The Next 100 Years: Building a legacy to be proud of
Women In Law Kent held a virtual live event to talk to Obelisk Support founder and CEO Dana Denis-Smith. Dana reflects on her career journey; inspirations for her charity, Spark21 which was founded to celebrate, inform and inspire future generations of women in the profession; the future for women in law and the Next 100 Years project.
From qualifying as a lawyer in a city law firm, to founding Obelisk Support and Spark21, Dana looks back on her achievements and how she can use the challenges she faced as an opportunity to help and support other women in the industry.
Hosted by Gemma Adams Director, Secretary and Co-Chair of Women in Law Kent, the virtual event on Instagram Live recognised Dana’s achievements and tackled issues of barriers in the profession and how men can help accelerate the process of equality in the legal field.
Founding Obelisk Support
Although the idea of flexible working in the legal market is now accepted as the norm, the original idea behind Obelisk Support, back when it was founded in 2010, was somewhat revolutionary.
Dana discusses breaking the stigma and battling the reluctance to accommodate part-time work and family commitments in favour of more old-fashioned working models.
The intriguing story behind Spark21
2019 saw the centenary celebrations of Women in Law. At the forefront of this was Dana’s charity Spark21 and The First 100 Years Project..
Talking about drawing on her inspiration from a photograph which she came across in her husband’s alumni magazine of a city law firm. In particular, it was the one woman sitting in the middle of a group of about 60 men, which led her to start this campaign.
“I looked at this one photograph and it just seemed to answer the questions I didn’t have anyone answer for me.”
Dana was keen to learn about her experience being a partner at the firm. This led her to look deeper in the history of women in law and she found women were not allowed to practice and join The Law Society until 1919.
Making this alarming discovery, Dana felt compelled to share the stories of the amazing women who paved the way for gender equality in law, whose voices, she felt, had previously gone unheard.
From Qualified City Lawyer to Entrepreneur
Dana reveals what she considers to be her biggest achievement to date.
Reflecting on leaving the legal profession as a new qualifier, believing she was never to return, she cites returning to the profession to make change as her biggest accomplishment. “Feeling that I could contribute and change something that I didn’t like when I was practising.”
Dana’s combination of ideas plus action made her compelled to do more and help women thrive in the legal profession. Realising, it was not just systemic change that needed to happen but also the symbolism and visuals around women in law.
“Everything we see has to also change to inspire”
Looking forward to the next 100 years
On the Next 100 Years project Dana comments that it is “more specifics” which need to be shifted – a learning from The First 100 Year project.
This includes conducting surveys on the gender pay gap and working with an analytics company to model what the future will look like if we take no action. This is part of a broader end goal of making the future more palatable; inclusive, diverse, and equal.
The main differences in the First 100 Years to the Next 100 Years can be characterised by the shift in visual representation, moving away from the days of the one-woman portrait to a group portrait of women. Acknowledging none of her achievements would be possible without a supportive group of women, the Next 100 Years looks at how you can use the power gained to get better results.
Although law may be ahead of other professions in terms of achieving equality, shockingly, recent studies give a perspective that it will take at least 100 to 250 years to reach equality. The idea of the Next 100 Years is to accelerate the Individual aspects to change the legal perspective for the better.
How to accelerate equality in the legal profession
Despite major overhauls in the legal sphere, there remains an imbalance in terms of access to the profession.
Dana advises on women sticking together and not needing to compete with one another. Working together and inspiring each other to create a better future, calling it moving from “Rockstars to rock band.” Emphasising that it is easier to achieve the change you want in groups, she believes this will change the structure and make the legal profession more flexible and adaptable.
Dana challenges old fashioned ideas of welfare and employee needs in the workplace, emphasising continuous improvements and calls on women to speak their minds which is critical in building a better future.
Barriers in personal and professional career
When asked about the adversities she has faced in her personal and profession career, Dana acknowledges the barriers she’s overcome not only as a woman but also as an immigrant.
Being a minority entrepreneur; finance, clients, and networking all proved to be more difficult to access. Dana stresses optimism in the face of adversity, seeing challenges as opportunities, understanding, and acknowledging them while campaigning against them along the way.
As an established entrepreneur she recognises she now has more freedom than people who are yet to make their way through a system with odds stacked against them. Dana feels she is in a position to vocalise worries and concerns faced by women and immigrants and use her voice to help.
What other goals and achievements would Dana like to see in the next 5 to 10 years?
She aims to be focused on Obelisk Support, continuing to grow the business and look after her own team.
For the Next 100 Years campaign she aspires to have visibility outside of the “women in law space” citing the Heilbron lecture series to give women a platform to share their expertise in a more story telling way to reach a wider audience.
This is part of a broader plan to bring more women together to remove the stigma around the legal profession being alienating and expanding the reach of the campaign. Given women are now the majority in the profession, it gives an opportunity to lay out defining rules which make a difference on how women are seen and heard.
This year’s lecture is on the theme of “Nature” and it will be delivered by Professor Lavanya Rajamani, who will explore the limits of law and politics in addressing existential challenges such as climate change, and the potential for radical imagination (yes, very much possible even within the law!) and activism to bridge the gap.
Closing thoughts: What men can do to support
It is important for men to challenge the idea of legal firms and the profession as an old boys’ club. Gemma discuses there are only a small audience of men who support Women in Law Kent, which is not as widespread as she would hope for it to be.
Dana explains in her experience that men want to help but do not know how, for a variety of factors, “upbringing, history and societal norms, but very often I find that they are curious and open to learning.” She suggests presenting information in historical facts, which she tests on her husband who is a lawyer.
She stresses the philosophy of the First 100 Years and the Next 100 Years is not a divisive “us versus them” mentality and mindset. Dana explains how men are part of the solution, being instrumental in the Sex Disqualification (Removal) Act 1919. She closes with the idea that we can help men help women and to create new rules of engagement, new diplomacy and spreading the message about not being left behind.
About Women in Law Kent
Women in Law Kent are a non-profit organisation launched in March 2020.
Their mission is to empower, support and encourage all women working in the legal profession, and those who aspire to work in law, focussing on our local area, Kent. They will achieve this by organising social and networking events, training courses and discussion panel events.
Learn more here