An Interview with… Dana Denis-Smith, founder & chief executive of ‘NewLaw’ contract lawyer supplier Obelisk Support

photo (00000002)In 2010, former journalist and Linklaters lawyer Dana Denis-Smith founded Obelisk Support, which connects the pool of largely female ex-City legal talent to clients’ real needs for part-time and flexible resources.  Dana and the team have since won many awards, including in April being listed in The Times Top 50 Employers for Women 2015. Here Dana – one of the most forward thinking women in the business – talks to associate editor Caroline Hill about innovation, tech and what the legal market will look like in 10 years’ time.
 How would you describe your business in 30 words?
DDS: Obelisk Support’s aim is to make work work for our clients, our lawyers and their families whilst remaining a flexible, innovative and affordable provider of legal support to large corporates and law firms.
Your growth rate is impressive, how many lawyers are working for Obelisk now?
DDS: Our year-on-year growth remains strong – looking at 200% this year – after a couple of years at 400%. We have around 850 lawyers we can call on of which around 350 have a ‘green’ light and are available at any given time to ensure we remain highly responsive and able to build the best solution for clients.
What appeals to clients most about your model?
DDS: I think it is our ability to be creative with our legal solutions; we are highly versatile and fast; the other ingredients – great quality lawyers, flexibility, great management and great central team – they are a given and the foundation that enables us to push boundaries and lead the change.
How is technology helping your business?
DDS: Businesses like ours would not have been conceivable before the rise of faster speed internet and cloud technology; we believe in simplicity when it comes to implementing new technology – law is not an early adopter and therefore everything we have/ we are building has to account for the technical ability of its users and be very intuitive.
What are the most interesting trends you are seeing in the legal profession?
DDS: The overwhelming trend is really to look for and implement change; this is great as it makes the market a particularly interesting one to be in. I would say most of the innovation in the UK is in the space of operational efficiency, which is not surprising given the recent recession. There is a difference between the US and UK in the innovation we are seeing; the US is ahead in tech change as the size of the litigation market is huge there and making it more affordable through tech has led to some really interesting work – from case research to workflows and certainly the use of behavioural economics. Certainly I find the tech in US more interesting than over here.
What innovation has particularly impressed you?
DDS: Anything that involves predictive coding and constant machine learning I find really fascinating.
What will the legal market look like in ten years’ time?
DDS- I think it has to be the emergence of a ‘new’ lawyer – with a different set of skills and perhaps a more unified skills market between the various sides of the profession; the buying of legal services will change significantly and the lawyers of tomorrow will have to be able to interchange between being smart buyers and smart suppliers at various points in their careers. In a strange kind of way, the fact that there will be more automation in the lower level work will keep lawyers busy.
If you could change one thing about the legal market, what would it be?
DDS: I would change it so lawyers are trained to help them adapt to new tech and be more numerate.