You’re in for a value-packed episode of the Wealthy Woman Lawyer Podcast today as we sit down with special guest Evelyn Ackah, founder and CEO of Ackah Business Immigration Law, with offices in Calgary, Vancouver, and Toronto. Evelyn’s firm focuses exclusively on immigration law, specifically helping clients seamlessly cross borders for personal and business reasons.
“Our firm’s focus is to be a firm that helps empower people to pursue their dreams and passions by providing freedom of movement and opportunity,” says Evelyn.
We chat with Evelyn about how she planned and implemented her firm’s growth, as well as…
- The steps the firm took to scale
- Balancing being a single mom and a CEO
- How getting clear on your mission and your brand is critical to achieving your growth goals
- The double-edged sword that is social media— and why you need to take the plunge anyway
- And more
Mentioned in this episode:
Davina Frederick: Hello, and welcome to the Wealthy Woman Lawyer Podcast. Our mission is to provide thought-provoking, powerful, and practical information to help you in creating your own sustainable wealth-generating law firm without overwork or overwhelm, so you can live your best life.
I’m your host, Davina Fredrick, and I’m here today with Evelyn Ackah, founder and CEO of Ackah Business Immigration Law. Ackah Business Immigration Law, with offices in Calgary, Vancouver, and Toronto, Canada, exclusively practices immigration law, helping its clients cross borders seamlessly and smoothing the way for business and personal immigration travel.
Welcome, Evelyn. We’re so pleased to have you here on the Wealthy Woman Lawyer Podcast. I’ve been looking forward to this.
Evelyn Ackah: Thank you so much, Davina. I’m really excited, and I’m really honored to be included in your wonderful group of people that you’ve interviewed today. I’ve really enjoyed listening to your podcast.
Davina: Oh, great. Great. Yeah, I was just saying to you earlier that I feel so fortunate because I get to do this work. I get to interview all kinds of interesting people. And I’m excited about our conversation today. Because, boy, you’ve done a lot of things, and I really want to dig in and talk about…
I think that other women lawyers listening to this are really going to benefit from this conversation today. So why don’t we just start out with you just telling us about your firm and how you serve your clients in your firm. Give us an idea of kind of how big your firm is, how many employees you have. I know you’ve got three offices. So just tell us a little bit more about the firm.
Evelyn: Absolutely. Well, Ackah Business Immigration Law started almost ten years ago. 2020 is our tenth year, so we’ll be rolling out a lot of new and interesting marketing around making it and thriving in ten years. And really our firm focus is to be a firm that helps empower people to pursue their dreams and passions by providing freedom of movement and opportunity.
And so I used to be, you know, a partner at a big global law firm. And for me, it was time to make a change. In 2010, it was December 1, I launched Ackah Business Immigration Law. I wanted to practice law differently. I was going to be adopting twins on my own as a single parent, and I knew things had to change. And so currently at Ackah Law, we have a staff of eight to ten people, depending who’s in the office. We do have some virtual employees as well.
And we are all focused on Canadian and NAFTA, US immigration law, from coast to coast to coast. And our office, our main office is in Calgary, Alberta, near Banff and Lake Louise in Alberta, and the other two offices are virtual offices.
Since I’m originally from Vancouver… I’m going there this afternoon, actually. So when I’m in Vancouver, I have an office there to meet clients. And when I’m in Toronto, where I also practiced for twelve years on Bay Street, I see clients there as well.
Davina: Wow. Wow. So there’s a lot of questions I have today, and I want to start out… I’m excited that you have a, that you’re celebrating your ten year anniversary. So Happy Anniversary.
Evelyn: Thank you! We survived! And you know what, we are thriving. Last year was our best year ever. And you know, I think with some of the affiliations and even listening to your wonderful podcast and seeing some of the material that’s out there with some incredible women lawyers and women business people, I’ve really been able to learn, you know, a lot, and I continue to always be looking to learn and improve and change and develop. And that’s been the real focus for me in the last few years.
Davina: Yeah, yeah. You know, with three offices and eight to ten employees, plus using some virtual resources, that is a really impressive law firm at the ten-year mark, because oftentimes, I find with women-owned law firms that a lot of women-owned law firms really struggled for that kind of growth, you know, even after seven, eight, nine, ten years, they struggled to get that kind of growth.
And my own personal theory on it is it’s kind of that high achieving women syndrome, where we just feel like we can do everything, you know, and we don’t reach out for help to get other people to build the team to help us do it. What was kind of that… Did you start out with your firm with that vision in mind, or did it sort of grow organically? Or what happened?
Evelyn: Yeah, so interesting. Well, I mean, I think one of the main differences with Canadian lawyers, you know, in Canada, we’re lawyers. We don’t call ourselves attorneys, and same thing, but in Canada, when you finish law school, you have to spend a year working at a law firm articling.
So it’s like a mandatory year of training, we don’t just open our door once you pass the bar and start practicing law. So I did that, I left Vancouver, British Columbia when I finished law school at UBC, and I moved to Toronto, and I was at a big firm articling. And again, it’s very much the experience of working with five hundred lawyers and then it became a global law firm.
And then it was just massive. And I just kind of kept working my way up, I made partner, and I think at some point in that I started thinking like, there’s gotta be more than working twenty hours a day, and you know, not really enjoying my life fully the way I wanted to and looking for freedom that I wasn’t getting that I thought the more money I made, the higher profile I got, the more senior my role became, I’d have the freedom.
And I would look around late at night working and see the same partners were working just as hard as the junior lawyers, and I thought something has to change. So when I left, I left thinking that one, I’m going to be a single parent by choice. And I need to have time to actually be a parent.
And two, I was feeling limited by some of the inflexibility of big firms, like, it’s like moving a big ship, right? Everything takes longer to try to be innovative and utilize different technology and try different fee structures and all of those things: flat fee arrangement, subscription arrangements, big firms don’t always do well with that. They’re still based on that “let’s bill by the hour,” no matter how expensive your hourly rate was. I think I was at $600 or $700 an hour.
Davina: Wow, that’s crazy.
Evelyn: And it was just kind of like, I felt I needed to make a change. And so what I was really fortunate in is by the time I left, you know, now it was, I started in 2010. I had been a lawyer for… I’d been a lawyer for almost eighteen years? Or am I right? Let me think. I became a lawyer in 1999. So no, I had been a lawyer for about, I’m so bad with math, I can’t even figure it out.
But um, for quite a while, maybe fifteen years, and at the end of it all, and so for me it was, I basically just took my practice with me. So it was like, I have my practice. And because clients make the decision where they want to go, even if they were large corporate clients, global multinational, when it comes to immigration, it’s quite personal, even with corporate immigration, which is what I was doing almost exclusively, so I basically took my practice with me.
So I’m very fortunate I did not start at Ground Zero. I kept going with what I had to grow what I have built.
Davina: And that’s wonderful. So a lot of your clients like to go with you, which is a perfect way to start. Because that was gonna be my next question is, did you have fear? I mean, here you are billing this hourly rate. So you probably had a really great salary and benefits and all that.
And so, here you are, kind of your impetus for doing this, leaving, is you’re thinking about, you know, “I really want to start a family.” And so did you have fear around the money piece? You know, “Can I replace this income that I’ve made, especially now that I’m going to be a single parent?”
Evelyn: Yeah, I definitely did. I mean, I think fear has driven a lot of the things I’ve done over the years, you know.
Davina: It can be a powerful motivator.
Evelyn: Yeah. And I think as lawyers, especially entrepreneur, women lawyers, we are fearless. And I think there’s a part of being entrepreneurs that you face the fear and you do it anyway, right? And it’s that resiliency, the confidence that comes over time knowing that I’ve done this before; I can do it again. You know what I mean?
And I think, yeah, I was scared. And I also was prepared. I had prepared a little bit. So I knew I had money set aside and I had financing set aside, all of that. I put things in the process that literally took three weeks. I literally started my firm, and everything just evolved.
I had the website, the branding. It was crazy because I knew if you’re leaving a firm, even if it’s on really good terms and your clients have made their decisions, like 95% of them came with me, at the end of the day, you want to be able to service them as quickly as possible. There can’t be a gap when all, you know, once all the boxes get transferred.
Davina: Yeah. They’re expecting the same level of service that they’ve been receiving, even though you’re a brand new firm.
Evelyn: Absolutely. So I needed an address. I hired a paralegal. It was just me and a paralegal in a big room full of boxes. And we started the practice. And so yeah, I think fear is common. Every day there’s a certain element of fear and taking risks. And I think being high achievers, a number of us women lawyers, we’re used to managing that stress, as long as there’s a strategy in place, right?
I knew I wasn’t going to be on the street, but I also knew I had to hustle and show them that as quickly as possible, things would be seamless and that we’d be doing things exactly the same, if not better. And that was the messaging.
Davina: Yeah. Did you have the vision for, you know, I’m going to have multiple offices and I’m going to have a big team to support me? Or were you just kind of going into thinking, you know, if I can make this work, you know, me and my paralegal, I’m golden, right, and it just sort of evolved naturally? What was your thought process? Did you start with that vision in mind?
Evelyn: I wish I could say I had a vision and a business plan all set out. But no, now I do of course, right. But all right, in that first year or two, it was very much “let’s just do the work.” Let’s just do the work. And then it got to be too much. And I actually did become an adoptive parent. And so I had to hire an associate that knew immediately what she was doing.
And interestingly enough, she lived in Vancouver. You know, again, it’s hard to find great people sometimes in your market, so that she was my first hire that wasn’t admin hire, wasn’t a paralegal, wasn’t a legal assistant, and she happened to be in Vancouver, but she was able to just get up and go, because we came from the same corporate firm backgrounds, and she was looking for change.
So that’s what allowed me to have a little bit of a mat leave and work part-time, slowly coming back to business, was I knew that at least for six to eight weeks, while I was finishing my adoption process, and I was, you know, out of the country, that somebody I knew and trusted who was just as skilled as me was managing my clients.
So it happened like that. It evolved, you know, very naturally, and then all of a sudden, I had an associate in Vancouver, and then we had an office for her and that, you know, that’s kind of how things evolved in my practice.
Davina: And so you adopted right about, you know, shortly after you got up and running, you chose to adopt as a single parent and yeah, how many children do you have? What are their ages?
Evelyn: I still have two, the same two. They’re twins, a boy and a girl. And they’re just delightful. Nate and Lauren. And I adopted them in July of 2011. So basically, within seven months of starting my firm.
Davina: Wow. You do nothing small, do you? You go all in. Go big or go home, right?
Evelyn: I know, well, life just happens. And you know, I couldn’t have children. And I just always thought, I’ve had this really big life. I’ve traveled the world. I’ve done so many things. But for me, I did all those things because I knew when they were done, I wanted to transition into being a mom.
And it’s interesting right now because I’m actually now getting married this year, in August. It’s funny how life evolves right after all of that, but I think it’s all about the journey. And so yeah, I had to manage running a business with staff and one virtual and then we had a second virtual, and all of a sudden I had a firm and I came back full time.
You know, after a few months off, well, you’re never really off when you own a business, you know what I mean? With the kids exclusively, and maybe checking emails and they’re napping and things like that, but, and I had a practice. And then it was, well, how am I going to keep all these people fully busy and utilized now that I’m back? And so that was how the firm evolved.
Davina: How old were they when you adopted? How old are they now?
Evelyn: Oh, they were four days old.
Davina: Oh my gosh.
Evelyn: It was crazy. They literally give you car seats and say, “Here you go,” at the adoption agency. “Here you go. We’ll see you in a few weeks when you finish the paperwork for the court. And then you can get passports and you’re done.” So it was my mom and my dad and my sister. We all ended up going on the trip. And it was such a wonderful time.
Davina: So you had to travel with newborns?
Evelyn: Yeah. And of course, I knew immigration, right? So to take care of all the immigration myself and come into Canada, they’re a month old, and start our lives. Yeah.
Davina: How exciting. And, I mean, my sister has twins, so I know how challenging that is when you bring home two babies. That’s a lot, you know, the whole time you’re growing up it was always you can’t ever get something for one, you always have to do for two.
Evelyn: Every business trip I go on, I come back, I pick up something at the airport or I’ll, you know, the hotel or whatever. It’s like, “One for you, one for you.” That’s how it was in my life.
Davina: I always said that with my sister. I have two sisters, one older, one younger, and my older sister and I don’t have children. And my youngest sister was well into her thirties when she had boys, and they’re the only grandchildren my parents have. And I always said the reason that she had two is because we needed more than one to soak up all that love that we had, you know, because if she’d had one, they’d have just been smothered by it.
Evelyn: Spoiled to death.
Davina: Yeah. I mean, they’re spoiled as it is. They’re wonderful, wonderful kids. They’re teenagers now, but we just, you know, they’re just the light of our lives.
Evelyn: Mine are the only grandchildren as well. So you can just imagine the support. They’re surrounded with love from real family, biological family, extended family, community, a family. And one thing, definitely as a single parent, you realize it takes a village.
It truly does. Obviously, I have a caregiver and live-in nanny from the beginning. That’s the only way my life works. But it’s everybody from the neighbors to the school to the friends and family. Everybody that you call on when you need them. And so we’re very lucky. Yeah, yeah.
Why Lawyers Should Learn Marketing
Davina: Yeah. That’s so wonderful. And you were able to do that and grow this, you know, wealth-generating business, right? Which is amazing. So share some of your secrets, you think, for your ability to do that and to be a mom to newborns and really be a CEO of a business. What do you think? I mean, did you have any sort of business background when you started doing this or not at all?
Evelyn: Not at all. I mean, like I was, you know, when you’re a small fish in a humongous pond of a big firm, you’re just another partner or another associate. You see how they run things. I knew a lot about business development. I had to actually work. I started my creative professional services accounting and law firm, that’s global.
And so one thing I loved about professional services is they were way ahead of lawyers when it came to entrepreneurship and development and management expertise and selling, you know, selling the professional services. I always felt like they were ahead of the curve. Good lawyers were always a little bit slower, generally, to catch up with that.
And so that really helped me. I was there for six years. I learned a lot. And when I left that accounting firm model, with the law firm attached, I moved to a, you know, a national law firm here in Canada that’s now global. And it was basically, I have no clients because you can’t really move clients from an accounting firm, but I know how to sell, I know how to market, I know how to develop.
And so that helped me a lot. And within a year, I’d grown a practice and was basically going to practice in the firm. And that means marketing to your partners, marketing to your departments across all the different offices, doing presentations, letting them know how you can help their clients, how you can make them look like superstars, how you can, you know, support them as their businesses are growing.
And so that was how I did it. But my view, honestly, is you have to be doing something you love, because the struggle is real, right? And if you don’t love it, it just comes across. People can sense that you’re just doing this for a paycheck, as opposed to you’re really invested in their success and their growth as an organization.
And even the individuals we help on the personal family sponsorship side of immigration, the same thing. We are so excited when their families arrive and they’re all reunited. We feel like we’re part of that journey. So no, I had no business experience.
I had to get good bookkeepers. I’ve gone through a few, you know, good accountants, have gone through a few in ten years. But I feel like as time goes on, I do see the value of knowing how to sell your services, how to distinguish yourself from other people. What makes us different, right?
Davina: I think that if you’ve got the marketing piece, that is a huge, huge piece because if you can get clients, get good clients, ideal clients, you know, clients who you’re really excited about working with and you’re really clear on your mission and your brand. If you’ve got that part down. That goes such a long way because you can then have the funds to be able to hire people to help with other aspects of the business that may not be in your wheelhouse.
Evelyn: Absolutely. Like finances are not… I am not that person. And I’ve always, you know, obviously, you hire an accountant, hire a bookkeeper. From day one, I was not ever trying to do payroll, it was done by someone else. Our bookkeeper I, you know, we outsource as much as we can to professionals who know what they’re doing.
And so when people call and say, “Well, why do I need an immigration lawyer? Can I just do this on my own?” And I say, “Would you do your own dental work? Would you do surgery on yourself? What’s at stake for you if you get it wrong?” You know, and when they think about it like that, you know, “What’s at stake for you if you can’t be reunited with your family, or you can’t cross the border to do this job for your employer? What’s at stake?”
And when you see it that way, I think they sometimes think, “Oh, yeah, you’re worth it.” And that’s what we want. We don’t want to be commodities. But I have to say, I mean, we were doing really well, had the same practice. We grew a little bit up and down a few, you know, we had about a seven, eight hundred thousand dollar practice.
But then the recession hit here in Alberta, which is, oil and gas was affected, the price of oil. You know, we’re basically like the Texas of Canada, in my province. And although we do work for clients all over the world, it somehow started to trickle down and hit us. And we went from our best year to our worst year.
We went down like 35% in 2016. And I was scared, I was scared because I even had to lay off one employee, which I’d never laid off anybody in my life. Because I’d always said, “If I hire you, I’m guaranteeing you employment. As long as we’re all happy, you’re happy, I’m happy.”
I would never lay anybody off, and I had to lay somebody off, and I did end up hiring her back a few months later, but that’s when my practice changed because I realized I kind of hit my max where it was like 650 to 800. I couldn’t seem to move out of that number. And I started realizing I needed more help. Because I was doing all those same things I had always been doing and adding a few little tweaks here and there, but I wasn’t changing how I practiced.
And in that year, I joined a business group of lawyers. That has really helped me because, essentially, you sit down, there’s a group of maybe three hundred of us, we meet every quarter, but to hear that everybody else who owns a small law firm was having the same types of issues with staff, keeping and finding, identifying and promoting good employees and motivating them.
And then training good people, losing them to big firms. That’s what happens in small firms sometimes, and it’s painful, right? We invest all that time, and then they get wooed away by maybe more money or whatever it is, and the procedure of being at a big firm and where, which is where I came from.
So that’s always challenging, but I also started marketing differently. And I hired… I realized I had to get online, more than just a great website, more than just the occasional video or webinar, I had to be active on social media. So I hired a wonderful blogger. And we’ve been working together now for like three years.
I definitely attribute a lot of my growth and my social media presence to her. She forces me… She does two or three blogs every week. She forces me to do videos every week. I do a podcast now, we have a podcast called Ask Canada Immigration Lawyer, Evelyn Ackah. And we do it every month. And she tried to get me to do more.
But I think it started me learning and changing how I practice, recognizing how people are looking for lawyers. They’re not necessarily just saying, “Hey, do you know a good immigration lawyer?” That’s how it used to be. Now they go on, and they search themselves.
Corporations find me on Google, which I find still kind of baffling, when they’re looking for a new outsource, you know, immigration lawyer to help them, not just individuals. And so by targeting online, social media, website, the presence writing, you know, now I’m working on a book for later this year as well. It’s all helped us, and we’ve exceeded 1.3 million last year.
Davina: Wow. That’s so…
Evelyn: I’m so grateful. But it’s been a journey and, you know, you’re constantly trying to improve and using technology as well.
Social Media–A Double-Edged Sword
Davina: Right? And I think you really hit the nail on the head with the social media presence. And I, you know, it’s a double-edged sword for some people, right? Because, you know, it requires effort to do it, but it’s also such a, first of all, it’s the way that people are interacting with information these days, right?
Because, like we used to be when, when the internet first became a thing, you know, we go to news sites and read news sites and stuff like that. Now, the news we get is coming through our social feeds, the information we get is coming through our social feeds. Or, you know, podcasts or videos or things like that.
We’re consuming in a different way. And so we have to be there, right, be in that marketplace. And I think that it’s a double-edged sword for some attorneys because they look at all the effort, but think about it this way. It’s such an affordable way to put yourself out there. I mean, you know, you don’t have to worry about pitching the only newspaper in town to get a story in the paper.
You don’t have to worry about paying for expensive billboards, or even TV spots. I mean, if you want, but it’s… Social media just gives such a nice organic way to put our own version of the story out there and to control the narrative and put our own perspective out there. It can really make a difference in your business.
And I don’t see enough women law firm owners putting content out there. A lot of it comes from kind of this fear of being visible and fear of having a point of view, or maybe even putting something out there and having other attorneys challenge what you put out there.
Evelyn: Yeah, I know, lawyers are so critical of ourselves, right? We’re so critical of lawyers. And I think one thing, too, is, you know, and I always think everybody should have a business coach of some sort.
So yes, I know you offer that support as well. I think everybody needs at least to have somebody that they work with on the business side that helps them because it’s easy to get very myopic, and you don’t see the bigger picture sometimes because you’re just hustling, you’re just trying to get through each day.
And when you have that external, you know, coach or colleague or somebody who can direct you and challenge you and also kind of ask you questions. “Where are you? Why are you doing this? Is this working for you? What’s your ROI? Give me your numbers. You know, what’s your dream? How do you turn that into reality?” I think we need that.
And I think a lot of businesswomen, you know, maybe don’t think it’s a worthwhile investment. It has been the difference for me in growing. I think I’d still be in the same place with happy existing clients, for sure. Because I take care of them and we build relationships. That’s what it’s all about.
You know, that’s why I think I love immigration is it’s personal, whether there’s a CEO of a multinational, I know how much you make, I know what you look like, I know your family dynamic in the structure and the children and the stress of moving.
I know you, and we build that rapport, but when, you know, when you’re doing it on your own, to try to attract new people, you need a different perspective. So I think everybody every couple years should maybe, you know, find someone new to bring something new to their career and to their practice that they can add and grow with. Otherwise, you don’t change. And you kind of stay stale. Right?
Davina: Yeah, I agree with you. I mean, I’ve had my own business advisors through the years, and I’ve had different ones in different periods of time, depending on where I am in my journey, my growth, and I’ve learned something of tremendous value from each one. Even the one that at the time I didn’t love, right?
As you grow and you reflect, you start looking back and going, “Oh, okay, now I get what was going on there, and I get what they were trying to share.” Or you might have, well, I have contrast, you know, I know what I don’t want now. But business advisors, we would tell people not to do their own legal work.
We tell people not to do their own accounting. You know, it’s like we have advisors for all kinds of aspects. Why wouldn’t you have a business coach, you know, professionals hire professionals. That’s the difference between people who have million-dollar law practices, million-dollar revenue-generating law practices, and ones that can’t get over the six-figure mark. It’s reaching out, hiring professionals to help you, you know.
Evelyn: Totally, totally. It’s a mindset thing. One thing I’ve really learned in the last maybe three years, as I said, we’ve really grown, is about mindset, you know, it’s not therapy, because that’s another thing, and that’s all good. But for me, it’s the idea that what you want to grow, what you want to focus on, expands.
And so the idea that you want to, you want to really check your mindset, do that personal work, do that fear work, whatever it is that is holding you back, you know, and it’s a concept. It’s not like you do it once and you’re done.
But I do think being able to challenge yourself when you’re getting down on yourself because you’ve had a bad month or whatever, and you just kind of flip that channel and just say, “Look what I’ve done. Of course next month is going to be super. These are the steps I’m taking.”
And it’s about ability to be resilient and bounce back and not let disappointments or even failures or things you’ve tried that didn’t work stop you, you keep going. And I think that’s something that we need to really give ourselves credit for. Women are very resilient. And we just need to keep moving forward.
Davina: And you know, when you said that, not letting failure stop you, you know, you’re not really a legitimate entrepreneur and business owner unless you’ve had some failures in there. Because that’s part of the journey. And the ones who are ultimately successful are the ones who can take those experiences and not let it get to you, not transform that thought into, “I’m a failure.”
You know what I mean? Just because something happened that failed in my business or didn’t go the way I wanted it to go, didn’t work at all or whatever, doesn’t mean that I’m a loser. It’s just the learning and the journey. It was what I needed to learn at that time.
Evelyn: Oh, yeah. Now, every day, I’m learning something new. You know, and I think really smart business owners are always reading and always listening to podcasts and all the people who you surround yourself with also affects your mindset and affects your success, right?
We need to make sure we’re surrounding ourselves with people who have that same growth mentality, development, inner work, personal work, but also the reality of, “What are your numbers? How are you doing?” So whether it’s like one of those tech groups or EO or YP or a personal business coach or whatever you’re working with.
It’s the idea that who you surround yourself with also is a reflection of you. And I think that helps you to just keep on moving. You can’t stop. You can take a pause, go on vacation, rest, you know, recharge, have a big glass of wine, whatever you need, but then, you know, you need to know the next day you’re back at it. And I think that’s really important.
Combating Perfectionism–How to Be Fearless
Davina: Yeah. What I love about your story is that I think it will be an inspiration to a lot of people is that you started your firm and then shortly started your family and did both, and not just both, but both in a way that’s created a lot more for you. So you didn’t settle for, “I’m just going to recreate a job for myself.”
You said, “I’m going to create a business that may have a certain amount of revenue that employs a certain amount of people.” And when you got stuck, you said, “Well, maybe I need to look out here and find people.”
You found the lawyers you know that are similarly situated or maybe a step above where you are and said, you know, “What can I learn?” and you were open to that. Yes, I think so often, so many times, people, sort of women attorneys, law firm owners, will stop themselves and say, “I can only do this at this point in my life. I can’t do that and have this expectation as well, that I’m going to be able to count the time and energy to create a big business.”
Evelyn: Right? No, I think it’s really important for women not to settle, you know. I mean, I think we all see it. Sometimes it’s different friends or colleagues, people you meet, and, “Oh, I’ll settle for this.” And I guess that’s the difference between being an entrepreneur and being a lawyer, right?
And it’s not to say that different times, I mean, I’ve been a lawyer at a firm, and I did really well, and I was really happy, and I learned everything I know, good and bad, right? And so, you know, and I learned what I wanted out of life, and it helped me get really clear.
So I don’t think there’s ever anything bad with not owning, not running the show, but I think at some point, some of us get to the place where, you know, you think you can do it better. And I don’t want to live with regret or resentment about, “Oh, I should have done this, I should have done that.”
It’s just like, for me, my attitude is “What have I got to lose?” I have a practice, no matter what, I have knowledge in my head. And that’s the thing with professionals. We have the knowledge, it’s in our head. We’re a professional services firm. And I knew worst case, I could always get another job somewhere that wasn’t, you know, that there was no fear and really was like, “What do I have to lose?”
If it’s a failure, if it doesn’t work, then I can always go back to practicing law somewhere else. But at the same time, I knew that I was motivated, but I wanted some flexibility. You know, like, I control my schedule. I know when I need a vacation. It’s done. I try to take breaks every couple months, even if it’s just four or five days or a week because, as a single parent, in order to parent well, I knew early on I needed to find the balance.
I could not keep both and be good apples. And so I started going to yoga retreats, having meditation retreats, finding places where I could just go and clear my head and come back rested and able to really engage with work and with kids. It’s never been a perfect balance. Believe me, I don’t believe in perfection.
And I think that women sometimes think they have to be perfect and everything has to be perfect before they launch it. I have thrown so many videos on social media and even so many articles and blogs that I look back I’m like, “Oh my God.” But you know what? I don’t regret them because I think getting it out there is more important sometimes than getting it perfect.
Davina: Published is better than perfect any day.
Davina: Nobody is going to judge us as harshly as we judge ourselves.
Davina: I don’t love the way that I look on video, but I put videos out there. Other people are not sitting there, and maybe they are, I don’t know, but they’re focused on what you’re saying and how you’re saying it and what you’re sharing with them, right?
Evelyn: Yeah, yeah. I love it when people come in the office or they call and say, “You know what? I’ve watched your videos.” I’m like, I always say, “Oh, no.” They’re like, “Oh, no, they’re great. And you know, I really feel like I know you, I’m talking on the phone with you, and I’m in Spain, or I’m in the UK, but I feel like I know who you are.”
And those are the things that matter because they want to work with somebody that they feel like they can build a rapport with.
Davina: They trust you before they ever meet you in person. They already trust you.
Evelyn: That’s it, and that’s how I feel about you when I’ve been watching your videos. I’m like, “Oh, I love her hair. Look how energetic she is.” You know, and the message, but it’s like, you know, that’s what it does for you.
So, you know when I have to say like, I’m an immigrant myself in Canada here, I was born in Ghana in West Africa. We moved to Canada when I was five. So for me, immigration is personal. And it’s only been the last couple years where I’ve started to see why am I not doing corporate commercial, which is what I used to be, a corporate commercial lawyer. I hated it.
But I found an area where I somehow feel it resonates for me. And I really believe it’s the journey of going through my own immigration experience starting over with my family, having my sister born in Canada and me being born in Africa. And just the struggles of having no extended family when you first arrive.
And those are things that I get, and even if it’s an executive, you understand the stress of it. And it’s personal. And I think that if I can reflect that to people that this is personal, this is not just, you’re not a file to me, you’re a person going through a transition, and it’s exciting and the opportunity is there, but I’m helping you build a legacy.
Your children’s children are going to be Canadian immigrants or American citizens and, you know, it’s just a wonderful privilege. And if they can understand that I relate to them on that level, then I think we’re already bonded. We’re already bonded, and they’re already giving me some of their trust. And the rest is about performance. And meeting that expectation of trust.
Immigration Law: Why Canada Is Different From America
Davina: Right. I love your… You’ve got some publications out there that people can access. And I already printed and already downloaded “Moving to Canada.”
Evelyn: Are you coming?
Davina: That would be absolutely awesome. I’m hanging on still. We’re gonna see how the next presidential election goes.
Evelyn: I know. You never know.
Davina: And you tapped into something with that because you said, you know, there are a lot of… What I thought was really fascinating was like, after the last presidential election, the website crashed, for how to move to Canada, right?
Davina: And you really tapped into something with that. What do you think are some of the differences, because you practice immigration in both the United States and Canada, correct?
Evelyn: I do. Yeah. Yeah.
Davina: So what do you think are some of the differences between the two? And you know, you don’t have to get too political with me if you don’t want to. But, I mean, I’m just curious, like, what do you think some of the differences are between the two countries with immigration?
Evelyn: You know what, I mean, I really feel… I’ve been asked this question quite a bit. I feel like Canada was formed differently. I really feel like the creation of Canada was very peaceful, you know, and I think that also affects how we are as a nation. We are just a different beast than the US. It fought its liberation. It’s a, you know, it has a history of really coming through to create itself.
And I think how it was formed is really pivotal as well and kind of how it’s developed. So, when people think about Canadian immigration, I mean, we are like, “Come to Canada. Our doors are open.” We are all about multiculturalism. You know, like we had the first Trudeau, you know, Pierre Trudeau, and it was like, my parents came to Canada in the early 70s. And it was, “Come to Canada. We need people.”
We’re so big as a country. But we’re so underpopulated because we’re in such a cold climate the further north you go. And I feel like the differences in America, I mean, I love my American friends and family, but I think politically, it just formed differently, and it became more like you’re a melting pot, you leave some of your culture behind.
In Canada, it’s, you come here, and you become a part of the mosaic here, you bring it with you. And I think that just created a different culture here. Even our immigration officials… It’s different, we don’t want people, of course, you know, being illegal or whatever, just the same. However, the way we approach that is very different.
And yeah, I don’t know how to describe it. But I just feel like the way we were started has impacted how we view immigration. And now, therefore, you know, I’m hearing from you, I’m hearing from a lot of Americans who want to just talk about it. They love their country. We love America. We’re our closest trading partner. We don’t want anything to affect those close ties.
But I can tell you the experience of Canadians nowadays trying to go into the US for business meetings or even to get a work permit or to live there is very different from the experience it used to be at the border. And in Canada, we don’t want Canada to change that way. We’re hoping that we can go back to some of that smooth and easy border that we’re used to, right, the trade we’re used to.
I’m so happy that NAFTA, the new NAFTA is now, you know, finalized because we have to recognize we’re basically the same on a lot of cultural levels. And so I’m hoping, you know, I’m hoping to see some changes or not. The fact I do both sides of the border and then I also work with a wonderful couple of colleagues in the US who do all the permanent green card stuff that we don’t do in our office, we outsource it to great professional women.
So I love working with women, as much as I can, all my vendors, almost all of them are women. And in our office, we only have two men, and everyone else is a female. And we’ve had years when there are only women.
So it’s not necessarily that I’ve gone out of my way to create a female-only firm. It just happened that way. And I’m grateful for it. And a lot of immigrant women have been my clients or my employees as well. So they’re also coming as immigrants. So the experience becomes very personal to them, too. And that’s wonderful.
Davina: Right. You have a really deep understanding of your clients that way. Um, I traveled to, it’s been many years, but I traveled to Toronto and then to Montreal. And Toronto, I just loved it. I loved the feeling because, like you said, it was so multicultural.
Davina: And it felt so welcoming.
Evelyn: Yeah. It’s, you know, I loved living there, twelve years I was there, and my family is like, “You’re never coming back west.” You know, like, I just loved it. And at the same time, it was time. I’d done everything I wanted there and everything I became as a lawyer, and my best friends are there, everything was there.
But I also felt like you have to choose where you want to be. And I knew as a single parent, I needed my family. They’re a one-hour flight away, you know, much, much closer than a four or five-hour flight. And that makes weekends possible, that makes, you know, just hop on a plane and come possible. And those are things that became more important to me. But um, yeah, it’s been a journey. I can’t believe it’s almost ten years in December this year.
Davina: It’s so exciting. Tell me some of the, before we wrap up here in a few minutes, tell me some of the challenges that you think you’ve had in your growth as far as, you know, like growing your team or systems or, you know, you said you do virtual?
So you tell me. What kinds of things do you think have been like the biggest sort of challenges for you? And then what do you think have been on the flip side of that? The things that have just been, you know, great surprises?
Evelyn: Yeah. Well, okay. So I think the challenge for me has been trying to balance life, you know, personal and professional. And it’s a constant, you know, battle and picking, carving time and exercising and traveling alone, trying to just recharge, trying to… Really working my life so that it looks the way I want it most of the time, obviously, not all the time.
I think for me, it was really realizing that I was doing everything and I wasn’t getting necessarily the results that I wanted. So that was when I, as I said, I’ve had different business coaches over my entire career. But in the last three years, really looking at the importance of developing myself as a leader.
Staff has been a challenge. I’m not in Toronto, where there’s a huge lawyer, you know, population of immigration lawyers. I’m not in Vancouver, where there’s a huge population of immigration lawyers, right. I’m in Alberta, which is less, it’s less diverse, it’s definitely improving, but it’s been different, and it’s been harder to find the skill set that I need.
And so that’s been my biggest challenge is actually recruiting. Because, you know, during the boom, whenever oil and gas was high and everybody was making tons of money, it was great. It was easier to attract people to Alberta. But now that we were having this, you know, OPEC and all these different challenges with oil and gas and the prices and companies are laying off people, it’s harder to attract. Because it’s like, why would I come there?
Evelyn: Yeah, it’s like housing might be cheaper, but it’s hard to find the expertise. So I’ve had to really look at how can I outsource what I need? Because essentially, throughout the ten years, I’ve had lawyers, I’ve trained articling students, I’ve had junior associates. I have been looking for a mid to senior-level associate for years.
Like it’s not something… And you want to develop them and train them and keep them. And as I said, sometimes you lose them to more money, bigger firms, more prestige. I don’t know. Those have been my struggle.
And in the last year, I’ve invested a lot of time and money in developing me as a leader, because I realized that, you know, yes, I’m a manager. Yes. I’m a supervisor. Yes. I’m a great lawyer. And I’m running a business. But the leadership piece around how you motivate staff and sharing the vision with them, sharing your business plan and where they’re going, where their future will be.
Those are the things I wasn’t doing as great a job at to show them “What’s in this for you, besides the monetary? What are you getting from being a part of this incredible team?” And so I’m working on that.
And I’ve been doing a lot of coursework and reading on my leadership development to help with recruitment and to help with retention. That’s been the biggest challenge I think. And when I meet with all the other lawyers, I don’t feel so bad, because I realized, okay, we’re all living the dream, you know, this is very common, you know.
Empower Your Employees Through Unique Leadership
Davina: And it’s so funny that you said that because I’m actually teaching, all of my private clients are gathering for our Wealthy Woman Lawyer Workshop on March 30, and the topic I’m teaching, I have a guest speaker coming to talk about team and things like that, team building and, you know, hiring processes things.
But I’m actually teaching leadership, leadership for women law firm owners. So it’s funny that you mentioned this because it’s so on topic right now. And it’s the thing. I’ve been doing this work now for about seven years. And it’s something that I really have noticed.
That is where the struggle is, particularly as we start getting closer or wanting to get to that million-dollar mark or get over that mark. We have to change who we are, we have to learn some new skills because you’re used to doing and creating and managing all that. But leadership is an entirely different skill set. And we just think it’s gonna come naturally, right?
Evelyn: And you know, I always thought I was a leader, but there’s a difference between being a leader out there doing your thing and leading in your business, right? That’s the difference.
Davina: Right. Absolutely. Is there a book you’re reading right now on leadership?
Evelyn: I’m always reading a book. Right now I’m reading again, John Maxwell, The 21 Irrefutable Laws of Leadership. And that’s a really good one. I’ve got a bunch of books going all the time. And it’s always around, you know. Even like Find Your Why, that book about why we do what we do, because if you know it, then you can share that vision.
We’ve been doing some workshops internally in the firm with our HR consultant on helping staff develop their goals and their values, which is their core values. So making sure that their values align with my values and the firm’s values and the goal. That was just a really… It’s an investment, but I feel like it’s a necessary investment because if you don’t invest in them, they’re not going to invest in you, right?
And so yeah, that’s been a big, that’s been a big eye-opener. That’s been my biggest challenge. I mean, I would say my biggest success has been that I’m still here, that I’ve, you know, I’ve been, I’ve employed a number of people in almost ten years. I’ve had, you know, growth and stability, and we’re expanding, this will be a big year of expansion. And that, you know, I’ve been able to stay independent and kind of choose the life I want on my terms.
The one thing I felt when I left the big firm was sometimes when you’re in a bigger organization, especially one that was very, very Caucasian, very white, you know, there were not a lot of people, especially in Canada, that were at the level that I was at, but I was like, I’m determined to get to partner no matter what, and you put in all that time, and you get there, and then you start thinking, is this all there is?
Evelyn: I’m here. The salary is fine, but you also feel like you still have to check yourself at the door. And by that, I mean, like you leave parts of yourself behind. And what I wanted to build and what I do focus on every day is bringing all of myself to work every day.
And I want my staff to feel like they can come to work and be who they are and not feel like we have to fit into the navy blue suit box, you know, and fit and have the right hair and have the right… No, but that you can bring yourself to work, all of you, and be in a comfortable, supportive space to do your best work.
And that’s always been my goal, and I’m so grateful that I’ve been able to do that. And I think that’s probably why I’m unemployable now. I don’t know who will hire me.
Davina: With my long entrepreneurial path now, the way an HR person would read my resume is “does not play well with others,” you know, see?
Evelyn: Exactly. Yeah, too independent.
Davina: It’s my dream to have more and more women creating their own big law firms, right? Why? To get into quote-unquote big law, where all of the names of partners are what I call the white guy over fifty club or, yeah, now that I’m in my fifties I call it the white guy over sixty club. We need women, obviously, who are working from within, and that kind of thing.
But I just think to myself, you know what, if you don’t like it, go create your own big law firm and don’t stop, don’t settle for just creating, you know, a small firm. It’s not to say there’s anything wrong with people who just want a small firm because, you know, my business is an example of a small business. I like to keep it small, keep it all. You know?
Evelyn: Yep. That’s smart.
Davina: I love it. I love to hear stories of women creating over a million-dollar revenue generating year, because now we’re really creating something where, like you said, you can hire people who, you know, might not be able to want to be a part of some of these big law firm cultures that are out there. They want to be accepted for who they are, the way that they are, without trying to conform to this way of thinking, a way of being.
Evelyn: Yeah, exactly. And giving them that freedom, you know, is something that I think that’s what the value proposition is, is yes, of course, we want to pay fairly and pay well and give incentives and all of that, but also, it’s the idea that we want to develop you and train you and give you some great, you know, skill sets and create a place that feels safe and welcoming. And yeah, so my day-to-day…
Davina: No matter what ethnicity, no matter what gender, no matter what, you know?
Davina: Evelyn, thank you so much for being here. I, you know, this has been just so much fun, and I know we could keep talking for a while, but we will wrap it up. Why don’t you tell us where we can find more information about you and your firm and maybe check out your podcast or see your videos or that kind of thing?
Evelyn: Sure. Absolutely. Thank you so much for the opportunity, Davina, I’m so grateful. So our website for Ackah Business Immigration Law is at ackahlaw.com. And you can find us as well on YouTube and all social media. And also, you can call us at (403) 452-9515, and we can talk all things immigration. I love it. I talk about it all day long. And it just makes me happy. And I always say we practice happy law at Ackah Law.
Davina: Yeah, that’s great. I know there’ll be a lot of women law firm owners who will love to have that cross-country connection with you and expand outside of their state and their horizons and get to know more about you and how you’re practicing there and all that. So we have a friend in Canada, we’re happy about that.
Evelyn: Anytime. I love it when I hear from my other colleagues and, you know, I’m a member of the American Immigration Lawyers Association, too. So I love it when someone just picks up the phone and one of the first lawyers on the list under alphabet with the “A” and just to call and ask a question.
And for me, it’s also building a referral network for myself down south as well. I’m always looking for a team of skilled lawyers and people in business that I can refer my clients to when they go down to the States to grow their businesses.
Davina: Right. Fabulous. Well, I’m glad you were here, and I thank you so much. I really enjoyed it.
Evelyn: Thank you. Appreciate it.