Name: Dana Denis-Smith
Job Title: CEO, Obelisk Support
Backstory: Dana is an entrepreneur, ex-lawyer and journalist. She founded Obelisk Support to keep City lawyers, especially mothers, working flexibly, around their family or other personal commitments. In 2018 she was voted Legal Personality of the Year in 2018 and received an Honorary Doctorate of Laws whilst in 2019 Legal500 recognised her as an Outstanding Woman in Law.
Who or what influenced you to train as a lawyer
The short answer is my husband, John, whom I met when he was at bar school. I used to read the Inn magazine (Graya, as he is a Gray’s Inn member) and other legal titles that he brought home. I was always fascinated by the revolving door of lateral hires at law firms and generally tried to figure out how the profession worked. I started considering joining the legal profession after I completed my Masters in political economy at the London School of Economics. I was about to embark on an academic career at Oxford University as a post-grad research student in history. But then I thought better of it and decided that getting a job in a City law firm would suit me better and I could always return to academia later in life. I went to BPP law school part-time to keep my day job as a journalist and I remember vividly my first day: it was 9/11.
If you didn’t pursue a legal career what would you be doing now?
I might be writing history books or still be an entrepreneur. I might’ve even been working in the legal sector because with the way it’s been evolving there are now far more people without specific legal training being welcome into roles. Alternatively, had communism not collapsed in 1989 and allowed me to come to the UK and gain an education here, I might’ve been a factory worker or the wife of a farmer. Who knows?
What does success mean to you?
The way I ask myself this question is somewhat differently – I’m aware that we all have a legacy and leave a trace and so I ask, ‘how will I be remembered?’ and ‘what am I doing to make sure I feel I’ve contributed to the best of my ability at home and in my working life’. There are few big successes in my view – few and far between in most lives – and they tend to be moments such as having a child or making something bigger than yourself happen. One of the highlights of my legal career has certainly been commissioning the Supreme Court artwork by Catherine Yass to celebrate the First 100 Years of women in law. Seeing it mounted and unveiled last December was an incredible moment. But most of my energy comes from small (but more regular) triumphs that remind me of why life is worth living. The key is to notice and then celebrate them.
Imagine a time when you felt like giving up. What helped you bounce back?
I remember the many times when this happened! Life is made up of more failures than successes and I certainly became aware of it at an early age. But my way to deal with it is to never despair and step back. This helps me bounce back on two levels. First, it allows me to ask myself – was it a fight worth winning? Why was I in it? It’s amazing how that helps you decide what is worth bouncing back from and what is in fact something to renounce. Secondly, when I am clear on what I want, it is easier to see through how to bounce back.
What advice would you give to your younger self?
Probably to take things a bit more light-heartedly and be a child for longer. I was brought up to be ambitious and focused and very high expectations were placed on me and my sisters from an early age. So, we did a lot of further maths homework and could have probably done with a bit more play time.
What is the biggest lesson you’ve learnt about life and / or work outside of a formal education setting?
I learnt it’s important to be able to look at a situation with a sense of perspective, from a distance. I gained this from my years as a journalist because every time I covered a story, it wasn’t my story, it was not about me. I had to be able to understand it and then convey it accurately so it did justice to those who featured in it. It helped also put things into perspective and be adaptable. You can’t control everything in life and a good start is to accept it and work with this ever-changing landscape.
If there was one skill you could’ve excelled at during your formative years as a lawyer what would that be?
One of the most useful skills I learnt and continued to hone during my time as a lawyer was delegation. I think lawyers don’t do enough of it, I was acutely aware of it at the time and intentionally learnt that delegating and empowering others is powerful and a winning recipe. It’s still serving me today.