I'm excited to profile leading lawyer Evelyn Ackah today. Evelyn and I are members of a wonderful monthly Zoom group chat (which started pre-COVID and pre-Zoom craziness!) with a couple of other lawyers who have launched their own practices. Evelyn always has wise advice, guidance, and encouragement to give to the group. She has a wealth of information, and I am happy she has shared some of that information in today's profile:
1. Tell me a little about your practice or business.
Ackah Business Immigration Law is a boutique immigration law firm based in Calgary, Alberta with offices in Vancouver and Toronto that serves clients from all over the world. Our team helps businesses and individuals’ cross borders seamlessly into Canada and the United States.
Corporate immigration is about people - and the businesses that hire them. We transform lives by creating immigration opportunities for people to live their dreams, expand their businesses and create a legacy for future generations.
We provide expertise in all areas of immigration law ranging from corporate immigration to personal and family immigration matters. We provide comprehensive immigration services to clients representing; corporations, institutions, not for profit organizations, and, to individual clients. As immigration advisors, we provide assistance with timely and strategic legal advice relating to the constantly changing immigration laws and regulations in Canada and the United States.
As an immigrant from Ghana, I understand the immigrant process on a deep emotional level. I was 5 when I moved to Canada and met my Father for the first time (a very common immigration experience). I want to help others achieve their dreams of a new life in a new country. I’m proud to say at Ackah Law we practice Happy Law! Our team works so hard for our clients because success means changing someone’s life forever.
We assist corporations and individuals to obtain Work Permits, Study Permits, Visitor Visas, Permanent Residence, and Citizenship. We also handle cross-border issues related to inadmissibility or criminality, among a long list of immigration-related issues. Ackah Law also assists corporations from around the world who want to establish branch or subsidiary operations in Canada or to nearshore in Canada to expand their businesses and create jobs in Canada.
2. Why did you go to law school?
I have always talked a lot and had my own opinions. I grew up discussing and debating with my family at the dinner table every night. When I was out doing the same, people would always say to me, you should be a lawyer, you’re always discussing current events or politics or arguing a position. Growing up in Vancouver, I didn’t know any lawyers in the Black community at that time and I couldn’t visualize myself as a lawyer or think that it was a realistic goal. As I started undergrad at Simon Fraser University, I found myself drawn to Political Science which I majored in. I had always been actively involved in the African community and with Feminism and Social Activism and believed in the importance of giving back to my community. In university, I started meeting more lawyers and judges in my community and even one of the first Black judges in Canada who became a mentor to me, and he encouraged me to look into law as a career. I felt that law would give me the added credibility to advocate for the causes that were closest to my heart. I took a gap year off after my undergrad to work two jobs and save for law school and write the LSAT, and I was accepted to law school and the journey began!
I attended the University of British Columbia in 1994 and was one of 4 Black people in my entire faculty of 550 students. It wasn’t easy, but I loved the learning, the stimulation and the competition. It changed my life. I was the first in my immediate family to attend university and the first lawyer in the family. I have a younger sister who is also a lawyer. I always say that the sacrifices my parents made as immigrants to Canada paid off as they created the opportunities for their children that they never had and from a very early age, we knew that was our focus: to make them proud and to become independent women who contribute to their community.
3. How did you get to where you are today? Design? Chance? Both?
My journey has been so interesting over the past 20 plus years. After finishing law school, I moved to Toronto as I had secured articles at a mid-size Bay Street law firm. I was called to the Ontario bar in 1999. I practiced corporate/commercial law for a couple of years at a boutique law firm and didn’t enjoy it that much. I had an opportunity to move to a global accounting firm that was launching a multi-disciplinary practice and I joined the corporate immigration law group where I began my immigration career. After six years, I joined a global law firm as a senior associate and helped grow the corporate immigration practice. After that, I was recruited to another international law firm as a partner and became the National Head of the Immigration Law Group. I loved working with corporate clients and helping them achieve their business goals using an international workforce, but I didn’t love the 18-hour days, 7 days per week.
I moved to Calgary with that same firm in 2008 to be closer to my family based in Vancouver. In 2010, I decided it was time to make some changes, both personally and professionally. I launched Ackah Business Immigration Law to focus on what I do best and to do it my way and on my own terms. I started a law firm that allowed me to bring all of myself to the office every day and that allows others to be themselves as well.
4. What is your most significant achievement? What are you proud of?
Personally, I am most proud that at the same time that I was birthing my firm, I was becoming an adoptive single parent to two babies – my twibilings. Part of the reason that I was ready to leave big law was that I knew I wanted to be a mother and I was going to do it on my own – needless to say, flexibility was going to be incredibly important to me. The firm opened in December 2010 and my babies arrived in July 2011 – my life changed and all for the better. They are now 9 years old – a boy and a girl and our adoption journey is quite unique and beautiful. I am so grateful to be their parent and to have the love and support of my family and friends to help me raise them into these amazing little people. Today, together with my fiancé Howard, we live and work in Calgary and are proud to be part of such a vibrant community.
Professionally, I’m very proud that Ackah Business Immigration Law will celebrate our 10th anniversary in December of this year. It has been a lot of hard work and personal and professional development to not just be a great lawyer, but to become a leader and an entrepreneur. We survived the 2017 economic downturn in Alberta, and we continue to grow the firm even through the COVID pandemic. We helped our clients to #PivotAndThrive through the COVID crisis, just as Ackah Law has had to pivot and thrive to grow for the past 10 years. Being successful in business means never standing still, and not looking backwards. I’m continuously working with my team for new ways to achieve success and grow our business and to set new goals towards excellence.
5. What are some key challenges, and more importantly, opportunities for women in law?
I believe women in law don’t need to compete with each other. We need to build the type of support system that has long existed for male lawyers. I try to mentor and hire immigrant female lawyers and articling students so that I can give them that first opportunity to help them launch in Canada. It’s not easy starting over when you move to a new country, but I’m proud that I’ve helped others in this way.
Our society isn’t colour-blind - and it shouldn’t be. Children need to be proud of their heritage and celebrate their differences. Growing up in Canada as an immigrant gave me a strong foundation to pursue my career goals – even when there were few role models that looked like me. As a Black woman in law, I’ve always stood out and people always remembered me because I am so visible. Rather than shrinking from that high visibility, I decided to turn it into a positive. I always wear bright coloured suits and bold accessories and try hard not to look like a traditional navy-wearing lawyer and it works for me. I feel confident and am able to focus on building relationships and being approachable and never worry that I don't look like I fit in. As a lawyer, I’m selling my skills and services to my clients. I don’t only represent myself, I represent my law firm. It’s critical that I project success and confidence and knowledge so that Ackah Law’s clients know I will use my skills and experience to help them achieve their goals. At Ackah Law, we don’t sell dreams, we sell success.
From my personal experience, I know that women have the flexibility and management skills to maintain a healthy work / life balance while building a business. Not everyone wants to be a business owner or entrepreneur - but for women who do, law offers many opportunities and career paths.
Men seem to have no problem delegating, while women lawyers often think they have to “do it all.” Learning to outsource work, to hire a team, and to delegate tasks allows you to be a #HappyLawyer. Law is still a very traditional field - but there are new, innovative ways of practicing law and running a law firm that are ideal for female legalpreneurs that allow for flexibility and creativity.
This need to delegate also applies to your home life. No matter how equal your partnerships are at home, I still see women lawyers carrying the domestic load. I think women need to also get comfortable with asking for help whether it be a nanny, babysitter, cleaning lady, personal chef or extended family help. They need to know that by outsourcing, they create more space to enjoy their family and loved ones and do their hobbies.
6. What advice would you give a woman starting her legal career?
In business - as in life - nothing is more important than relationships. Relationships are built on integrity and trust. Our clients trust Ackah Law to give them our best possible legal advice, and in return they stay with us and refer their contacts to us. I can’t do it all - my relationship with the Ackah Law team means that I trust my team members to give our clients the best possible results for their situation. We practice happy law - our team takes pride in changing the lives of individuals for the better.
Networking is vital. Find a number of different mentors and sponsors in your career – not just one. Create a personal board of advisors that you can stay in regular touch with and call on. Once you benefit from your mentors, it’s important to pay it forward and mentor a young lawyer or law student yourself.
I really believe in the power of setting goals – big or small to move you forward in life. Spending time creating daily, weekly, monthly and annual goals for all aspects of your life are vital to keeping you on track and pushing you forward. I’ve started doing Vision Boards as well to help me see where I want to be in 3 to 5 years and I really see how it works to keep you focused and making decisions that are in alignment.
Giving back makes the world a better place for all of us. I am a member of International Women’s Forum and I am a board member of Operation Eyesight and Enterprise 4 Change. I participate in a number of charitable activities and events throughout the year that benefit the community and I also do pro bono work on a regular basis for the arts communities in Alberta.
Lastly, I think young women lawyers need to focus on taking care of themselves – their physical, mental and emotional health. Law can be a grind sometimes, so it’s very important to take care of your body - exercise, meditate, eat well, sleep well and find things to do that you love that are completely removed from law. Always listen to your heart and your gut and don’t let fear stop you from reaching your goals!
Thank you for participating in this series Evelyn!
I started this blog series because I was tired of hearing about women leaving law and wanted to hear about women leading in law. 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!
ICYMI - previous posts profiled the following amazing lawyers: Carrisa Tanzola, Sarah Leamon, Robin Parker, Lorin MacDonald, Karen Yamamoto, Victoria Crewe-Nelson, Lynne Vicars, Kemi Oduwole, Anne-Marie McElroy, Jennifer Gold, Jordana Goldlist, Megan Keenberg, Yadesha Satheaswaran, France Mahon, Sarah Molyneaux, Richa Sandill, Vivene Salmon, Kim Whaley, Alisia Grenville, Frances Wood, Maggie Wente, Anita Szigeti, Neha Chugh, Christy Allen & Nancy Houle, Suzie Seo, Kim Gale, Alexi Wood, Melissa McBain, Erin Best, Gillian Hnatiw, Melanie Sharman Rowand, Meg Chinelo Egbunonu, Lisa Jean Helps, Nathalie Godbout Q.C., Laurie Livingstone, Renatta Austin, Janis Criger, May Cheng, Nicole Chrolavicius, Charlene Theodore, Dyanoosh Youssefi, 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.
Erin C. Cowling is a freelance litigator, researcher & writer at Cowling Legal Freelance and President and Founder of FLEX LEGAL, a network of freelance lawyers.