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How I turned being a woman and a mother into a competitive advantage

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I knew early on that by working in the profession I was entering a man’s world, hardly surprising when you consider that until 1919, bizarre as it may sound, women were not allowed to work as solicitors in the UK.

So I was under no illusions when I started Obelisk Support in 2010. But I entered the market with a real purpose to my business; one that goes beyond making money. I am an entrepreneur and an innovator, dedicated to keeping ex-City lawyers working flexibly in a way that benefits themselves, their clients and their families – and this purpose gave me real confidence and commitment despite the male domination around me.

I have turned being a woman and a mother into a competitive advantage. I have made my experience of working in a male-dominated business part of the solution that Obelisk offers to law firms and in-house legal teams within major corporates. Because I know the traditional, male-dominated legal world is increasingly not fit for purpose, and because I am flexible, open to change and new ways of working – classic female qualities you may say – I have created a legal outsourcing service that is fit for the 21st century for both the clients and the lawyers we work with.

The world of work is changing, driven by the increased demand – all round – for flexibility. Corporate clients are searching for flexible and affordable solutions and more and more lawyers are deciding to step off the brutal City-law firm treadmill, known for bringing healthy financial rewards but terribly unhealthy hours that have caused untold damage to individuals and their families.

At the heart of this new flexible workforce are thousands of women who trained as lawyers, worked in the City and then struggled to return to work after starting their families. I created Obelisk to provide both the technical and human platform that these corporate clients and lawyers need to connect and thrive. With our lawyers, our clients and a mantel piece already full of awards, Obelisk is fast becoming the “John Lewis” of law – always reliable, always on time, providing what you need when you need it.

Today Obelisk has one of the largest, most diverse pools of legal talent in the world, with over 800 lawyers (96 per cent are parents) on our books. The business is growing fast, with turnover increasing by 200 per cent year on year. And we are consistently attracting some of the world’s most major businesses, with clients such as Goldman Sachs, BT, Thomson Reuters, Vodafone, RBS and Deutsche Bank.

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When you combine these three things, this means we are playing a powerful role in re-shaping the workplace for the 21st century. We are securing more work for hundreds of lawyers, many of them working mothers, and we are enabling our lawyers to work in a way that suits themselves, their clients and their families. I believe that is an inspiring and valuable contribution to the gender debate in the UK today and one I hope other entrepreneurs can learn from.

To inform the debate and help shape the future further, we have launched the First 100 Years, a ground-breaking history project charting the journey of women in law. Supported by the Law Society and the Bar Council, the project will mark the centenary of the Sex Disqualification (Removal) Act 1919 which paved the way for women to become lawyers for the first time.

At the heart of the project is a new digital museum, made up of 100 video stories telling the story of women in law; women such as Dame Linda Dobbs and Shami Chakrabarti. The digital museum will be donated to the British Library in 2019 and the project’s legacy will be the creation, for the first time, of positive role models for working women everywhere.

I hope entrepreneurs everywhere will be inspired by the stories we are uncovering and will think about their significance to their own sector. My favourite so far is a conversation between Dame Janet Gaymer, one of Europe’s most prolific Employment lawyers, and Rosemary Martin, General Counsel at Vodafone talking honestly about being treated as “tea girls” at meetings, and how quotas are seen as ‘undesirable but absolutely necessary’ to help drive gender equality within the legal profession.

Concerned with issues surrounding gender diversity in business? Don’t miss the Real Business First Women programme:

Drawing on years of the First Women movement and the phenomenal network of pioneering women the Awards has created, this programme features The First Women Awards and The First Women Summit  designed to educate, mentor and inspire women in all levels of business.

Dana Denis-Smith is founder of Obelisk Legal Support and The First 100 Years.

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