Tuesday, 28 May 2013

Dana Denis Smith

Dana Denis Smith hates to see good talent go to waste.  The award-winning founder of outsourced legal provider Obelisk tells me she is not as interested in the gender equality debate that surrounds discussion on flexible working, as she is in the economic view: issues around organisational capacity, labour market structures and how to be most efficient. She's a political economist by background and it shows. 

I was introduced to Dana by long term client and friend  Nicola Sawford, Chief Exec of leading Chancery barristers Serle Court, who has just taken on a non-exec role at Obelisk. When we met, I was interested to hear from Dana what drives her.

"My motivation is less personal than intellectual.  Having said this, I am of course interested in people's personal stories of how tough it is to be a working mum in a City law firm, and having previously worked at Linklaters and become a mum myself two years ago I do have some insights into what attracts our lawyers to our model.  But the point is I think it's now time to be less introspective and start getting things done.  For me, the interesting questions are "How much time does a mother have?", "How might this time be better utilised?" and "What can organisations do to enable them to work as well as to look after children?". It just makes no sense to me for organisations to sit back and just watch all this talent walk out the door when women find it impossible to juggle their work and family commitments in a large law firm environment. There's an enormous talent pool going to waste here. I often tell people I'm in the waste management business: talent waste management!" she laughs.

Regular followers of this blog will know that we work closely with the market leader in this area, alternative legal resource Lawyers On Demand who operate in a similar space to Obelisk but who are quite distinct in a number of ways. They are both tapping in to City lawyers' increasing ennui for a life that is all work and no play, enticing them into alternative working models that benefit corporate clients because of the City law expertise they can then buy from a much lower cost base. But whereas LOD focus predominantly on embedding their freelancers in in-house legal teams of FTSE 100 companies, so being physically proximate to the client and working as part of their own team a key part of the offering. Dana makes a big play on the Obelisk website that her lawyers don't even need to meet a client. And while both companies offer top ex-City lawyers, Obelisk focusses exclusively on people, mostly mothers, opting out of the big law machines have more time to devote to their families. In contrast, LOD attracts a broader range of individuals looking to work differently, with large numbers of men in their freelance pool as well as lawyers of both genders who don't yet have family but do have other ambitions outside of work, eg running a clothes-swapping initiative, a yoga business, they even have a part-time vicar!

Perhaps the biggest difference is that at its heart, LOD is fired by the founders Jonathan Brenner's and Simon Harper's passion for the glistening possibilities that open up for people when they choose to take control of their lives and live the life they really want to. In contrast, Dana's fire comes from wanting to challenge organisational structures, legal services supply chains and entire economies. She's also not shy to challenge clients in how they purchase legal services.

"Our clients know their stuff, for sure, but the point is they aren't used to having that many different options when buying legal services. So in challenging the status quo I do find myself having to challenge individuals too, to "gently encourage" them to think about buying their options differently."

Dana was named in 2010 as one of UK Management Today's 35 inspirational women in business under 35. No wonder.

So nice to catch up with clients and friends, old and new, at our Tonic event this week. 25 or so bods working in PR, marketing or management roles in professional firms joined us for camaraderie and conversation over drinks at The Hospital Club. We know people can feel quite isolated in these roles, working in a business that's about a very different discipline from your own, so nice to get everyone together and introduce them to each other. 

Particularly pleasing was to see how the number of Kysen alumni is growing! So lovely to see that Cara (now at Farrers), Sonia (now at Taylor Wessing) and Elliott (who recently joined the Conservative Party PR office), among others, are keen to keep in touch. Also nice to realise how long we have worked with some of our clients and friends. "Is it seven years we've been working together?" asked Serle Court's Nicola Sawford. And the lovely Helen Obi who joined Mayer Brown at the start of this year has also been our client twice before, at BLP last year and previously at DLA Piper

Other delights were conversation with peeps from BDOBird & BirdBLPCovington & BurlingCurtis Mallett-Provost Colt & MosleHardwicke and Intangible Business.  
Happy 25th Birthday Tate Liverpool! As a regular Kysen haunt on our visits to Weightmans head office in the great Pool of Life, we feel some attachment to this gallery, the Tate's first foray outside of London.

Its success since opening in 1988 as a signature piece in the regeneration of the City's Albert Dock, has spurred the Tate on to open others around the country - notably on the beach at St Ives, Cornwall, and most recently in Tracey Emin's birth town Margate, The Turner Contemporary.

We love following this Tate "nationwide arts trail" and always try to make time to pop in and catch up with the latest exhibitions when we're on the road visiting law firms and barristers around the country. We look forward to more openings over the next 25 years!

1 comment:

  1. Dana Denis Smith has a point. It's a shame to see a talent go to waste. However, a mother, no matter how talented she is, will always prioritize family over career. It's exactly why organizations should focus more on finding ways to enable them to work as well as to look after children. She is indeed inspirational.