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Canadian Criminal Defense Lawyer Janani Shanmuganathan On Following Her Calling, Running Her Own Practice & Being A Role Model To Future Lawyers
"Growing up I heard a lot of stories about the conflict in Sri Lanka and the discrimination that Tamils experienced at the hands of the state. These stories inspired me to become someone who could help act as a check on state power, which is precisely what a criminal defence lawyer does."
Ara Ehamparam
Co-founder & Podcast Host ("The Tamil Creator")
Canada
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How did you think your childhood or your formative teenage years played in your becoming interested in law?

Growing up I heard a lot of stories about the conflict in Sri Lanka and the discrimination that Tamils experienced at the hands of the state. These stories inspired me to become someone who could help act as a check on state power, which is precisely what a criminal defence lawyer does.

Did you consider any other professions before deciding on law?

No, I have only ever wanted to be a lawyer.

What specifically made you want to become a Criminal Defense lawyer?

There really is no specific reason. I have always wanted to be a lawyer and have always wanted to be a criminal defence lawyer. It’s not the most lucrative or glamorous or appreciated area of law, but to me it’s a “calling” — something I was meant to do.

You were co-counsel for R. v. Nur, the first case in over 30 years where the Supreme Court found a mandatory minimum sentence unconstitutional and struck it from the Criminal Code.  Why is this such a big deal? (for those not familiar with the legal world)

What mandatory minimum sentences do is force judges to sentence people to a minimum length of time in jail if they have committed certain offences. But the reality is that not all these people should be going to jail for those minimum lengths of time — they may have rehabilitated themselves since the time they committed the offence, or they may have sympathetic reasons for committing the offence. By striking down the mandatory minimum sentence in Nur, the decision sent a shockwave through the criminal justice system leading to several other mandatory minimum sentences being struck down. At the end of the day this means that more people were getting sentences they actually deserved, instead of the mandatory minimum sentence that would have been forced upon them.

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You worked at other legal firms for a number of years before branching off into starting your own practice.  What made you decide to do this?

I had reached a point in my career where it made sense to work for myself. I was getting my own clients and had carriage of my own files. I wanted to have my own practice so I could pick and choose the files I wanted to take on, and for more flexibility with my time so that my husband and I could start a family. 

You not only started your own practice, but you did it with your husband.  Has it been tricky establishing boundaries when you’ve completely merged your work & personal life together?

Honestly, I love working with my husband. For us, it just makes sense. We are both criminal defence lawyers, so we already collaborated on our files even before we worked together. It’s fun when we work together, and it’s like you have your own personal cheerleader in the courtroom. 

How do you find or secure clients?

Most of my clients come from referrals from other lawyers, or former clients. 

What’s been a failure (or “learning lesson”) you’ve experienced during this process of starting your own practice and what did you learn from it?

The job of a criminal defence lawyer itself is really demanding and adding “running a business” on top of that can be really time consuming and challenging. I’ve had to learn to be really careful about the extra curricular projects I take on, as there simply isn’t time to do everything. 

Where do you see yourself in the next 3 years?

Continuing to grow my firm. 

What advice do you have to young people today, especially young Tamil women, who aspire to become lawyers?

Don’t let how lawyers are portrayed in the media (e.g. assertive, aggressive, strong personalities) dissuade you from pursuing law. I am someone who hates confrontation, is introverted and dreads public speaking and yet I’ve been able to pursue this profession. 

What role has your family & friends played in the choices that you’ve made in your life so far?

Being a criminal defence lawyer can be stressful and demanding. It’s not uncommon for me to get a phone call in the middle of the night from a police officer who says a client of mine has been arrested. I am grateful that my family and friends have been understanding when I say I can’t come to certain events or cancel on plans because of unexpected work obligations.  

What do you do outside of work for fun?

I like going for walks and bike rides.  

What is an insecurity you have?

Imposter syndrome. No matter what I’ve “achieved”, it never feels like I am deserving of recognition.

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In terms of your personal legacy, in a few sentences, describe how you want to be remembered by your family and friends?

Someone who is passionate about the work they do.

What do you think you would tell 16-year Janani looking back?

You have the rest of your life to work hard, enjoy being a kid. 

What is your favourite book(s) you’ve read recently and why?

Klara and the Sun – I love dystopian novels. 

What is a new belief, behaviour or habit that has most improved your life?

Keeping a folder on my computer where I save emails or notes from people who have complimented me in some way. I find it reassuring to go back and read those notes, particularly on days when my imposter syndrome is in full force. 

What is something that you've splurged on recently in the last year that you have zero regret about?

The Peloton. 

How has the Toronto Tamil community impacted you both personally and professionally? 

I feel a sense of obligation to be a good role model for others, particularly Tamil women who want to become lawyers. I didn’t have any similar role models when I was younger, and I want to make sure the younger generation knows that they can be part of this profession if they want.

What is your favourite Tamil food (meal or dessert)?

Kothu roti.

What is your favourite Tamil movie?

Jai Bhim – it’s not my favourite, but it is one I watched recently and enjoyed. 

What does Tamil culture mean to you?

For me, Tamil culture is so entwined with the fact that many of us are the children of parents who gave up their own lives to move to a foreign country to create a better life for us. Viewed in this way, Tamil culture is both a combination of loss and hope. 

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Ara Ehamparam
Co-founder & Podcast Host ("The Tamil Creator") | TamilCulture.com
Canada
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