International Lawyer Turned Human Rights Consultant
Yousuf Aftab practiced law for five years before branching out to start his own consulting firm, Enodo Rights, specializing in corporate human rights strategy. He helps businesses design and implement systems to manage their human rights risks across their global operations and value chains. Since breaking out on his own in 2012, Yousuf has seen the discipline of business and human rights evolve rapidly and has worked with some of the largest companies in the world.
We asked Yousuf about his professional journey, how he got started in his field, and the challenges he faced. He offered us some great insights and advice on transitioning out of a career in law.
The Road to Law School
Yousuf did not originally think that he would ever practice law. He decided to go to law school because he was interested in the practical application of philosophy. He enjoyed learning how to think analytically and suspected he would gain many skill sets in law school that could help him in future endeavours. His thought process turned out to be exactly right because he enjoyed his legal education immensely.
“I loved law school. It was everything that I hoped it would be.”
After law school at the University of Toronto, Yousuf clerked for Justice Rosalie Abella at the Supreme Court of Canada. Yousuf then went to New York to work at Latham & Watkins LLP where he specialized in international disputes. He fell into that area because a case came up that involved English law and, having gone to a Canadian law school, he was willing to take on the challenge as an associate when others were hesitant.
After four years at Latham & Watkins, Yousuf moved back to Toronto to work at Torys LLP, focusing on commercial litigation and investor-state disputes. His return to Toronto was brief: while he tremendously enjoyed his time at Torys, he craved a return to New York.
The ideal opportunity arose when a former colleague from Latham & Watkins invited Yousuf to partner with him in building an international arbitration boutique in New York. It was there that the entrepreneurial bug took hold. Yousuf enjoyed the challenge of building a business as much as the practice of law. The relationship, however, was rocky. After a few months Yousuf started thinking about his next steps.
Throughout his time in practice, Yousuf had been doing pro-bono work involving corporate responsibility and human rights, and he was convinced that the discipline could develop into something rigorous that would be integral to corporate risk management. So, in late 2012, he launched his own business to test his theory in practice.
Taking on a New Role
Enodo Rights is a human rights consulting firm designed to blend legal expertise and stakeholder engagement experience. They help businesses understand what their human rights impacts might be, set up policies and management processes to prioritize, prevent, and address those impacts, and develop in-house dispute resolution mechanisms. What makes Enodo different is their business-centred approach. They focus on helping businesses manage global human rights risks in a way that is structured and practical.
“When we started, hardly any lawyers were paying attention to this field, but now a lot of law firms offer these practices, and the demand is much more serious.”
Enodo started as an idea about how to manage corporate responsibility more efficiently, rather than as a form of crisis response. Yousuf didn’t know whether it could be a viable business, but he took a leap of faith and focused on small step-by-step goals. He started by talking to people in the industry such as former clients and thought leaders to determine if their might be a market for Enodo’s services. He got together a rough concept, a statement of principles, and a website, and from then on he just started writing and presenting. He had ideas on where the discipline ought to go, and he published his pieces while focusing on building up his industry contacts.
“My focus initially was not money. It was getting the right connections and the right profile.”
After two years of limited engagements, Enodo broke through with a high-profile project for Barrick Gold focused on sexual violence in Papua New Guinea. Since then, Enodo has barely been able to keep up with demand for human rights advice from major multinationals.
Now, Enodo works with some of the largest multinationals in the world on assessing their human rights risks, conducting on-the-ground due diligence, developing human rights policies, training management, and reporting on their progress to investors and the public at large. Enodo’s clients have included leading international banks, Fortune 100 consumer products companies, prominent law firms, and an array of the world’s largest oil and gas companies. Most importantly, Yousuf thrives on the fact that his work is both intellectually challenging and meaningful.
When we asked Yousuf about the challenges he faced in his transition out of law, he says there were many, but that is part of what he enjoyed. Thinking in terms of the business as a whole was hard because as an associate, you focus on only your job and applying the law. In a business, you’re seeking technical solutions, but you’re also thinking about marketing, financing, and ensuring that your advice is practical in the client’s particular operating context.
“The things that I learned as a lawyer remained relevant and were important in how we shaped our business, but there was also a lot to learn outside of that.”
Another challenge is communicating and explaining complex legal concepts to people that have no background in the field. While Enodo is not a law firm, human rights are inherently legal concepts. Addressing them effectively is all about recognizing the audience and making explanations straightforward and practical.
Since Yousuf has started Enodo, he’s talked to and given advice to many lawyers who wanted to quit law. He’s noticed some patterns among the bunch. The first is that many search for the perfect opportunity, which does not exist.
“A lot of lawyers aren’t happy but they are looking for the ‘perfect’ alternative.”
Yousuf says that it’s as important to know what you don’t want to do as it is to know what you do want to do. It’s going to involve trial and error and it’s going to take time, but lawyers are too qualified to not try to do something they enjoy.
“I always thought about my law degree as insurance. Having gone to law school means I can always feed my family. It means I have the freedom — even the obligation — to take some risks to find my passion.”
Yousuf points out that the analytical and communications skills you learn in law school and in practice are transferable far and wide. He encourages others to think about what they want to do first, and then work backwards to think about how a law degree can contribute to that. But the first step if you don’t like practice is to try something else. That is the best way to move towards your ideal career. If Yousuf didn’t take that risk, he wouldn’t be where he is today.