I first met our next lawyer in this series, Dyanoosh Youssefi, in 2014 when she was running for the position of City Councillor for Ward 16 (soon to be Ward 14). What I liked (and like) about Dyanoosh is that she is a politician who seeks to improve the lives of all of Toronto's citizens (not just the ones who may vote for her). While Dyanoosh lost the 2014 election, I am happy that she has decided to run again (election day: October 22, 2018). We need more women in politics and a more diverse and inclusive city council. Dyanoosh would be a great addition. Read on to learn more about Dyanoosh's professional roles (lawyer, writer, politician, non-profit founder....) and how she fit a "traditional" life into her "untraditional" career path:
1. Tell me a little about your practice or business:
I do a lot of different things and integrate social justice issues into everything that I do. I am a non-profit leader, a legal studies professor, a writer, a social justice advocate, a life time volunteer, and a former criminal defence lawyer. Four years ago, I added politician to that list. My career path is untraditional, unpredictable, and risky, but I am compelled to take this path. Since a young age, I’ve had the desire -the need- to make the world a better place. My life and my career path have always been about the “how.”
When I was a criminal defence lawyer, I cherished the work- helping some of the most disenfranchised and marginalized people in society is an honourable job.
I am a writer and I love it- I believe that raising awareness is one of the most effective and honest methods of affecting change. My hope is that my occasional writing on criminal and social justice issues encourages greater public awareness, engagement, and ultimately, change.
I founded and run All IN, a non-profit that advocates for inclusive communities. Because we are a start up and it is one of the many things I do, All IN is run on a meager budget and exclusively through volunteerism.
I am also a (hopefully soon to be elected) politician. Politics is the culmination of my various volunteer, advocacy, and outreach efforts. It is, for me, the best way to build inclusive communities and to effect long-term change for all of our benefit. I ran for Toronto City Council in 2014 (came pretty close to being elected) and am running again now.
2. Why did you go to law school?
Cliché but true: to make the world a better place. Before- and evening during- law school, I didn’t have a particular job in in mind that would allow me achieve my goals, but I knew that law school could give me some of the skills as well as the credibility I needed to get close.
3. How did you get to where you are today? Design? Chance? Both?
A lot of idealism, plenty of purpose, perseverance, and work, work, work. The alternative of taking a more traditional route (which would allow for more financial stability as well as a more accepted measure of “success”) was just not an option for me.
In 1983, when I was 12, my family escaped from Iran and emigrated to Canada via Spain. We came with very little, and my parents worked very hard. I did not have all the material things that my peers had, but we certainly had what we needed.
I have not had family or other connections that lead me to law or to politics. The paths I’ve taken are completely untraditional, and often puzzling, to my family. At the same time, compared to other young feminist social justice-oriented lawyers I know, my choices were unusual. None of them took off the amount of time I did to raise their children. One even told me it was a terrible mistake. I often felt out of place with my other feminist colleagues, because I took off years from my practice and a fully engaged public life to raise my kids. That decision has meant that I constantly have to reinvent myself as I enter new fields that can accommodate my schedule and fulfill my professional needs.
I believe that if you are both committed to having a “public” life and are traditional, in that you want to be home with your kids when they are little, you are in for a tough battle, both internally, and with a work force that cannot recognize or appreciate a “renaissance woman’s” resumé.
Fortunately, I have a supportive family who has helped me with my children. I had a partner who supported my dreams, though we certainly had our (gender-based) challenges in dealing with family and careers. And I am tremendously fortunate to have had amazing colleagues who have given me support and mentorship. Without their guidance and friendship, everything would undoubtedly have been much more difficult.
In some ways, life would have been easier if I had gone to Bay Street. I may also have achieved a higher status and had greater recognition if I stuck to one career path all these years. But Bay Street was never the reason I went to law school. And recognition can come at any stage in life.
In any event, I always say that women live longer so that we have more time to do all the things we want to do, and to make up for the time that many of us spend out of public life in order to raise a family!
4. What is your most significant achievement? What are you proud of?
Maybe it’s still on its way? At least I hope that it is.
I am proud of many things. I am proud of having genuinely made a difference in my clients’ lives, when I practiced as a criminal defence lawyer. I am proud of having started All IN, a non-profit that advocates for inclusive neighbourhoods, and brings together the interconnected issues of housing, employment, poverty, policing, criminal justice, and equity and fairness. I am proud of having run for public office in 2014, and now again, in 2018.
I also feel pride in persevering, continuing to care, and staying committed to making the world a better place, despite the internal and external challenges that always persist.
5. What are some key challenges, and more importantly, opportunities for women in law?
The challenges facing women reflect those that face society and many other previously male-dominated professions. Women still are not often heard or taken as seriously in the boardroom (I have faced this in various settings.) Women of colour often face additional obstacles, of course. And women who want to raise families still carry a greater burden and face more challenges than their male counterparts. Of course, things are changing, particularly as more women assert themselves and more men want to have a more meaningful role in their families and an equal partnership.
What I see though is more entrepreneurship, where women (like Flex Legal’s founder), design and define their own work outside the traditional parameters of law. This is certainly an area where there are more opportunities for all the exceptional and creative women in law. My hope is to see more of this innovative entrepreneurship in social justice fields as well.
6. What advice would you give a woman starting her legal career?
Look deep within your heart. What is the thing that you wanted to do as a child? What is the thing that still makes you cry? What is the thing that tugs at your heart? Pursue THAT.
Thank you Dyanoosh for your comments and for sharing your personal story and experiences with us.
ICYMI: Previous posts profiled Shannon Salter, Bindu Cudjoe, Elliot Spears, Jessica Prince, Anu K. Sandhu, Claire Hatcher, Esi Codjoe, Kate Dewhirst, Jennifer Taylor, Rebecca Durcan, Atrisha Lewis, Vandana Sood, Kathryn Manning, Kim Hawkins, Kyla Lee, and Eva Chan. Sign up to have these profiles sent directly to your email address and stay tuned for the next post soon!
The "Women Leading in Law" series focuses on good news stories and highlights amazing women succeeding in the legal profession. Each post includes the profiled lawyer's answers to six questions. Prepare to be inspired! The series will continue until December 2018.
Erin C. Cowling is a freelance litigator, researcher & writer at Cowling Legal Freelance and President and Founder of Flex Legal Network Inc., a network of freelance lawyers.