Nana Yanful, Lawyer

Nana Yanful, Lawyer

Nana is a criminal defense lawyer and Human Rights & Health Equity Specialist at Mount Sinai Hospital

What is your morning routine?

It depends on the morning. Sometimes I’ll wake up early and walk or jog to the gym before making a quick breakfast and heading into the office. If I’m not feeling super motivated, my day usually involves a lot of snoozing, Facebook and Instagram stalking in bed, and then breakfast at my desk because I’m running behind. Right now I’m on maternity leave for my first child, so my mornings are definitely more purposeful and involve meditation, healthy breakfasts and lots of stretching.

Tell us about your career path.

I’ve always been one to explore my curiosities and try different things. I was valedictorian in high school before going to University of Toronto for life sciences and equity studies. My first equity studies class changed my life. We talked about oppression, racism, sexism, patriarchy and privilege. Many of the lecturers and teaching assistants were racialized. It was a great experience.

After graduating, I moved back home to London, Ont. to figure out what I wanted to do. I got a job with a non-profit organization funded by Canadian Heritage to create a training program for boards of directors about diversity and the importance of an inclusive governance structure. Then my curiosity took me to a Toronto organization called Harmony Movement, doing equity education in schools across the GTA. I ended up working with youths who were in conflict with the law, which got me interested in youth justice.

Applying to law school was a challenge given I had no idea about the academic legal system. None of my family or friends were lawyers, so it felt very foreign to me. I went to University of Windsor for law and was one of the only black students in my Juris Doctor program. I spent my last semester at NYU School of Law as a visiting student before graduating and articling at the Superior Court of Justice in Brampton as a judicial law clerk. I had a fantastic experience at the court where I could see how legal decisions and precedents are made.

After I articled, I had my own criminal defence and youth justice practice at Simcoe Chambers in Toronto for almost three years. I recently wrote a chapter on policing and the trust deficit in Subdivided: City-Building in an Age of Hyper-Diversity, and took a position with Sinai Health System where I conduct internal human rights investigations and training for the hospital.

What challenges do you or women face in your industry?

It’s different for all women. I can only speak about my experience as a black woman in law, but for example, in court I would often get mistaken for the girlfriend, sister or mother of my black clients – even while wearing a suit. It was hard to be taken seriously by a mostly older, white male bar.

When I was a sole criminal defence practitioner, I noticed many of my female colleagues had a difficult time coming back to solo practice after they had children. Many of them struggled to keep up their client base and balance their home life. Law is a taxing profession that often values how many hours you put in and how many clients you have over how well you do the work.

What advice would you give to young girls who want to be the NEXT you?

I recommend they follow their own dreams, not mine. It’s so easy to look at the woman next to you and believe her life is more perfect and together than yours, but you have to remember we’re all trying to figure it out. I’d also like to borrow Elizabeth Gilbert’s advice of following your curiosity rather than chasing your passion. It’s much more attainable and way more fun. Finally, try to find mentors of different ages. I promise they will be an invaluable resource.

How do you separate work life from your personal life?

I’m still working on this, and with my first child on the way, I bet I’m going to have to continually revisit it. I find just putting my phone on silent while I’m in bed has helped, now that I’m no longer expecting 2 a.m. jail calls. Also, having a support system of friends who aren’t lawyers has been really refreshing. When we get together, we aren’t just talking about work or how busy we are.

What inspires you?

These days I’m inspired by all the young people marching in the streets, in front of police headquarters and in places of power demanding a shift in the status quo. Black Lives Matter Toronto inspires me every day and I’m so grateful for the work they do to make this city and province a better place for my unborn son to grow up.

When you’re off the clock, what are your indulgences?

I love a good dance party. My friends and I love to let loose after a long week and dance in the city. There are so many great parties trying to create safe and inclusive spaces for people of colour and I’m always a fan of supporting them.

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