An Interview with Naana Frimpong, J.D. Yale Law School ’04

In our alumni spotlight series, we interviewed Naana Frimpong who currently serves as Counsel at King & Spalding, LLP. Naana received her Juris Doctor degree from Yale Law School and her undergraduate degree from Amherst College. She spoke to us about her time at Yale, her legal work across the continent, as well as giving some advice to young people. 

1.     Could you tell us a bit about yourself and where you grew up?  

My parents are from neighboring villages in the Ashanti region of Ghana, and when I was six years old, our family moved from Accra to Gaborone, Botswana – that’s where I spent my elementary and high school years.  It was a wonderful place to grow up and I was lucky to attend an elementary school and high school with children from all over Africa and the world.  My high school (Maru A Pula) was started in the early 1970s by liberal white South Africans who fled Apartheid to set up a multi-racial school that was focused on educational excellence, community service and a commitment to provide opportunities to educate low-income Batswana.  Coming of age in a multicultural and multi-lingual environment that was focused on meaningful social impact was a real gift.  For one, it has made it very easy for me to navigate the new and unfamiliar and make lasting connections with people from different backgrounds. 

Growing up in Gaborone was also significant because it sits on the doorstep of South Africa – the city is a mere 20-minute drive to the nearest border crossing.  And Nelson Mandela’s release from prison and South Africa’s transition to a democracy all happened during my high school years.  My younger sisters were studying in Pretoria, my older brother in Cape Town and my father was working with the Goldstone Commission under the UN Mission in South Africa (UNOMSA) and so I felt very much connected to the immense transformation that was taking place next door.  History was unfolding before my eyes and the story of South Africa and the struggles that the majority of its population faced shaped my view of the world, the persistence of injustice and the role that lawyers could play in society. 

I left Southern Africa after getting a scholarship to attend Amherst College. It was a bit of a culture shock to relocate to western Massachusetts, but I had a wonderful experience at Amherst, and I am forever grateful for the opportunities and skills it gave me – key among them was the ability to write well.  I double majored in History and Black Studies with a focus on South African history and African and Caribbean literature.  I also obtained a Certificate in African studies jointly offered by all the five colleges in the Pioneer Valley (Smith, Mount Holyoke, Hampshire, University of Massachusetts and Amherst).  

After Amherst, I attended Yale Law School. In the midst of law school, I spent a year working with various NGOs and governance institutions in Ghana and, after graduating, I worked in private practice in New York, initially at Cleary Gottlieb Steen & Hamilton and then for a number of years at Debevoise & Plimpton. I spent time studying for a master’s in international criminal law and justice at a program jointly offered by the United Nations and the University of Torino, in northern Italy and then spent four years as a federal prosecutor in Chicago. I am now based in Atlanta and a member of King and Spalding’s white-collar practice – known as the Special Matters and Government Investigations group.  

2.     What attracted you to the legal profession? Was there a defining moment or a specific experience that made you want to become a lawyer? 

I don’t recall there being a particular moment in time when I decided that I wanted to be a lawyer – for as long as I can remember it was something that I wanted to do. My father was a lawyer – but he was a law professor and did not practice. I remember being fascinated by legal shows such as Matlock and loved the drama of the courtroom.  My parents tell me that as I child I often talked about wanting to wear a suit and go to court.

However, I was not quite ready to commit to the legal profession after high school and in Botswana, whose legal education was modelled after Britain’s, I would have had to start law school right after high school.  That was part of the appeal of a liberal arts education in the U.S.  It was an opportunity to take some more time to explore my interests and confirm if a legal career was the right choice for me.

In the end, I was drawn to the idea of being an advocate and promoting justice – being able to use my oral and written words to persuade in support of a more equitable outcome.

3.     How did your time at Yale contribute to your life and career? 

I feel a strong connection to Yale and New Haven and there is a real sense of nostalgia. I was born in Yale-New Haven Hospital just as my father was finishing up his LLM/JSD degrees at the Law School. We returned to Ghana when I was a few months old and I didn’t visit the U.S. again until I was a teenager.  Growing up, Yale and New Haven took on an almost mystical quality in our family stories. It represented this distant place across the ocean where life began for me; a part of my life that I only knew through pictures and stories.  I never imagined that years later I would return for law school.

Yale touched my life at two pivotal points.  First, the years my parents spent in New Haven were hugely impactful for my family – it changed the trajectory of their life and that of their children.  My grandparents on both sides of my family were cocoa farmers with no formal education and my father, came from a village in the Ashanti region of Ghana that even in 2020 has only one paved road. He received a scholarship to attend Yale in the 1970s and so for me to return to study at Yale and live just a few blocks from the hospital where I was born was very meaningful – it felt like I had come full circle.  Without that first touch, I would not have had the opportunities in life and education that put me on a road where Yale Law School was a possibility. 

The second pivotal moment was when I learned the language of the law and began to more fully appreciate the type of impact that I could have as an attorney on the world around me.  It sounds a bit corny, but I love the law. I am intrigued by the philosophy behind it, the rules that we choose to make and how we craft them.  I am also fascinated by the practical application of the law and tensions between that and the ideals and philosophies we hold dear. My favorite class in law school was criminal law – it’s where life meets the law – so in some ways it should not have been a surprise to me that I ended up being a federal prosecutor and a white-collar criminal and civil defense lawyer.

4.     Do you have people who deeply influenced who you are, and what you’re committed to in your work and life?

It may sound a bit cliché, but without a doubt my parents have had the biggest influence on me in terms of living a life of purpose, having a heart for others, having a strong work ethic, aspiring toward excellence in all that I do, having goals and dreams, and persevering through adversity.  My mother went back to school to earn a master’s degree in the midst of raising six children, one of whom was still a toddler.  In fact, when I was preparing for my final high school examinations, we studied together in my father’s office (where we had the benefit of air conditioning in the heat of the Botswana summer), sitting across from each other on either side of his desk.

Both my parents had humble beginnings and seeing firsthand the day-to-day sacrifices they made to better themselves and provide for their children and their extended family was inspiring to me.  So even though I have had a lot of mentors at various stages of my life who have invested heavily in me and helped chart my path, I really would say my parents had the biggest influence on me. 

5.     What are you doing now, and could you tell us about your work on the continent? 

My love for Africa runs deep and I have been lucky enough that many of my professional experiences are based on matters that touched the continent.  At Cleary Gottlieb, I worked on debt offerings on behalf of the South African government.  At Debevoise, one of my most rewarding professional experiences was our representation of the government of Ghana in various disputes and arbitrations and negotiations in Accra, London, and the United States.  I worked on cutting edge legal issues and I was able to speak my home language (Twi/Ashanti) almost every day with senior government officials in the Ministry of Justice, as we strategized on how to defend against cases in multiple fora and what was the best outcome for Ghana. We ended up successfully resisting enforcement of a 40 million euro award that a tribunal had issued against the government. I was also a key member of the team at Debevoise that represented the audit committee of Siemens AG (a Munich-based multinational) concerning allegations that billions of euros in improper payments had been made to secure business around the world. I traveled to Africa and all over the world in this groundbreaking investigation overseeing forensic accounting teams and conducting and participating in interviews as we investigated these allegations.

At my current law firm, I’m building an Africa-focused practice that leverages my experience in the areas of white-collar criminal and civil defense, anti-corruption and compliance consulting, international arbitration, and international disputes in general. I am excited about this growing practice as it is a perfect complement for my background, skills, and expertise. There are very few lawyers who are from the continent and grew up there who have also worked on some of the world’s most high-profile white-collar matters or served as a U.S. federal prosecutor. I have a unique skill set and background and really well-positioned to leverage these experiences to help my clients in finding creative and effective solutions to their legal and business needs. 

6.      What would you say is the most rewarding aspect of your career? 

I love being a lawyer.  Having the ability to make a real and tangible difference in someone’s life or the prospects of a company and its employees is incredibly satisfying. At its core, you are a problem solver.  I enjoy examining and discovering the facts, researching the law and crafting the most compelling argument in support of the desired position or outcome – not for the sake of making some esoteric arguments, but to reach a tangible outcome that has a real effect on peoples’ lives.  It is advocacy and I love it. 

7.     Do you have any advice for young people?

Yes, I would advise them to do three things. First, it’s important to have a sense of your value proposition, what it is that you bring to the table. That is not to say you do not learn from criticism but that you cultivate an objective understanding of your strengths and capabilities. 

Second, seek out mentors because it is so important not only in career development but in navigating life’s challenges. Find people who believe in you and are going to be invested in you and your development and be very intentional about building strong and lasting relationships with those people.

Lastly, commit to excellence. Try to do everything, no matter how small, to the best of your ability – it is not only the right thing to do, but it sets the right tone for you professionally.