Skip to main content
Part of complete coverage on

Your top-flight lawyer? She's a stay-at-home mom

By Catriona Davies, CNN
November 27, 2012 -- Updated 1155 GMT (1955 HKT)
Dana Denis-Smith and Charlotte Devlin, founders of Obelisk Legal Support, a company that allows highly qualified former City lawyers to work flexibly from home to fit in with family commitments.
Dana Denis-Smith and Charlotte Devlin, founders of Obelisk Legal Support, a company that allows highly qualified former City lawyers to work flexibly from home to fit in with family commitments.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • In the UK, the legal profession loses a huge number of women after career breaks
  • City lawyer mothers feel they can't balance long hours with child rearing
  • Firm offers flexible home working for former high-flying lawyers
  • Clients benefit from "top brain" lawyers otherwise out of work, says firm

London (CNN) -- For six years, Eve King worked as a commercial lawyer for a leading London City law firm, complete with its long hours and fat pay check.

But after she had her first child eight years ago she felt she had no choice but to swap the lifestyle for that of a stay-at-home mom.

"I gave it up because I knew I couldn't be a city lawyer and spend time with my kids," she said. "After that I discounted myself because I knew that if I had been out of law for a few years, who was going to be interested in me?"

Today, King is helping to run a company that allows highly qualified former City lawyers to work flexibly from home to fit in with family commitments.

Run by an all-woman core team, Obelisk Legal Support, has around 100 lawyers and 250 legal translators on its books.

The company was founded in 2010 by Dana Denis-Smith and Charlotte Devlin in an attempt to harness the talents that are lost to the legal profession when women leave after having children.

In numbers: Women solicitors in the UK  In numbers: Women solicitors in the UK
In numbers: Women solicitors in the UKIn numbers: Women solicitors in the UK

The exodus from the profession is stark. According to the Law Society, there were 25,786 women solicitors in the UK aged 26-35 last year, but only 17,524 aged 36-45, and 9,622 aged 46-55.

Denis-Smith said: "At the starting point in their careers, 70% of lawyers are women, but at partner level just 12% are women.

"I had seen all these talented people dropping out of the profession around me and had the idea to go back and find out what all these women were doing.

"These women feel they have been forgotten and their skills don't matter anymore."

She added: "We have built a business around a skillset that has not been tapped into. We have fantastic lawyers of City caliber who can deliver results.

I had seen all these talented people dropping out of the profession around me
Dana Denis-Smith, founder of Obelisk Legal Support

"We are using people that have disappeared from the market. I'm keen to challenge the idea that professional women with children should be given work out of sympathy rather than be seen as a fantastic business proposition."

Also on Leading Women: Why women will impact global economy as much as China

Obelisk works as a legal outsourcing company, taking on support work for law firms and in-house legal departments.

It then distributes the work to the lawyers on its books, who choose how many hours they want to work.

Mateja Simic, the company's marketing director, said: "This is not a compromise on the part of the lawyer or the client. The client is getting 'top brain' for their money and the lawyers are totally committed."

The idea has been popular with some top names in the legal profession, who are keen to see the gender imbalance redressed.

Helen Mahy, one of only a handful of women General Counsels in the UK, has agreed to become chairwoman of Obelisk's advisory board when she retires from her job as group company secretary at National Grid next year.

She said: "There's a hole in the market for somebody like Obelisk to tap a pool of talent that is otherwise being wasted. Nobody else is doing that."

Lack of flexible working practices continues to hinder women's career development
Lucy Scott-Moncrieff, president of the UK Law Society

Mahy said everyone in her own team of 100 lawyers at National Grid was offered flexible working, but that was rare in private law firms.

"Most of their staff are willing to flog themselves to death, so (the firms don't worry) if they lose a few good people," she said.

"If law firms used a bit of creativity in helping women get back after a career break, it would be a huge benefit to everybody."

Also on Leading Women: $800 million biotech business started in a garage

Lucy Scott-Moncrieff, president of the UK Law Society, said: "The situation will only change if the legal sector takes resolute action by investing in specific career development support for women, improving support around maternity transition and addressing the lack of flexible working practices which continues to hinder women's career development."

While the vast majority of lawyers on Obelisk's books are women, the firm also welcomes men who want flexible working. The lawyers were on average earning $160,000 (£100,000) before their career breaks, and are now paid an equivalent hourly rate.

"What do we want to say to our daughters?" said Charlotte Devlin, co-founder of Obelisk. "That law is a great profession until you have children?"

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
July 3, 2014 -- Updated 1154 GMT (1954 HKT)
From Coco Chanel to DVF, CNN takes a look at celebrated fashion designers and the iconic pieces which launched their careers.
June 25, 2014 -- Updated 1115 GMT (1915 HKT)
:KNOXVILLE, TN - MAY 28: Dolly Parton performs during a concert to benefit Dolly's Imagination Library & Dr. Robert F. Thomas Foundation at The University of Tennessee's Thompson-boling Arena on May 28, 2014 in Knoxville, Tennessee. (Photo by Rick Diamond/Getty Images)NEW YORK, NY - FEBRUARY 05: Debbie Harry of Blondie performs onstage at the Amnesty International Concert presented by the CBGB Festival at Barclays Center on February 5, 2014 in New York City. (Photo by Theo Wargo/Getty Images for CBGB)
When titans of music Dolly Parton and Debbie Harry perform at one of the biggest music festivals on the planet, Glastonbury, who will be crowned queen?
June 17, 2014 -- Updated 1349 GMT (2149 HKT)
2 Caption:Avignon, FRANCE: Serb artist Marina Abramovic performs in 'The Biography Remix' directed by Michael Laub from Netherlands, 10 July 2005 at the Benoix-XII house during the Theater Festival held in Avignon southern France. AFP PHOTO ANNE-CHRISTINE POUJOULAT (Photo credit should read ANNE-CHRISTINE POUJOULAT/AFP/Getty Images)
CNN meets Serbian-born New-York based performance artist Marina Abramovic, as she embarks on the most controversial show of her career.
May 9, 2014 -- Updated 1325 GMT (2125 HKT)
This Mother's Day, we're celebrating the many women in the world who have provided care, love and guidance for children who are not biologically their own.
June 10, 2014 -- Updated 1506 GMT (2306 HKT)
She turned her bohemian beach style and love of ballet shoes into a billion-dollar brand. This week on Leading Women, fashion designer Tory Burch reveals her ultimate style guru.
April 18, 2014 -- Updated 1623 GMT (0023 HKT)
Meet Mo Abudu, the talk show host portraying a very different Africa. As a glamorous presenter, she also heads up Ebony Life TV network, based in Nigeria.
May 23, 2014 -- Updated 0936 GMT (1736 HKT)
A lone blonde woman, wrapped in nothing but a sarong, leads four camels and a little dog across one of the most inhabitable environments on Earth.
April 11, 2014 -- Updated 1216 GMT (2016 HKT)
Their job is capturing the most horrifying images on Earth -- keeping their eyes open, where others must look away. Meet Kate Brooks and Gerda Taro, the war photographers of today and yesterday.
March 25, 2014 -- Updated 1819 GMT (0219 HKT)
Gloria Steinem speaks onstage during Equality Now presents 'Make Equality Reality' at Montage Hotel on November 4, 2013 in Los Angeles, California.
As Gloria Steinem turns 80, Kathleen McCartney highlights the remarkable life of the feminist so far.
February 26, 2014 -- Updated 1650 GMT (0050 HKT)
Former U.S. State Deparment Anne-Marie Slaughter says Brad Pitt is 'posterchild for engaged fatherhood'.
May 7, 2014 -- Updated 0750 GMT (1550 HKT)
Ahead of the release of her 14th studio album, take a look at the remarkable career of Mariah Carey, who went from curly-haired girl next door to elusive chanteuse.
March 8, 2014 -- Updated 1632 GMT (0032 HKT)
CNN hosted a Tweetchat on gender equality with special guests including Nobel Peace prize laureate Tawakkol Karman. Here's what you missed.
March 13, 2014 -- Updated 1059 GMT (1859 HKT)
From shaving her head for climate change to opting for a sustainable business model, Vivienne Westwood is simply unstoppable.
April 2, 2014 -- Updated 1502 GMT (2302 HKT)
In what would be a dream come true for her alter ego, Carrie Bradshaw -- Sarah Jessica Parker has turned her love of fashion into a new shoe range with Manolo Blahnik.
ADVERTISEMENT