Reflections on 2020 from our CEO, Dana Denis-Smith
As many of us around the world grapple with the second wave of the coronavirus pandemic, and the restrictions that go with that, we’ve spent some time with our CEO, Dana Denis-Smith, to reflect on the 2020 lessons learnt in the legal industry that will help us grow in 2021 and beyond.
“Now that Zoom calls are the norm, I get to spend more time with our clients and consultants than I did before.”
#1 Team trumps location
While offices have traditionally given us structure, space to collaborate and contributed to a sense of unity, the move to remote working across the legal industry in the first lockdown showed us that team bonds are stronger than bricks and mortar.
“I’ve been so proud of everyone in the Obelisk team,” Dana told us, “Even though we haven’t seen each other for months, we’ve looked out for each other and found new ways to work together and to collaborate and innovate”.
As remote working has always been at the heart of Obelisk’s approach, it was relatively easy for us to adapt to lockdown. For others it has been more of a learning curve, yet organisations across the legal industry are reconsidering their office space, with the legal press reporting that firms such as Norton Rose Fulbright and Taylor Wessing have reevaluated the space they need.
“Working remotely requires greater effort from leaders and managers, and also particular attention to those earlier in their legal careers,” says Dana, “However, using less space more creatively will give the legal industry more flexibility to invest in people and clients, rather than desks.”
#2 Diversity is imperative
In recent years the legal industry has failed to make enough progress on correcting the lack of diversity at senior levels across many dimensions including sex, race, disability and economic background. The tragic death of George Floyd in the US in 2020 and ensuing protests prompted the industry to re-evaluate in particular the lack of prominent roles for people of colour and the reasons behind this.
“Equality of opportunity isn’t only a moral imperative”, says Dana, “It is also a business imperative. Greater diversity and inclusion in management teams correlates with greater levels of profit, innovation and talent attraction. Going into what is still going to be a challenging economic environment in 2021 means the legal industry needs to increase inclusion. Otherwise we are going to miss out on the associated business advantages.”
#3 Caring is what makes us human
For too long the legal industry has forced professionals to choose between family life and work.
Whilst very few of us want to home-school alongside work for a moment longer than we need to, the pandemic has forced organisations to recognise employees’ home lives, and to acknowledge that remote work doesn’t mean decreased productivity, as this research from Cardiff University shows.
“I set up Obelisk over ten years ago in part prompted by the terrible waste of talent that was being caused by inflexibility in the profession. I know from the stories our consultants share that it doesn’t have to be this way – flexible work works”, says Dana,
“Going forward I hope that one of the lessons the legal industry has learnt is that people perform better when they can structure their time to meet all their responsibilities, when they are trusted to deliver and when they feel part of an organisation that cares about them as they care for others.”
#4 No one gets to opt out of technology
And why would we want to?
“Now that Zoom calls are the norm, I get to spend more time with our clients and consultants than I did before” reflects Dana, “I’m able to learn more about their business and personal priorities, not least because in some cases I’m literally in their living room!”
The constraints of the pandemic have forced innovation and adoption of new technology in areas from arbitration to will-writing at an unprecedented pace. The challenge going forward will be to maintain this momentum and to make sure everyone in the industry is included.
“In our own business, we won our first funding from Innovate UK in 2020, one of only a handful of legal companies in the UK to do so,” says Dana, “We are always looking for opportunities to harness technology to change the world of work for the better and we’re really excited share what we’ve learnt about managing remote working and flexible work with others.”
#5 Resilience is a skill
Yes, some people are more resilient than others. However, developing your resilience is something that you can work on, whatever your starting point.
At Obelisk we were lucky enough to be able to tap into advice from numerous well-being experts in 2020, who signposted various activities and ways of framing situations to help build your inner strength. With legal charity LawCare highlighting that legal professionals can be particularly vulnerable to mental health issues, another vital take-away from 2020 is that we all need to look after ourselves, and each other, more.
“Lawyers can be particularly vulnerable to excessive perfectionism, imposter syndrome and working over-long hours,” Dana commented, “Flexible work can help. Working on your own resilience can help, even if that’s starting with simple steps, like making time for breakfast or exercise.
“Not being afraid to speak out and ask for help when we need to can help. We’ve seen more awareness of the importance of taking care of our mental health over the last 12 months. I’d like to see this continue and for the legal industry to become leaders in looking after our people.”
At Obelisk, we have always prided ourselves on challenging the received wisdom about how the world of legal work has to work. As the legal industry leans into the difficulties and opportunities that lie ahead, Dana leaves us with these words to inspire us all:
“We gain strength and courage and confidence by each experience in which we really stop to look fear in the face…we must do that which we think we cannot”.