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Kamil Bialous/The Globe and Mail

Leena Yousefi hasn’t spent a penny on advertising to promote her Vancouver-based family law practice, YLaw Group. She doesn’t need to.

Once held back by self-doubt and depression—she was at one point on the verge of flaming out of an undergraduate degree—Yousefi sells her business on the strength of her outsized persona and personal touch. Offering this window into her world works to showcase the kinder, gentler law firm she’s built—one where clients feel taken care of and colleagues feel like family.

One morning in January, Yousefi posted a photo of herself on LinkedIn dressed in her black and white court attire and snuggling her baby girl before she left for the day. The post, which included an inspirational message to her one-year-old daughter, along with the hashtags #workingmom, #lawyerlife and #multitasking, attracted more than 40,000 reactions and later prompted the BBC to feature Yousefi in an online story detailing how she spends her time and money in a typical week.

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Over the past three years, YLaw has roughly doubled its contingent of lawyers to nine, and seen its revenue grow by 331%. The firm, founded in 2013, moved into a spacious new office in downtown Vancouver’s Yaletown neighbourhood in 2017 and opened a second location in the nearby suburb of Surrey.

“The reason we’re growing is because we [promote ourselves] organically,” Yousefi said in an interview. “I spend over 1,000 hours a year writing content and information on small aspects of family law, because that’s what a lot of people don’t find on Google.”

Articles posted to the YLaw website delve into topical issues related to child custody, separation and divorce. Posts include how to resolve family law disputes during the pandemic and how to reduce support payments if your income has taken a coronavirus-related hit. Newly separated spouses searching for information on divorce or custody often land on the YLaw site, as do reporters—Yousefi is frequently quoted in national and local media, as well as in trade magazines—and she says the combination has helped boost business.

The 38-year-old Yousefi writes in a way that is both intimate and reassuring. “Two nights ago I had a panic attack,” she said in a March update during the early weeks of the COVID-19 pandemic. “I am totally OK by the way. In fact after following the below suggestions, I feel fantastic. Anyways, back to the attack…”

She went on to share a relatable story about her fears and frustrations, and offer readers a list of solutions and resources.

“She’s got a real talent for knowing how to reach out to people and talk to them and engage them,” says Ari Wormeli, a law school classmate and friend of Yousefi’s. She convinced him to join her as a business partner in 2017 (though she remains the sole owner of the firm).

Accolades collected along the way have also helped Yousefi raise her profile. She was included on the Forty under 40 ranking produced by the website Business in Vancouver and landed on Canadian Lawyer’s list of the 25 most influential lawyers, voted into the young influencers category by the magazine’s readers.

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Yousefi also has a “definite view of how she wants to present the business,” Wormeli says, citing the all-white, Apple-store-like aesthetic of YLaw’s downtown Vancouver head office (which was designed by her architect husband). “It’s not the lawyer-with-the-bookcase approach.”

Born in Iran, Yousefi’s early years were marked by the conflict of the Iran-Iraq war and the aftermath of the Iranian Revolution. She came to Canada with her parents and older sister at 13. “My childhood was spent witnessing violence, oppression and trauma. I internalized all of that.”

Leaving her friends and adapting to a new country also took a toll. Yousefi, struggling with depression, almost walked away from her undergraduate studies at the University of Victoria. But she seems to draw strength from a challenge; it was her mother’s gentle suggestion that she apply for a job as a bank teller that spurred her return to school.

“For her to see my career being limited to an entry-level position—that triggered something. I thought, ‘What can I do to prove her wrong?’” With her sister already on track to become a doctor, Yousefi made a plan to go to law school and went on to complete both degrees at UVic.

She started YLaw just two years after her call to the bar and pledged to do things differently from what she saw at other family law firms that pushed young lawyers to bill long hours at all costs. “One of my biggest concerns was that lawyers and staff aren’t treated as humans. When you kill someone’s soul, they either burn out or they leave.” Yousefi emphasizes employee happiness. The firm takes a team approach to solving client problems and offers unlimited mental health days along with a monthly stipend for recreational activities.

Yousefi actively looks to recruit single mothers and women just returning from maternity leave—more than 90% of YLaw’s lawyers and 20 support staff are women—as well as lawyers from different cultural backgrounds. “Almost all of our staff and lawyers come from different countries,” says Yousefi, who herself remains involved with the Iranian community in Canada and whose practice often involves helping immigrant families navigate divorce.

Kamil Bialous/The Globe and Mail

But her humane approach to running her business has not always been reflected in the way she actually practised law. Yousefi’s previous experience had taught her that litigation was the way to settle disputes. She was passionate about fighting—and winning—cases in court. “My clients were happy because I was winning the cases. But in the long-term, I was noticing that no matter how many times we won, there was still loss—loss of love and time and money.”

A major turning point came when she was expanding her firm in 2017 and hired marketing consultant Brad Sherwin to research the business. After interviews with half a dozen previous clients, Sherwin reported that the major emotion most felt when they first came to YLaw was not, “How do I win this case?” but, “How did I get here?”

“There’s vulnerability and sadness. These people are envisioning the day of their wedding and all of a sudden they’re sitting in the divorce lawyer’s office,” Yousefi says. “As obvious as it should have been to me, it wasn’t, because I wasn’t going through a divorce. I realized I have the most important role in this situation. I can destroy this case by fighting, or I can help minimize damage.”

Now she goes to court only as a last resort or in dangerous cases. Some of the firm’s lawyers practise exclusively collaborative family law (which sees both spouses sign an agreement not to resort to litigation), but most of Yousefi’s cases take a “hybrid” approach that starts with a four-way meeting with the other side and their lawyer, and can move to negotiation and later mediation if needed.

“We want to get to a conciliatory ending. It can be sad and it’s okay, but it’s going to be loving, no matter what.”

“Family law was traditionally seen as the ‘pink ghetto’ of law practices. It was seen as a softer, gentler practice where lawyers were required to be pseudo-social workers,” says Dal Bhathal, managing partner of Toronto-based legal recruiting firm the Counsel Network. More recently, she says, it has been recognized as a challenging area of the law that demands talented lawyers.

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Bhathal says demand for family law practitioners has been consistent “and shows no signs of slowing down.” In B.C., the number of lawyers who performed any work in the family law area has increased steadily; last year it was more than 2,000 lawyers, according to the province’s law society, up from around 1,200 five years earlier.

“Boutique law firms, in particular, have been growing their teams,” says Bhathal, noting that most large national firms have eliminated family law practices to focus on corporate clients. “But it’s also an area that younger lawyers—and not just women—are becoming attracted to.”

When the pandemic first hit in March, Yousefi says business stalled as “everybody froze.” She keeps the firm’s earnings in cash, which gave her a cushion during the first challenging weeks, and there has since been a surge in breakups and other disputes. “After the initial shock, we started getting inquiries back. Divorce has definitely experienced a spike during COVID. We’re busier than we were pre-COVID,” says Yousefi, who wants to bring more lawyers on board.

“She’s a go-getter. It sounds trite, but she is,” says Wormeli. “She went out relatively [soon after law school] and started up this very successful business. I would not have advised her to do that. Fortunately, she knows when to ignore me.”

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