Login to MyACC
ACC Members

Not a Member?

The Association of Corporate Counsel (ACC) is the world's largest organization serving the professional and business interests of attorneys who practice in the legal departments of corporations, associations, nonprofits and other private-sector organizations around the globe.

Join ACC

I was about 25 — I started my legal education on 9/11 — my first day I spent all class thinking about my journalism work rather than my legal education. The worlds collided quite dramatically; I started on quite a significant day.    

Dana Denis-Smith
First 100 Years and Obelisk

Dana Denis-Smith is an entrepreneur, journalist, lawyer, and women’s advocate who saw a need in an untapped and under-utilized community within the legal profession. She found that while firms and legal service providers consistently needed to outsource work to skilled lawyers, women — in various stages of their professional and personal lives who could do the work and do it well — were often overlooked. Dana decided to do something about it. In 2010, she founded Obelisk Support, a legal services provider offering a flexible work environment for women employees. Not stopping there, in 2014, Dana founded the First 100 Years initiative, taking a close look at the contributions women have made to the legal professional throughout the years — a journey that has led to celebrating the current and future “face” of law.

In an interview with ACC President and CEO Veta T. Richardson, Dana spoke about her career motivations, the creation of her company (listed as one of the fastest-growing businesses in Europe in 2018 by the Financial Times), her inspiration and plans for the Next 100 Years, the ways women continue to shape the profession, and much more. 


From Journalism to Law 

Veta T. Richardson (VTR): You launched Obelisk Support in the UK in 2010 and the First 100 project in 2014. Before we get into the rapid growth of your company and the exciting history projects, we’d like to know a little bit more about your personal history. You began your career as a journalist?

Dana Denis-Smith (DDS): Yes, I started right out of high school, went straight into news agency journalism, and came to law quite late. I went to university after I started working as a journalist, and a couple of years later I went to the London School of Economics, and then I stayed on for a MSc in Political Economy. I returned to writing at The Economist Group, and then, one evening, I announced to my new husband that I was going to go into law as well! 

He was already a lawyer, and everybody at the wedding congratulated him on the fact that he was unique in that he didn’t marry another lawyer. So, he was very pleased until I made this announcement. He said it was the craziest idea he had ever heard, and there were plenty of other paths I could pursue. I said then I must become a lawyer because you must disobey your husband! I went and enrolled.      

I was about 25 — I started my legal education on 9/11 — my first day I spent all class thinking about my journalism work rather than my legal education. The worlds collided quite dramatically; I started on quite a significant day.    

VTR: Interesting. From journalism to law and then to establishing your own company, Obelisk Support. What needs did you seek to fill with Obelisk? Tell me about your workforce and philosophy. 

DDS: When I arrived at my law firm, I realized I had no real freedom as a junior lawyer trying to come up and have my ideas adopted. I discovered I was quite entrepreneurial — I had ideas and I liked making things happen. I left before the money got too good.  

I set up my first business, which was a political risk consultancy, because it was very much linked to journalism, investment, and economics. That was when I first explored this idea of a professional network, with freelancers in different emerging markets, bringing together different expertise. We were coming together to give, if you like, “on the ground information” to large corporates. 

An Idea is Born – and an Army

DDS: Whilst managing the political risk consultancy, I undertook a mini-MBA in India. While there, I learned about outsourcing for the legal sector being on the rise. A lot of legal documents were being done by outsourcing centers as a way for corporations to cut costs in response to the increase in regulations and legal work. I had a kind of “shock moment” because I didn’t think legal work would be outsourced that way.  

That was when I realized that many of my colleagues, who were having kids for example, didn’t have jobs. It got me thinking, “Why is all the work going abroad?” We’ve got a lot of people who would love to do the work, but they’re disconnecting from the profession. So, I thought, if cost, affordability, and flexibility is what the client needs, how can I make a business that succeeds in delivering a smooth service to the client? The back office would then be made up of a very different population, one not in India. I saw it as everybody being a delivery center — from their own homes. With the right setup and the right security, we could do it.  

I had this vision that our business could have a large wall panel with a lot of “green lights”: When would they, those colleagues leaving the profession for family or other personal needs, have availability? What skillsets and experiences do they bring to the industry? Then I had to figure out how to put their time and skills into the engine and deliver back to the client. It was reversing outsourcing. I recognize volume outsourcing requires technology, machine learning, and loads of people. But, when the work comes back, you still have quite a lot of volume left, even after you go through the documentation. You need people — there’s still that layer of value added by people with the right experience, who’ve worked with similar clients in the past, and who can cast an eye and advise.  

I thought, this is where we can bring these moms back — and that's what I did. I basically set up a “moms army.” I went to find them and then tried to persuade general counsel to buy our services.  They didn’t like it initially; that was my first reality check. They just weren’t sure about these moms at the school gate and how reliable they would be or if I had enough capacity to deliver the volume of work they needed.

It’s interesting that you found populations that had not only a need, but also a skillset that could be utilized. You saw opportunities to bring all of that together yet faced challenges because it was something different that people weren’t used to. 

Veta T. Richardson

Obstacles are Made to be Overcome 

VTR: It’s interesting that you found populations that had not only a need, but also a skillset that could be utilized. You saw opportunities to bring all of that together yet faced challenges because it was something different that people weren’t used to. I’m interested in how you overcame those challenges.
DDS: Well, you overcome it. I should mention that soon after I started the business, I also realized I was expecting. I, too, was a pregnant lawyer looking to keep working!

VTR: You were joining the moms’ army!

DDS: Yes. A lot of people assume that I started out because I had the experience of being a mother and being pushed out, but I didn’t. It was a purely observational — this labor market optimization idea. I came up with it because I saw a need and an opportunity. There’s a lot of people that drop out [of the workforce] because a “nine to five” working pattern doesn’t work for them, for whatever reason. There is a need for flexibility at work. It also allows GCs pay for what they use, but in a way that doesn’t require commitment in retainer terms, which can be costly. This is the middle ground where, if we can marry these two sides well, it can be a winning proposition for the women and employers. 


A Connection to the Law

You recognize that there is quite a closed ecosystem in which lawyers move around. You start in private practice, you go in-house. Maybe you go back, you become a partner. But in any case, we move around within a bubble, for lack of a better word. This way, nobody loses out. If we bring these people back, we calibrate them for the future. They end up being part of the client’s team, maybe full-time later, when their children have grown up and they’re ready to take on bigger challenges. We all benefit from keeping people connected to the profession and proud of being lawyers.


Initially, I was meeting with all women, and some of the stories were heartbreaking. I heard, “I’m just a mom” from women with degrees from Oxford or Cambridge, who spoke multiple languages — clearly high achieving women. You don't get taken by a law firm like, for example my old firm, Linklaters, if you’re not good. They were star pupils, star students, overachieving. Yet, because they had a family, suddenly they weren’t “good” anymore. 

A New Version of Success

VTR: It’s very interesting that this profession sets all kinds of boxes up and bars that you must achieve to fit one definition of what they like to believe success looks like when it can take many forms. Can’t it?

DDS: Life has moved on because the general counsel community is stronger now and larger. You do feel it’s a more balanced kind of market, I think, than it was even 10 years ago where you had the primarily private practice partnership model. Too many exceptions, arrangements, requirements, and hassle. I think it’s a bit better now. But at the time, especially when we did research into who the moms were, and what they felt was stopping them from working more, etc., often distance was the issue — the need to raise families in greener areas outside of London, for example. Long commutes, expensive childcare — it was just wearing them down and often not worth the money.

The First 100 Years and Beyond

VTR: Yes. If you look back at the time more than 10 years ago, when you created Obelisk, it was a whole different environment. Not many people were working with the level of flexibility they have now. We’ve seen many changes during the past 10 years, and beyond. Which brings me to your other initiative, which really intrigues me. The First 100 Years project, where you’ve sought to influence and look at women in the profession over the last 100 years. What simulated your interest in looking back, starting in 1919, in order to track the journey that women have had in the legal profession?

DDS: I was preoccupied by the fact that I felt there was an ease with which we’re disconnected as women from a profession we worked really hard to gain access to, that I didn’t see with men. You know, this kind of sense that you don’t belong at the end of the day? That you’re easily discarded and it’s not your place. At the back of my mind I felt that, maybe through my few years of practice, that “partnership” wasn’t for us. It’s true, at least none of the women that I started with are partners at the firm we trained, and we’re talking 15 years ago, not 100 years ago.  

Out of 120 people that started with me, the women didn't make it [to partner]. I was right in sensing that somehow the path laid for me was different and maybe wasn’t leading in the right direction. That’s why I left — why should I queue up? I decided to go and set up my own business and control my own fate. I thought, maybe I’ll make it or maybe I’ll fail, but at least I’m in control of my future. There was something that I felt internally that I didn’t have an outlet for, but I was sensing that maybe women were leaving because they didn’t feel welcome, and I wondered, “What’s causing this?”  

I came across this photograph that showed — my daughter counted the men — 51 men and one woman. I thought, that was 1982. If that was the demographic and there was only one woman, how long did it take them to even get to one woman? And then I realized this law was in place that basically said women weren’t people. Women couldn’t become members of any profession that had a statute that could basically discriminate [against them]. That got me thinking and researching, and things started coming together, around March 2014. 

I thought, if nobody is going to make a big song and dance of this, it’s going to be unnoticed, and we mustn’t let it go unnoticed — it’s a centenary and a massive landmark. That’s why I started pouring thousands of hours of my spare time into it. 

VTR: I guess the journalist in you made you forge ahead and be so inquisitive.

DDS: Yeah, I guess it’s the combination of skills I gathered with my degree and legal education, as well as a very supportive husband who sometimes researched for me as he was still practicing. I felt this sense that this was way bigger than myself, and it had to be bigger than all of us because it was about all of us together — the past, present, and future. I believed that if women had this sense of history, and they can place themselves in it, then maybe they won’t disengage anymore. They’ll feel like they belong. That they’re a part of a legacy that they continue to push forward. 

That's what motivated me. I didn’t think it would be as big as it became. Obviously, I hoped that it would be catching, and that people would love it and we’d tell the story in a nice way. But you can never tell, especially when you're quite junior, working from outside, and don’t have a big organization behind you with marketing budgets, etc. Obelisk was basically the founding financial partner because I decided that the marketing budget was going to this project. And the board said, “This would detract from the core business.” To which I said, “I think it’s very important for the sector.” I overruled them, which didn’t go down so well at the time. But I felt that it was an important thing, and somebody had to do it, and we needed to put our money where our mouth was.


I believed that if women had this sense of history, and they can place themselves in it, then maybe they won’t disengage anymore. They’ll feel like they belong. That they’re a part of a legacy that they continue to push forward. 

Dana Denis-Smith

100 Years, and Thousands of Photos Celebrating the Face of Law

VTR: Well, I think that you’ve proven your board wrong, in terms of the positive visibility that this project, as well as Obelisk, have had. I know that you’ve also expanded your initiative even further with your work on the Next 100 Years. ACC was pleased to join as one of the hosting venues for the Face the Future International Photo Pop-up Campaign that I understand you organized in concert with International Women's Day on March 8. Tell us, how did that go? Were you pleased with the results of Face the Future?  

DDS: It was amazing because it was global. My personal goal for the campaign was to achieve 1,000 photographs in 24 hours. Of course, the time zones move around the world a bit, but essentially it was a 24-hour campaign from Singapore, Sidney, Melbourne, all the way to Paris, Vienna, Amsterdam, London, and a lot of locations around the UK. And then to you in the US, to Mexico City. It was really exciting to be able to bring it together and to see the appetite — to get this kind of image of the world in one day. The world of law, for women and men together, because there are men willing to add their faces for equality. I care, I’m a part of this and it’s important to me. I was really thrilled. Tired, but thrilled. 

VTR: You exceeded your goal, correct?  

DDS: Yes! I think we collected about 1,300 photographs. 

VTR: Congratulations! As I said, we were very pleased to be able to support the campaign. Further, as a woman of color, I want to compliment you on the rollout of your historic campaign. I noticed how intentional you've been about including women of color in your effort, recognizing that the challenges that women of color face may differ from their majority counterparts. Why do you believe it’s important to be so intentional when it comes to diversity?

DDS: Because I’m interested in output rather than input. I’m interested in making sure that these lives feel the change, as opposed to me feeling that I’m only busy championing it. Last year when we did the first iteration of the Face the Future Campaign, which was only in the UK, it really amazed and delighted me to see that the picture of women in law was so different from the picture of men in law. I don’t know the exact number of women who came that day in the UK, but it was a lot, and the picture was nothing like those of all the white men the history books.

There is an incredible power in this image of diversity. We are diverse. It’s about really making sure that these parts are shaping up. The people are succeeding. The equality of opportunity is a reality. There is no lack of diversity among women, they are coming through and acceding to the profession. We owe them that they can advance on equal footing. That's why I’m always interested in making sure that I look at the end, not just the start — to make sure it represents. We try to do it right and we try to get it right. 

I have a personal limited experience, but I am an immigrant and I do speak with a foreign accent.  On some level perhaps I identify more with being different in a world that can be homogeneous and one of a kind. As Cherie Blair always said, “There’s no point in having a world in law populated by well-to-do white women that replace the well-to-do white men that we had.” That's not delivering on equality. That’s just replicating the one-class solution — that’s not what we want.  

views with veta logo

Periodically, ACC President & CEO Veta T. Richardson interviews innovative leaders in the business community. If you or someone you know is doing something note-worthy in the legal world or beyond, if you have a story to tell, or if there's a topic you'd like to see Veta explore, we would love to hear from you!

Share Your View 

What Does the Future Hold?

VTR: We applaud you for that. You’ve done so many amazing things and impacted so many people with forming a business that allowed more people to be included that otherwise may have been excluded from a profession. Just being a woman businessowner and founder is significant in itself; as well as being thoughtful about the face of law and making sure that you amplified your voice to show that it is a diverse group. I’m curious, as you think about the future, Dana, what's next for you, Obelisk, and the First 100 Years initiative?

DDS: The fun thing is that you never know. That’s part of the fun, not to be predetermined in the kind of exact output you want; but having the right values in mind is what matters to me — and the right purpose. With the business, I want to continue to grow it. I want to take it solidly international. We work internationally, but we’re not placed in different locations. So, scaling it, really, which is a founder’s kind of ambition. The business has grown on average 40 to 50 percent every year for the last five years. It’s a fast-paced business that has a lot of potential, and I want to make sure I attend to it and give it its best shot.  

With the project, The Next 100 Years launching, I would like to create an international exhibition similar to the one created in the UK called Print and Display, which was built around the photographs collected. And if I had a magic wand, I would love to be able to publish a book of a hundred portraits that we captured from around the world. It all depends on fundraising and all of that, but that would be a nice kind of thing to create this year.  

I always like having something that’s physical and real as opposed to selling something that’s digital. Therefore, I’d like to create a way in which we tell the story of a woman globally, a woman in law, and where it started. Further, I’d like to be more strategic and targeted in terms of actual change. You mentioned founders — female founders are significantly underfunded in law. They are disproportionately underfunded compared to the averages seen in other sectors. Creating supply chain conversations around how we get to build women’s companies so that they can be successful entrepreneurs and come up with fresh ideas and ways of doing things, which we need in the legal sector. I think there are a lot of things that remain to  be done; it’s just about being patient with the execution and making sure that we get there rather than having too many irons in the fire and ending up losing our way. 

VTR: Well, Dana, I have to tell you, if I could sum it up, I think what I am so impressed about is how intentional you are about the impact that you’re seeking to have and how you’ve approach in such an innovative way. We at ACC applaud you for your great work and can’t wait to watch what you create in the future. 

Thank you so much for joining us and for allowing us to interview you and feature you to the ACC membership. We greatly appreciate it.  


In Celebration of the Next 100 Years

In early March, ACC joined organizations from around the world in support of the Next 100 Years project's #FaceTheFuture Photo Pop-Up Day, celebrating the diversity of women in the lawfitting for Women's History Month. Below, a couple ACC members talk about the importance of the event, and diversity in the profession.  

Read about ACC's partnership with the Next 100 Years 

It [attending the #FaceTheFuture Pop-Up Photography Event on International Women’s Day] was very important to me because I’m a Palestinian American woman and lawyer from North Carolina. To be here and be a part of this is incredible. And it’s not just about me — it’s about my parents, my grandparents, my history. It’s powerful and beautiful in so many ways, and I am grateful and honored to be here in this room because of them. I stand here with them, all in the picture with me.

Nihad Namsour – Pro Bono Institute
Assistant Director of the Law Firm Pro Bono Project
The Pro Bono Institute

Someone much wiser than me said, "I’m not free until everyone is free." I can’t reach my full potential, and my organization can’t reach its full potential until the women in the organization reach their full potential. Our profession is still disproportionately male at the top, and still disproportionately white and non-diverse. I have been involved for quite some time as part of the local [NCR] ACC Chapter’s initiative to increase diversity and increase the pipeline. For me, in having done that since 2003, it is important to do whatever we can to highlight disparity and gender disparity in the profession. 

Brandon Fitzgerald
Associate General Counsel & Assistant Secretary
United Negro College Fund

This site uses cookies to store information on your computer. Some are essential to make our site work properly; others help us improve the user experience.

By using the site, you consent to the placement of these cookies. For more information, read our cookies policy and our privacy policy.