As part of the launch of Next Gen Leadership: Advancing Lawyers of Color initiative, we interviewed Tope Yusuf, partner at Arent Fox, who discusses why she chose her practice area, pivotal career moments in her promotion to partner, and what advice she would give her younger self.
Legal Executive Institute: Tell us about your expertise in your practice area. How did you come to select government enforcement and white collar criminal defense as your specialty area?
Tope Yusuf: Following my first year of law school, I had the opportunity to learn about the white-collar practice and do a little bit of work as a summer associate at Arent Fox. In my second and third year of law school, my interest really took off and I pretty much signed up for any class that had “criminal” in the course name, such as criminal adjudication, evidence-related classes and criminal investigation. I enjoyed these classes because there was a human element, combined with an emphasis on investigative skills and case strategy.
Once I started practicing full time, I worked to hone these skills.
As for the human element, I discovered I enjoyed counseling either an individual or a company and working with their legal team or their business teams on investigations, how to respond to a subpoena and compliance-related matters.
It was not until my second year as an associate that I discovered these same skills could be used in labor and employment, which has also become a focus of my practice. For example, in a discrimination claim, I could go check it out, ask questions, figure out how to proceed based on whether there is any legitimacy to the claim and then strategize with the client on what our response would be.
Legal Executive Institute: In your promotion to partner, what skills are critical to your success in addition to being a great lawyer?
Tope Yusuf: Being a great lawyer is number one. Everyone always told me good lawyering is table stakes, meaning without that, you can’t move to the next level. It was really the additional pieces of what is my “value-add.” For me, I am able to put myself in the client’s shoes. I understand that I am there to solve the client’s problem, but that the client also has to live with the outcome. I have the ability to think beyond just that moment and focus as well on how the work I do will impact the client for years to come. Having that empathy has been critical to my success.
For example, when you’re representing someone in a criminal investigation, you have to keep in mind that he is dealing with issues and facing pressures that extend beyond just the charges he is facing. The person likely has family to worry about, or a career to consider. Being able to consider all of those factors is very important. I also can’t stress enough the need to deal with your client and opposing counsel in a civil way. I do this by establishing credibility as an honest broker — building trust is so important in high-stress situations.
I remember during my second year, I was working on a matter and there was a suspicion that the wife of the individual being investigated was involved in criminal conduct. I was able to connect with her on a personal level and explain to her that we wanted to see her through the process so that she could focus on her children and family. She appreciated my efforts because she told me that she was relieved that finally someone understood that “she was more than a name on a piece of paper.”
Legal Executive Institute: Please describe the circumstances of your most difficult career moment and how you succeeded in overcoming it. What did you learn?
Tope Yusuf: The most difficult career moment occurred almost four years ago. A partner that I worked very, very closely with —and actually became good friends with — unfortunately became ill, was hospitalized, and ended up in a coma. There was no ability to communicate with him. It was very difficult. I knew his family and really wanted to be there for them.
At the same time, we still needed to represent our clients. He had a booming practice and it was my job to provide support to the clients and reassure everyone that it was going to be okay, which, in the end, it was. But it really required striking a balance between the personal and professional and taking on a bigger leadership role at a critical stage in my career.
What really helped me to succeed was reminding myself how the partner, my friend, had already trained me to do many of these things the clients needed, and because we had been practicing together for so many years, I knew how we would handle situations, and I did exactly what he had taught me. The biggest thing I learned was, “I could do it!” when I was tested. It was a huge boost in my own confidence.
Legal Executive Institute: Tell us about one mistake you made in your career and how did you learn from it?
Tope Yusuf: First of all, I think it is important to say that everyone makes mistakes. I remember my first year, sending an email out where I referred to a government official by his first name, which was a no-no. I found out that it was a mistake when a partner called and told me when drafting letters to government officials, we always start with the title first followed by their last name. I thought, oh no, I am getting fired. Of course, I did not, but I appreciate that partner giving me that feedback
A more significant mistake that I made not too long ago involved a case where the judge required a pre-motion letter to be submitted before actually filing a motion. I was concerned about the possibility of not having the motion filed because the letter had not been sent. What I learned from that situation was making sure I always reserve my options and to have someone great on your calendaring team. It essentially boils down to almost missing an option because I did not have the deadline squared away. I had anticipated the deadline of the motion, but I missed a step before that. Thankfully, we were able to resolve the matter and get a satisfactory result for the client.
Legal Executive Institute: What is one piece of career guidance you would give to your younger self?
Tope Yusuf: My advice to my younger self would be to “Stretch a little more, a little sooner,” in terms of outreach to my network. Don’t hesitate to stay in touch with folks who could become a potential client.
I would leave the office sooner and catch up with someone for an hour rather than staying in the office and doing more work. These are opportunities to connect with people that can potentially become clients down the line. The days go by pretty quickly and you find that people who were associates the same time you were are now decisions-makers at important companies.