Sector trends

A legal firm with a flexible mindset

Here, Dana Denis-Smith shares the story of how she maximised the potential in untapped expertise to build a thriving legal support firm.

I decided not to make myself a legal adviser to focus on growing the business

I learned this from my previous business, a political risk consultancy. I wanted to scale, and I needed infrastructure in place to underpin growth. If it is going to be you doing everything in your business, you will never achieve scale. You need to develop a way of expanding a team and letting people do their job, rather than doing it yourself. My first rule was I wouldn’t touch legal work, even though I’m a lawyer.

Knowing that I was trying to do the right thing helped me stick it out

I could see a need. I knew the gap was there, and I had no doubt we could fill it. But it was challenging convincing clients that the model would work for them. I had a bloody-mindedness that you get with entrepreneurs where they’re not going to leave the opportunity until they feel it starting to fail. I had the belief that what we were setting out to do was achievable. When we got Goldman Sachs as a client, we did it because we had a buyer who was a woman who also had three kids and related to what I was telling her when I said we’ve got this amount of talent.

If you look at the CVs of women’s experience before they’ve had children, they have so much to offer. It’s not just that they are a lawyer in a specialist area; you look at them creatively and think of the work that needs doing

Dana Denis-Smith
Founder and CEO at Obelisk Support

Look at the potential in the talent available

If you look at the talent in the round, if you look at the CVs of women’s experience before they’ve had children, they have so much to offer. It’s not just that they are a lawyer in a specialist area; you look at them creatively and think of the work that needs doing. Is there any other kind of project that can engage this talent with their strengths, knowledge, education and skills? You need to see beyond the particular area that lawyers are trained in. By taking that view, we were able to find the skills clients required and the work that wasn’t being done internally.

Continually review your work

The real hard work starts when the clients start coming in. They will push you, and you have to step up. Creating a slick organisation with the maturity to develop client relationships requires you to review the work constantly. Ask yourself, how could it have been done better? To stay ahead, you have to continually anticipate things and try to see further than your clients.

Learn to embrace problem-solving in everything that comes your way...

As an entrepreneur starting up, you have to be involved in everything, including setting up, registering your IP [intellectual property], getting a website, hiring your first employee, creating the culture.

...but seek help when you need it

You cannot know everything. It is one thing to start a business, but it is hard to make it solid, to grow and make it last. Growing and maturing a business comes with a whole new range of responsibilities and costs. When I went through that phase, I brought in a growth adviser. The company grew quickly from nothing, and I wondered what was happening. But the adviser helped me consolidate and prioritise what we needed to sustain growth. Knowing what you’re good at and where you need help is essential. I needed to get that insight and experience into the business to make sure we didn’t fall over, and it required discipline – a lot of entrepreneurs can be bored by that. But I found setting that discipline exciting because it was about preparing for the next stage.

Put your values down on paper

I knew the company would be in my image. If I wanted a good, long-lasting business, I needed to know what my values were. And after several years, I realised I had to put that down on paper and communicate that to my team. You have to ask: ‘What is the story of this business? Why did I want to do it? What was the change I wanted to see?’ It was almost like a manifesto; a guide to what I want this business to be. It also allowed the team to feed into and off those values and evolve them.

Being human-first and digital-first are not mutually exclusive

We’ve always been a digital-first business, using technology where people work remotely, but you need to think about how you touch people from a human perspective. Being human-first informs everything we do, including our marketing. Every team member applies it; it’s not human-first not to speak to somebody or be robotic in your approach to something. And it goes across the whole business; it’s something that the sales team ask themselves, the people that are managing the lawyers ask themselves. It’s integral to the business.

Learn to adapt and be led by the clients

Being focused on parents and creating flexible jobs for many people has always been our direction of travel. But as we grew, we expanded our service lines to cater to all the clients’ different needs. Sometimes clients just need somebody to be there full-time. So you need to adapt your model to make sure your business responds to those needs, not just your own.

Firms need to give women entering the law profession a career roadmap to help them access more leadership positions

Generally speaking, women make up about 60% of new entrants into the legal profession, and if you look back over the last 100 years, that is a massive achievement. But there is a problem that not enough women are moving into leadership roles. The inflexibility of some firms has forced out some women. Firms are also not telling women exactly what they need to do to qualify for partnership.

The risk of entering a partnership needs to be clearly understood because it’s the equivalent of becoming an entrepreneur. You’ve got to have plans around getting the business and keeping the clients and not just servicing them. Firms need to explain to women what they need to do, not in year seven when they are maybe starting to have children, tell them when they join the organisation how it works to become a partner. Meanwhile, retiring partners that have strong accounts should be encouraged to give them to women to grow those client relationships.

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