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How the fastest-growing female-led law firm in B.C. is shaking up family law

Once pooh-poohed by the tired old legal establishment, ‘futurpreneur’ Leena Yousefi founded her own way of doing things, creating an 'empathic, non-aggressive, all-inclusive environment' at YLaw

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Leena Yousefi at the YLaw office in downtown Vancouver with her daughter, Saoirse (Photograph by Alia Youssef)

Leena Yousefi at the YLaw office in downtown Vancouver with her daughter, Saoirse (Photograph by Alia Youssef)

This past January, an image of Leena Yousefi outfitted in crisp white barrister bands, a thick document suitcase by her side and her then five-month-old daughter nestled between her arms went viral on LinkedIn, receiving over 43,000 likes. The short caption was heartfelt, ringing with a universal relatability that working parents know well: “One day I will tell you about all the sleepless nights and all the mornings I woke up and kissed you as I went to court, so you know if I can do it, you can, too.”

It’s illustrative of the ethos that Yousefi, founder, CEO and principal lawyer of YLaw, has woven into the fabric of her firm. Founded in 2013, YLaw is the fastest-growing female-led law firm in British Columbia, a powerhouse in the arena of Canadian family law. With a smart, darkly hilarious website whose opening page states, “When family life isn’t a box of chocolates, CALL US,” YLaw advocates for outcomes that prioritize the long-term well-being of clients. This modern approach aligns with a larger strategy focused on digital growth rather than traditional advertising; the strength of that website; disseminating knowledge (Yousefi has penned articles for the Lawyer’s Daily and Canadian Lawyer); and word-of-mouth referrals.

At YLaw (No. 149 on Growth 2020), she has created a compassionate, employee-focused workplace. In less than a decade, her staff—the oldest lawyer is 38 and the youngest is 26—has grown to fill two office spaces, with a third opening in Victoria and the purchase of a fourth under way in downtown Vancouver. Boasting a 90% success rate, Yousefi was voted one of Canada’s 25 Most Influential Lawyers by Canadian Lawyer in 2019.

Having made a name for mastering both client and company relations, YLaw’s new project is an ambitious, self-funded app. “It’s an interactive software application where somebody’s basically talking to a digital lawyer,” Yousefi explains. “Forty per cent of people are not represented in our legal system, so this would help people who can’t afford legal representation.” Scheduled to launch next year, the app will cost roughly $150,000 to develop.

Also, funds are often reallocated to the firm’s mission for social progress, which has included donations and pro bono work valued at upwards of $1 million. It’s just the tip of the iceberg for a firm that’s bucking conventions of family law’s historic boys’ club. We “are coming to understand that the female qualities that were looked at as a weakness are the recipe to our success, and to an empathic, non-aggressive, all-inclusive environment,” says Yousefi. Over the phone, she is clear-headed, direct and earnest, delving into the idiosyncrasies of her firm without neglecting to mention the soul work that went into its construction. “I’d like to consider myself as one of those people at the forefront of showing just what female leadership can do.”

Born in Tehran, Iran, in 1982, Yousefi emigrated to North Vancouver, B.C., in 1997 when she was 15 to escape the Persian Gulf War. Grappling with language barriers and culture shock, anxiety and depression, Yousefi failed out of the University of Victoria during her sophomore year. But she returned a year later, graduating with an A-plus average—then remained at UVic to complete her law degree. However, Yousefi became disillusioned in her early career at others’ firms by the inflexible traditions that lawyers weren’t interested in remedying: how could her age or choice to take maternity leave challenge her decision-making efficacy? Why were the client relationships she wanted—where she treated them like family and power divides were eradicated—deemed unfeasible? She flagged these concerns to bosses at one firm in the early 2010s. “I told them, ‘These things in your firm need to change.’ ”

“I was constantly laughed at by many lawyers and other professionals saying, ‘You’re just dreaming. The model you’re thinking about doesn’t exist.’ ” So Yousefi built her own. Starting with $10,000 in savings, she hired an assistant, purchased computers and set up in an office-share space on Howe Street in downtown Vancouver. “I wanted to create an environment where our staff and lawyers came from different cultural backgrounds and gender identifications . . . and where we gave to each other.”

That spirit imbues the YLaw office space, too, which stands in stark contrast to other firms. Designed by Rohe Studio, the interior is inspired by Japanese minimalism and illuminated by diffuse, warm lighting. Behind the office’s white 3D front desk is a backdrop of thin, intersecting lines arranged to promote tranquility. The environment supports a company culture where decisions on case strategy include input from the whole team. “People said, ‘If a client is paying you hundreds of dollars an hour they don’t want Kumbaya, they want somebody who’s gonna overpower them.’ I said, ‘No, when they come in here they need to feel like they’re at a spa. They don’t want to feel intimidated; they want a solution.’ ”

It’s a crucial branding tactic, with pragmatic roots. “We have maximized every corner of our available space and have six offices within 1,400 sq. feet. This allows us to have the maximum number of lawyers . . . and to generate more profits.” The firm has become profitable thanks to keen management, as well as the practice of trimming excess procedural fat.

“Lawyers were working hard [at other firms] but the firm did not have a proper collection policy,” she explains. Yousefi’s staff follows a strict billing process, where everyone has an eye on the flow of payment.

Most of YLaw’s lawyers are not on salary, unlike at many other firms, she says. This approach has helped clarify how each lawyer’s work is appraised. “It can be tough not having a standard income,” explains Quinn McRae, a well-respected family lawyer based in Vancouver. (She left the profession for a few years to start a healing practice, and admits that YLaw’s ethos convinced her to return.) “But I prefer this, because then I know all my work is being valued appropriately. This gives a huge incentive to work more, or even less, if the situation calls for it.”

In a report published on shifting rates of legal fees, based on a survey published by Canadian Lawyer in April 2019, 88% of firms still relied on the traditional billable-hours model, and 62.7% primarily used the flat-rate model. Though Yousefi’s personal hourly rate is $400 (comparable to other B.C.-based law firms), YLaw’s competitive advantage comes from the flexibility for account payment. “We love and urge unbundled, piecemeal and consultation-only services,” she says. This “innovative option” is a crucial alternative for individuals who can’t afford the full representation model.

Since its inception, YLaw has built a strategy to sell to under-served international clients navigating the Canadian legal system: 10% of their clients come from outside Canada, in countries such as China, India and Russia. Yousefi credits this international business to the firm’s online marketing and its diverse roster of lawyers. “Overseas clients tend to be some of our wealthiest clients because they have multiple properties—or sometimes wives and husbands!—all around the world,” and the only way to find a Canadian lawyer is through online search.

“What I admired about their firm’s website, and what good, young family lawyers are doing,” says Nick Bala, the former academic director of Toronto’s Osgoode Hall Law School family law program, “is seeing the client as a whole person,” he says. “That has not traditionally been the view.”