Safiya Adenekan describes the challenges faced by internationally-trained lawyers in Canada
I am an in-house lawyer practising at a major Canadian bank. I am also a foreign-trained lawyer from Nigeria who went through the National Committee on Accreditation (NCA) process in Canada. I am sharing my story so that the legal profession, in advance of the NCA Network’s first-ever On Campus Interview Day, might consider the resilience and unique experiences of foreign-trained lawyers who are trying to settle in this beautiful country.
I obtained my law degree from the University of Maiduguri in Nigeria and was called to the bar there in 2003. I practised at a law firm in Nigeria for almost four years before my husband and I decided to relocate to Canada with our 18-month-old son in 2007.
Upon arriving in Canada, I quickly realized that my plan to get back into practice was not going to be easy, and so I had to find a job — any type of job. I was advised by several people to water down my resumé, as my legal qualifications and experience meant nothing here. My first job was working in a factory. After a number of other temporary jobs, I was finally offered a permanent position in the human resources, payroll and benefits department of a bank.
Phase 1: NCA Certificate of Qualification
With a strong sense of determination, in 2008 I began my licensing journey. I submitted my application to the NCA for assessment and was assigned seven courses.
I knew it would not be easy, especially since I would be studying and writing the exam while working full-time and taking care of our son (I couldn’t afford to go back to school full-time and there weren’t any banks offering loans to NCA students at that time). My strategy was to write three exams per year, and so I organized my time to study on the bus to and from work, during lunchtime and at home after 10 p.m. On good days I would study until 1 a.m.
Happily, I passed all seven exams including my final one, which I wrote just two months before giving birth to my second child. Thankfully, I met the criteria for articling exemption, since I had practised in Nigeria for almost four years. In hindsight, perhaps if the NCA Network of lawyers who studied law internationally existed back then and I was more aware of how to secure an articling position, I might have considered articling in Canada even though I was eligible for the exemption.
Phase 2: The bar exams
In 2011, I began Phase 2 by registering to write both the Barrister and Solicitor Licensing Examinations of the Law Society of Upper Canada. However, after sitting for the first exam I knew I had made the wrong decision. In short, I failed both exams. It hit me so hard because I had never failed an exam before. Not only did I just fail an exam, I would now have to look for money with which to rewrite the exams.
I went back to work two days later with puffy eyes, resulting from sleepless nights spent crying, convinced that I was a failure. I confided in one of the lawyers in the bank’s legal department, and she advised me to review my indices again and then try again. She was shocked when I told her I did not know what an index was. “I’m not surprised you failed,” she said, and advised me that I would need an index and to learn how to navigate an open book exam.
This colleague was God-sent, as she sent me copies of her old indices. She also walked me through how to use the index and refer to the book during the exam. I will be forever grateful to her. A few months later, I wrote the Barrister’s exam and passed! I wrote the Solicitor’s exam in 2012 and anxiously awaited the results. The day they arrived in the mail I was so scared; this was the only thing standing between me and getting my license. I gave my son the envelope to open.
I passed! I finally did it!
Called to the bar; what next?
After my call to the bar in Ontario in 2014 I looked for an entry-level legal role, but was quickly discouraged by the first requirement for most of the positions: a recognized Canadian law degree. Eventually, I stopped looking and returned my focus to my current job. By 2013, I had changed jobs and was in a Compliance role, which I liked.
In 2015, I left the bank to accept a new role in Compliance at another financial institution. Once again, only a few people knew of my legal background. I was embarrassed to tell people that I was a lawyer who hadn’t attended law school in Canada and wasn’t doing anything with her legal license.
Deep down, I still wanted to return to the practice of law, and it became my secret plan to practise again in 10 years’ time.
Finally, I summoned the courage to confide in a senior colleague at work, who encouraged me to speak up about my qualifications. In 2018, an opportunity opened within our legal department and I discussed my interest with the head of the department. She was very supportive and encouraged me to apply; I interviewed for the role and, fortunately, I got the job as an in-house legal counsel.
I have now been in the role for over a year and I am enjoying every second of it. Though my journey had several twists and turns, the experience made me who I am today.
Internationally trained lawyers, I hope you pass every exam, but the reality is that sometimes we fail. When that happens, dust yourself off and face the challenge again. Life continues even after you pass the bar exams, so it’s important to maintain relationships and take care of yourself through the journey.
Don’t be ashamed to tell people that you’re an internationally trained lawyer. Be proud of your experience and what you bring to the table. It takes a lot of courage to immigrate to a new country and go through licensing for the second time. Network, network, network; you never know where your legal job will come from.
And most importantly, never forget to pay it forward.