 2008 meant that lots of clients were looking for work to be done more cheaply. The trend at the time was to look abroad for that service to countries such as India, where cheap labour is easier to find.

I looked at this and decided there must be another way to solve the issue. Why not find people who need a different kind of employment contract, such as working mothers for whom flexible hours are crucial, and connect them with clients locally instead? So, I founded Obelisk, creating the mechanism to do this, simultaneously helping people with restrictions around mobility and providing cheaper, high-quality service for clients.

What were the biggest challenges you faced in setting up Obelisk in your capacity as a working woman and as a lawyer?

The first challenge I faced was that I wasn’t founding the business from a place of personal experience – I didn’t have children myself. However, this did allow me to keep a distance to validate the idea based on its economic merit alone.

As it happens, I ended up being pregnant at the start of founding Obelisk, which then created different challenges. I knew that in order to scale up the business and make it bigger than myself, I needed to have funding, especially since my research of the FTSE 100 council suggested that the clients weren’t yet ready for my idea. I attempted to fundraise, but repeatedly found myself before angel investors who were enthusiastic about the business idea but didn’t like the fact that I was pregnant, so chose not to invest.

That kind of failure – it makes you stronger. I asked myself: What’s the objection? What’s the pushback? Can I get around this? The first couple of years were slow. I had no financial backing and so I found myself in a position where I couldn’t hire anyone to help at work with business and I couldn’t hire anyone to help at home with my new-born child. For two years, I worked every night between 11pm and 4am on my business, and then took care of my child all day. I was a walking zombie! And then I got my breakthrough with Goldman Sachs.

You’ve spoken a lot about the challenges of time management in legal professions. Is it true that it’s difficult to have a flexible work-life balance in the legal industry? If so, what reforms would you like to see?

Ten years ago, when I started Obelisk, there were no options to work part-time. The industry is definitely a little better now. Of course, there are different law firms and different kinds of arrangement; the Magic Circle firms have a particular atmosphere and lifestyle that come with working there because there are a lot of big deals that are time sensitive. Often, the pace and lack of time management is driven not by members of the firm, but by external constraints. Perhaps more project management or a more centralised structure could help this in the future.

The bar definitely provides a bit more flexibility than law firms. This helped me in the first few years at Obelisk, as my husband had the flexibility that I didn’t. When I finally got my breakthrough meeting with Goldman Sachs, the babysitter I had organised made a mistake with her timings and was several hours away when I needed to leave! Thankfully, my husband was able to rush home and take care of our child. There’s definitely a lesson in flexibility that we can learn from the bar.

At the end of the day, these reforms are legislative decisions that need to be made by parliament. There are so many other problems that we also need to be addressing. Why is maternity leave so much longer than paternity leave? Why is there still a stigma around men taking leave at all?

That’s really interesting! Let’s move on and talk about the First 100 Years. If you had to choose one pioneering woman you’ve encountered whose work you think deserves to be more appreciated, who would you choose?

I’d like to begin by highlighting the fact that there are so many brilliant women we haven’t had a chance to give the spotlight to yet.

Out of the women we have discovered through the First 100 Years, my mind goes to Rose Heilbron. She was an incredible woman. She was one of the first two women to be made King’s Counsel, the first female recorder and the first female judge of the Old Bailey. the mix of qualities she had was impressive; she was a brilliant advocate but also just displayed such elegance in her fight for gender equality. She really demonstrated how to be an impactful feminist. She should have been a lasting name that people remember, and yet she was forgotten.

The other woman that I want to discuss is Elizabeth Lane. She was the first female judge and earned this role in her 40s. She wasn’t a cool, young, thing, and her age meant she wasn’t an attractive icon to herald. This isn’t a pattern we should continue, and it’s important for us to value these women who worked so hard through their 30s to pave the way for the women who came after them.

There are so many amazing women in law from the last 100 years; I really wish people would take the time to look into them and find the story that resonates best.

What project are you most proud of from the First 100 Years?

I’m proud of everything really – the work we’ve done has been beyond my wildest dreams. The artwork we put in the Supreme Court was a highlight. The whole idea came from a chat over a glass of wine with Lady Hale. We discussed the Supreme Court collection and the fact that there were no women in its artwork, and that passing moment put into motion something quite unique.

The logistics of the project were a challenge as well, as the piece takes up an entire wall and its quite a challenging space. Achieving the project within the time frame of the centenary year was a real feat; it was important to us to complete the project before Baroness Hale retired. It seemed a fitting way to cap the first 100 years.

Making a mark in such a male dominated building creates a lot of hope for young lawyers. Now that you’re looking at the next 100 years, what would you say are the main priorities to focus on?

We need to be quite strategic with our focus. If you ask for everything, you can end up with nothing. I’d say there are three main priorities we need to emphasise.

The first is the pay gap. The disparity between male and female wages means that women can’t afford childcare, and as a result can’t make the choices necessary to further their careers. The fact that we’re still talking about the pay gap as a problem 50 years after the Equal Pay Act was brought into effect means that something more needs to be done to ensure that women don’t get devalued at work.

The second is flexible work formats. Any return to one location style working post-pandemic would be disastrous for women. The requirement for working women with children to keep to strict hours and placement is a real barrier to equality in the industry.

The third is the lack of women in leadership roles. There are a few women who are senior partners in the magic circle firms; that’s a beginning. However, the numbers are very low in areas such as equity partnership, where the real money is made. Part of solving this is making the process of promotion more transparent. There’s too much grey area in how people get promoted. This means that women who play fair don’t tend to get the same breaks as men. Lady Black’s reference in her biography, as the second female judge of the Supreme Court, to the importance of seeing another woman in a leadership role in the legal profession is further evidence that this should be an important focus for us.

These areas can be pretty simply resolved. We’re making them too complicated. We need to persevere and keep asking for the same thing, without getting distracted.

The pandemic has been widely noted to disproportionally negatively affect working women because of the demands of home schooling and childcare. What can be done now to make things better or more equal?

The pandemic is a black swan event, and people don’t know how to react. From my own experience, trying to work with a child at home has been difficult and highly distracting. Schools needed to be kept open; the fact that they weren’t created a problem. Children can’t look after themselves, and you can’t opt out of parenting.

I’ve never been a big believer in dwelling in the past. I think the key is to learn the lessons you need to learn, and not to take the wrong idea from past experiences. I think it would be a shame if a working woman who struggled to work from home in the extraordinary circumstances of the pandemic then decided that working from home wasn’t for her. We need to look forward.

Through the First 100 Years and Next 100 Years projects, you have collaborated with many high profile legal professionals. Out of the various professionals you’ve encountered, who left the biggest impression on you and who surprised you the most?

I honestly don’t know! I have very different relationships with each one of them. Baroness Kennedy is very straight-talking and has a massive heart. She is brilliant at giving credit where credit is due; she’s a real force of nature for women. Lord Neuberger is so gentle, so accessible, and so humble. I think these are common traits across the profession – I’ve always loved the humanity and the curiosity that legal professionals exhibit.

I’ve been absolutely spoilt! I never would have thought when I started that I would meet so many incredible people. I remember standing at the award ceremony for Legal Personality of the Year talking to Lord Neuberger and thinking: How has this happened to me? So many people in the industry are at the top of their game and still give their time to create outreach opportunities and to engage. I can’t pick a favourite!

There’s a lot of hero worship of the top people in the legal profession, but as a student society, a lot of our listeners might be quite intimidated by such grand figures. As well as this, there’s a bad reputation around diversity and inclusivity that’s also intimidating. In a recent interview with the University of Law, you gave the advice to always have a 5 year plan. What was your 5 year plan at 18?

At 18, I wanted to be an international journalist. I went to the local newspaper and told them that I wanted to be a reporter. They asked what my skill set was and how I felt I could contribute. Honestly, I didn’t know how to do anything, but I had gumption and drive. The first step to getting anywhere is to take the opportunity and give it a shot; show people what you can do.

A little while later, I met the head of Reuters, completely coincidentally, and talked to him for hours about my interest in journalism. He directed me towards the scholarship that they offered for people just like me. I got that scholarship, and within 5 years I was working for the Economist group.

How did you find your footing in the UK?

There’re two things that I really found upon arriving in the UK. The first is that you have to lead with the impression you have of yourself. If you feel at home, that’s enough, even if someone else isn’t making you feel welcome. Whenever I met someone new who found out I was from Transylvania, they would either ask me about the problem of orphans under communism or Dracula!

The other thing is that I repeatedly received comments about how great my English was. At first, I thought this was a compliment but then I realised that didn’t give me an advantage. It just allowed me to compete on equal footing. Once EU expansion happened, these comments became gradually more infrequent as people got used to more immigrants.

It’s always sad to feel boxed in, but at the end of the day you’re left with your perception of yourself. I managed to spotlight the history of women in law in a country I wasn’t born in. Because of that distance, I was able to create a different narrative for the country that welcomed me.

Is there something you’d like to say you don’t really get asked about or would like to talk about?

I think you’ve already asked me lots of questions I don’t normally get!

My main advice would be to not see your career path as one dimensional. I learnt to be flexible, but never to discard the things I’d built before. If I hadn’t been a journalist first, the First 100 Years probably wouldn’t have been a story led project.

Always consider what qualities and strengths you’re bringing with you from your past. It’s easy to say that it’s a new beginning when you start a new job, but that’s not true. In reality, it’s just a continuation, and it’s important to appreciate the benefits of that. Try something, and keep going, and don’t stop too soon. So many people try to fix all their weaknesses. Just focus on playing to your strengths and understanding what you’re good at, and go from there.

Thank you so much Dana for your time today – I think we’ve all learnt a lot. I hope we’ll soon hear about your new projects with the Next 100 Years!


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