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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."

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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."

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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?"

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