Dana Denis-Smith is no stranger to changes in the workplace; having been a journalist, lawyer and now a successful entrepreneur, she has experienced her fair share. Her latest idea, however, is more concerned with a broader professional shift.
The Obelisk Legal Support CEO is currently overseeing the “First 100 Years Project”, an ambitious venture which aims to document, over the next half decade, a century of women legal practitioners. According to Dana though, the project is as much about progress as it is about history. “I had the idea when I saw a photograph from 1982 of one of the top law firms. There were about sixty people and only one woman,” she says. “It’s an image that will never leave my head. It made me look at the history and realise that women haven’t been in the profession until recently and that even since that picture was taken, things have changed dramatically.”
Dana believes the concept of celebrating gender progression is an integral part of the project. For her, the narrative around diversity within the profession is too often tempered with resistance. “I’d like the project to eventually change the way the debate is perceived because I find a lot of the discussion around the subject quite negative. There’s often a sense that women are demanding more than their right to some extent.” How does she hope the project will challenge that perception? “I think the best way is to acknowledge the different types of success over the years, to show that success is a choice and something that you can decide the shape of. I would also like to give people a reality check in some way, to show that actually a lot of the barriers that they face may not be as bad as those in the past.”
Such variety also manifests itself in how the project will take shape. In conjunction with The Law Society and The Bar Council, Obelisk will commission 100 documentary-style interviews with leading women in law over the next five years, as well as collating biographies of legal pioneers and giving male and female lawyers the opportunity to make statements about women who have inspired them. There are also plans to commission a monument, ideally in the City, to commemorate the lasting impact that women have had on the legal landscape. Dana hopes that she can motivate others to get involved too. “Our idea is for people to put on their own events under the banner of the project. They can then give feedback to the website, which will eventually become a platform for students, law-firms, in-house and all other participants in the profession to talk about these issues without us always setting the agenda.”
This keenness to make the project as inclusive and far-reaching as possible is clearly something that she feels passionate about; when asked whether she has plans to share her own stories on the website, she hesitates and says that she “hasn’t really thought about it”. Though she might be unsure of what specific shape her own contributions might take, her overall vision remains resolutely clear. “The project may have a broad theme but there is really only one goal: to learn what we can from the past and use it to change the future.”
To find out more about The First 100 Years Project and to read the entries so far, go here.