By DebbieH 25 Sep 2012 7 min read

Outsourcing legal work. Can the Obelisk model work?

Training to become a lawyer is tough and expensive, and then legal careers can be disappointingly short lived. For many who land well-paid City jobs, starting a family can spell the end of a promising career. Increasingly, experts in legal recruitment are looking at ways to tap into that latent talent.

Legal support agency Obelisk was launched in 2010 offering an innovative way to outsource legal work but keep it ‘onshore’. The concept is this: general counsels and law firms temporarily use talented ex-City lawyers – the majority of whom have become parents and can no longer hold down full time City law jobs. Obelisk now has more than 100 ex-City lawyers with more than five years’ PQE on its books, and has ambitious growth plans for the coming year. The company has ambitions for 500 lawyers on its books in the next 12 months.

Can it work? Using ex-City lawyer parents who are keen to return to practice is an obvious way for in-house lawyers and law firms to onshore services that many people are saying should be offshored, Helen Mahy, a former FTSE 100 general counsel argued in a recent interview with Legal Futures.

Mahy is to chair Obelisk, taking up the appointment from 1 February 2013. She is an employed barrister who is currently group company secretary of National Grid plc and was its company secretary and general counsel from 2003 until last month.

Mahy has been busy promoting Obelisk already, describing how the outsourcing business uses former City solicitors, mainly women returning to work after having children, to provide temporary support to law firms and in-house teams when they need help dealing with work overflow at junior legal support level.

“We’ve got these women who essentially have decided to give up their legal careers for family reasons and find it very hard to get back into the traditional law firm structure,” she said. “They are a huge untapped pool of talent which Obelisk is getting back into work and working around their own needs and requirements. It seems to be the ultimate in flexible working – which I’m passionate about.”

Obelisk chief executive Dana Denis-Smith, who previously practised at Linklaters, said: “Helen brings us the experience of a stellar legal career as well as a shared passion for the role that diversity can play in the growth of any business.”

The key to success of Obelisk appears to be acceptance of flexible working. Mahy has explained that Obelisk’s approach was “equally fit” for both general counsel and law firm clients, in particular as a “cost-effective and good way of outsourcing” high-volume work. Flexible working was compatible with all but the most senior level roles in-house or in a law firm, she argued.

The model has reportedly worked even with major project work such as a rights issues or mergers and acquisitions, she told Legal Futures: “A lot of it can be done from home now… so I think it’s actually a very good resource for big transactions. It’s not designed to cover everything but for specific areas where you need… good-quality but relatively routine legal advice I think it’s absolutely made for that. It can be of great assistance to law firms and in-house teams to give them a back-up resource at a reasonable price.”

The other members of Obelisk’s advisory board are Professor Stephen Mayson; former Linklaters partner Nick Eastwell, now the Solicitors Regulation Authority’s chief adviser on City law firms; Peter Ling, former general counsel for Asia/Pacific at BP; and Jeremy Glover, a partner at US/UK law firm Reed Smith.

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