Thriving from an untapped talent source using agile working

Workingmums.co.uk talks to Eve King at Obelisk Support about its agile working model.

The legal profession has traditionally been associated with long hours and many women have left the profession after having children. While the gender balance of trainee lawyers is 50/50, the number of women drops significantly three to four years after they have qualified and few make it to the top of the profession. But while some firms are losing their female talent others are taking advantage.

Obelisk Support has been built on the premise of tapping into an underutilised talent pool of top ex-City lawyers, mostly women, who have left the profession because of family commitments.

The firm was set up in 2010 by ex-City lawyer Dana Denis-Smith. In its first year Dana had a baby so spent much of the year researching the business so it was only really in 2011 that it really took off.

Since then Obelisk Support has grown rapidly. It now has over 500 legal consultants and plans to increase this number to 10,000 across the world in the next three years through building local clusters of lawyers who can support local businesses. It is also looking at the potential for broadening its model to other professions.

The management team is fairly small, but as of the beginning of May, it is growing from eight to 10, including a performance manager who focuses on the systems needed to support remote working. “Flexible working is fantastic, but we have to understand how to make it work for business and for people and what is essential. The infrastructure needs to be there,” says Eve King, the company’s talent director [pictured].

Until earlier this year the whole company was working virtually. It now has an office in Farringdon, London, but all employees, including the directors, work fully flexibly. Indeed Eve says being flexible has allowed the firm to expand at the rate it has. “No one works full time in the office. All have different requirements and we judge people by their output,” she says. Its agile working model has seen it shortlisted for the recent Opportunity Now Excellence in Practice award for Agile Organisations.

Business lines

The business is organised along four lines: stand out work, stand in work, stand by work and stand off work. Consultants are based either on or off site and are responsive to clients’ needs. They also provide outsourced support across the world for legal teams which are facing overflow or need other support.

Eve says Obelisk Support’s business model places a big emphasis on the hiring process. “It’s the most important side of our business. Our consultants go through a thorough assessment process. In that way our clients have confidence that if, for some reason, a consultant cannot carry on we can put someone else in their place who can take over,” says Eve. They look at each client and offer them a bespoke package, matching them with the right consultant.

Most of Obelisk’s consultants come to the company through word of mouth. “The calibre of our consultants is amazing and what makes our business’ reputation. Not all are women, but women do tend to be the ones who take career breaks,” adds Eve. Male consultants include a man who is trying to get his band signed to a record label; another is an author. Eve believes more men will come on board in the next few years as shared parenting becomes more commonplace. “People should be able to have a career and not follow one career path,” she says. “They should be able to be a partner if they take a career break or work flexibly or be considered a success even if they work 10 hours for ever. It’s about using their skills in ways that are right for them.”

Eve herself left a City law career when she became pregnant. She could see what was ahead – part-time hours to fit around her family but a full-time workload. She took a nine-year career break and felt no-one would be interested in her skills and that her previous legal experience would go to waste. She understands how women who have taken career breaks feel deskilled, but she says “your basic skills do not go anywhere”. She speaks about another lawyer – one of Obelisk’s consultants – who took a five-year break after working at a City law firm. Eve says: “She was worried that she couldn’t do the work again. She thanked us for telling her she could.”

 





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