The international lawyer’s dilemma

Fernando Garcia
At this time of the year, it is very common to start receiving calls from law students seeking last minute articling positions. There are often many reasons as to why these students have been unable to secure a role.

Some have left it until the last minute to think about their articling next steps and have not gained any experience during the summers (Warning #1: That summer vacation or time off may sound great at the time, but summering is the first step to an articling role). Others have not received grades sufficient to catch the attention of recruiters (Warning #2: Grades are not critical, but if they are not good, you will need to have something else to attract employers, such as volunteering experience, internships, etc. You must be able to prove the value you bring to the table and that you can do the work). Unfortunately, there is another group that seem to be overrepresented with regard to having difficulties securing articling positions — internationally trained lawyers. 

Regardless of the reason, whether a student decided to study externally to gain international experience, or to take advantage of more practical legal training offered in schools such as in the United States, or because the applicant is an immigrant with a law degree from another country, they face unique hurdles in finding articling roles (assuming that they do not qualify for an exemption from the Experiential Training requirement. Often the lack of mentors, the lack of networks, and an over-supply of competing domestically trained lawyers, which makes it easier for employers to select from students graduating from schools that “they know” rather than “taking a chance” with international students, are key challenges. Some of these may sound trite, but the following are some pieces of advice I generally give to these internationally trained students (please note that they also apply to students seeking articling roles generally):

•    On June 11, I was invited to attend the soft launch of the Global Lawyers of Canada in Toronto.
This organization has already launched in Calgary, and provides training, support, and networking opportunities for internationally trained lawyers hoping to practice law in Canada. As a first step, join them, as there is much to learn from colleagues who are going or have gone through the process.

•    You must learn to network and sell the unique experiences/knowledge you bring to the table. For example, an applicant studying or coming from countries with mining or energy exports in Latin America should emphasize their multiple language, their civil law training, and also focus on applying to Canadian companies or law firms that operate or do business in that jurisdiction. 

•    Some firms have taken the initiative to develop specialized programs for internationally trained lawyers, see for example Denton’s ITL articling program. Make sure you reach out to the law firms and see what options/programs are available.

•    Join associations such as the Canadian Corporate Counsel Association and the Association of Corporate Counsel and attend their networking events. You must be careful not to appear desperate or interested only in securing a position, but the contacts you make there can be invaluable in finding an articling or legal role.

•    Seek out, join, and become involved with associations such as the Canadian Hispanic Bar Association, the Federation of Asian Canadian Lawyers, the Arab Canadian Lawyers Association, and others that correspond to your background or training.

•    Make contact and volunteer with the embassy, consulate or trade associations of the country you are from or study in.

•    If English is not your first language, make sure you have a fresh set of eyes review and provide feedback on your resumé, cover letters, and LinkedIn profile. Be social media savvy and careful. Spelling or grammatical errors may be enough to sabotage your application form.

•    Daniel Lo, the co-founder and president of Global Lawyers of Canada, adds that internationally trained lawyers should leverage their contacts back home, as firms generally are seeking to expand their footprint and clientele, and these contacts may add strategic value for the firm.

•    Finally, a warning that Lo and I agree with and, unfortunately, I see too often —internationally trained lawyers believe they can bridge the gap to being a lawyer in Canada by starting their career as a legal assistant or paralegal. DO NOT DO THIS, as being a legal assistant or paralegal in Canada is different than in other countries. In Canada, these roles require formal training at colleges to qualify for legal assistant or paralegal roles, meaning you may do greater harm than good. Also, there may be a stigma attached that lessens the internationally trained lawyer's future status as a lawyer, so this will not move you further ahead in your objective of becoming a Canadian lawyer.    

In conclusion, internationally trained lawyers and students can play an instrumental role in a law firm or in-house environment. As Lo confirms “in an ever globalizing world, the value of what an internationally-trained lawyer can bring has never been greater. By expanding opportunities for these highly-skilled lawyers in Canada, we not only enhance legal services provided to Canadians, but we also allow the Canadian legal community to compete and excel in global legal markets.” Hopefully, the advice above can assist these lawyers and students in securing an articling positions and making their transition into the Canadian legal profession a smoother one.

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