Foreign Trained Lawyers

Canada is, rightly, proud of the multicultural society that has been created over the past fifty years or so. One thing that people don’t necessarily consider when they think about multiculturalism is the need for lawyers and other civil servants who are representative of the population as a whole. It is, after all, a democracy.

Having knowledge of both the Canadian and particular cultural norms is especially helpful for creating more access to justice. However, becoming qualified as a lawyer in Canada is not that easy if you’ve been trained elsewhere.

There are many reasons why this is the case and there are some perfectly legitimate barriers to entry into the Canadian legal market. But, in my view, there are some fundamental problems – mostly having to do with the administration of the various programs – that makes it extremely difficult for most people to even start down the path to becoming qualified in Canada.

This is a series that will take a look at how lawyers from other countries can become lawyers in Canada. It also applies to Canadians who earn a law degree in another country with the hope of returning home to practice. It’s a long, expensive and uncertain path for many, but as someone who went through it relatively recently – I hope to shed some light on the process and provide some guidance to those who have earned law degrees in a foreign country and are hoping to practice in Canada.

I was extremely fortunate to have entered the process as a U.S.-trained lawyer because the legal  system is similar, English is my first language and I graduated from one of the top law schools in the United States. I recognize that the experience that I had is not the same as many others. I have heard tales of people taking years to complete the qualification process, only to find out that they can’t article or that they just don’t have enough money to continue.

I have also heard stories from Canadian students who have always wanted to be lawyers, but didn’t get accepted to a Canadian law school so they go to the U.K. or Australia with the plan to return upon completion of their degree. This, in my opinion, is a bad move. There are some who have done it – for sure – but it seems to be a very frustrating process and a very difficult path. Although there are a lot more law schools in the U.S. that make it unnecessary to travel out of the country if you’re hell-bent on becoming a lawyer – my advice to those of you considering this option is the same as that I would give to someone who would consider attending an unranked school in the U.S.: Don’t do it. It’s not worth it. There are other ways of making an impact in people’s lives or being involved with the legal system than taking on, potentially, mountains of debt with no guarantees of even having a job at the end.

As everyone knows, the market for legal services has changed drastically in the last few years. That’s not news. But, it seems that young would-be lawyers are still making the decision to go to law school on the basis of old information. I hope to provide some up to date advice to keep you from making costly mistakes.

Are you a foreign-trained lawyer? What was your experience like? Let me know in the comments.

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19 thoughts on “Foreign Trained Lawyers”

  1. Thanks for this post, Valarie.
    I am an Australian lawyer with around two years’ experience, and am thinking of taking on the NCA soon. My question for you is more in relation to the practicalities – at what point in the accreditation process did you/others apply for jobs in Canada? For example, do most generally obtain a CQ, then apply, and continue the rest of the process (ie being accredited within that particular province) once they’ve joined an organization?
    Thanks 🙂

  2. Great question, CanadianAussie!

    I have a couple of thoughts on this, but my story is: I started looking and applying for jobs after I was in the NCA process but before I was in the licensing process. I was very fortunate in that I was hired on and started working before I was in the licensing process. I think there are three things that can impact your rate of success here:

    1. Size of the firm: I went to a big firm. I think that it’s a bit easier for them to take risks then some small shops who need people to be up and running quickly.
    2. Practice Area: this is somewhat related to #3 below, but I was in a very specialized practice area and had been doing that work for about 3 years. I think I was able to sell my skills/experience because it wasn’t something completely new – I knew the area. Separately, I have no data to back this up, but it’s my impression that corporate/transactional practices are easier to get hired into than litigation practices. So much of litigation is location-specific, so I think that corporate/transactional skills are easier to transfer.
    3. Your relevant experience/year of call: I was still a very junior lawyer and I took a bit of a haircut on my year of call when I started working in Canada because we don’t have articling in the U.S. However, I think if you’re willing to swallow your pride and prove yourself and you have some experience in the practice area already, you’ll be ahead of most other people.

    I hope that helps. I’m happy to answer any other questions you may have (or provide moral support if you’re in the process!)

  3. Thanks so much for your response Valarie! I work at a large firm here in a transaction-based group, so that is some fantastic and relevant information.

    So if I understand correctly, the process is basically:
    1. Obtain a CQ;
    2. Apply at firms; and
    3. Commence work (and during this time, complete the articling/call process etc).

    If this is correct, could I ask what the articling process is like for an experienced lawyer? I assume that, for example, we wouldn’t be applying for articles in the same way/at the same time that a new law grad would be and we would otherwise be “practicing” as we normally would (while undertaking the required practical legal training courses etc)?

    Finally, do you have any thoughts on going through recruitment agencies as opposed to contacting HR at your target firms directly?

    Thanks so much again Valarie!

  4. Again – very good questions. I’m going to have to incorporate these into some future posts!

    Re: the process, I would say that is how the process is supposed to work. Although I think that (2) can be done while (1) is ongoing.

    As for the articling process, you can apply to obtain an exemption. I will write more about this in a post because there’s a lot of information to share, but if you have experience, you can apply to the Law Society for an exemption from or reduction of articling. That is a whole other process and requires a bit more, but all of the information is on the LSUC website (if you’re considering Ontario, that is. I don’t know about the other provinces.) But, my experience was that ‘articling’ as an experienced lawyer was really just working.

    Re: recruitment verses direct contact. I found that my particular skillset was not being actively sought out, so the recruiting firms just weren’t that interested in me as a candidate. So, I had a lot of success reaching out directly to firms and saying – here’s who I am and what I can offer and how I think it fits with your group. However, I know some people who have used recruiters and had a really good experience. One thing to keep in mind, though, is that recruiters are usually paid a percentage of your salary so for junior lawyers, firms may not want to incur the cost associated with hiring through recruiters. Of course, if you’re job searching from Australia, recruiters may be your best bet because they can do a lot of the leg work. I found that the direct route worked best when I could say “hey, let’s meet for a coffee or lunch.” so that they can meet you before committing to anything.

    These are, of course, just my thoughts. I’m sure others have had different experiences. Hope this helps!

  5. Thanks so much again for the very insightful response Valarie. I’ll be sure to post my experiences once I am finished!

  6. Hello, I am former Bulgarian lawyer with 4 years experience as attorney and 16 years experience as a public notary European system. I came in Canada in July 2015 and became a permanent resident on 8 July 2016. I couldn’t work before this so I volunteered actively with refugees and vulnerable people also with First Nations. I want to continue with the law but would be very happy to start as a law clerk for example.I know Bulgarian, English and Russian. Now I am living in Waterloo, this is very promising region with a lot of potential. Can you give me some advice, please.

    1. Hi Alexander –

      Congratulations on becoming a Permanent Resident! I know it’s a long slog through the bureaucratic process so it’s nice when everything works out. In terms of advice, it sounds like you’re doing a lot of the things that you should be doing. If you’re interested in a particular area of law, I would reach out to lawyers who practice in that area in Waterloo/Kitchener and find out how they got started and what kind of work they do. If you’re interested in working with people who speak some of the languages that you mention, you may find immigration to be an area of law where your skills can be particularly useful. I do not know what it takes to become a law clerk in those areas, but you should seek out other clerks and find out how they got their positions. I know a few people who have taken law clerk jobs and then studied for the NCA and bar exams while they were working. It’s definitely possible and I think most legal employers are willing to support that sort of goal because they know how it is to the individual. Best of luck and let us know how it goes!

  7. Hi
    I am an Indian lawyer and I want to migrate to Canada.
    My query is whether I should apply for NCA first and while it is in process I apply for Permanent residency or otherwise.
    My thoughts are really not clear on what would I do if come to Canada, as to how will I get a job , how much time will it take to process everything from NCA till job in hand.

    1. Hey, Akshay. I think it would make sense to apply for PR first and then when you are almost through with that process and sure you’re getting it, you can apply for NCA’s assessment. My thinking is the assessment is close to useless if you won’t have PR status. So the order of priority should be PR first. Furthermore, the PR process can take a while, whereas NCA’s assessment takes only 6-8 weeks (once all your application documents have been received).

    2. Hi Ashkay –

      I tend to agree with O.O., however, the entire licensing process can take upwards of a year so, depending on how you’re applying for PR (whether it’s spousal sponsorship, etc) then it may make sense to apply for NCA and PR around the same time. If I remember correctly, you have two years from the date of your NCA assessment to complete the exams (but you should double check) so you have some time to figure it all out if your PR application didn’t work out for some reason. However, as I said in the post, it’s an expensive process, so that’s something to think about as well.

  8. Hello Valerie, thank you for your kind response. I already signed in Conestoga college online program for law clerk, it will start in February. I also received from ICAS Canada after 6 months waiting the assessment of my legal education, which is comparable with Bachelor degree in Ontario. So , I am trying to build my network, I find the
    Canadian lawyers and paralegals very supportive. I hope it will work.I am particularly interested in First Nations legal issues, maybe it will be one of my
    goals.Regards from Alexandar!

  9. Hi,

    I’m from India and I’m just about done with my BBA/LLB which is an undergrad course here. I wish to work and settle in Canada for a couple of years for the exposure. After talking to a couple to folks, I understand that the best method is to do an LLM and apply for my PR ship while at it and then give my NCA and do my articles. I know JD secures me much more but it seems to be more expensive and moreover I feel it isn’t worth wasting 4 more years apart from the 5 I’ve already spent here. Please guide me if I’m on the right track or if there is any other alternative for me. Thank you!

    1. Hi Suneel –

      I think that you’re right that it’s probably a waste of time to spend another few years going through that process. The job market for lawyers in Canada isn’t great – at least not in Toronto. It’s not particularly easy to get Articling positions so you may spend a lot of money and not really get anywhere. However, I don’t want to completely dissuade you from trying it. I think you just need to have a clear idea of what you want to do and what it’s going to take to get there, meaning that if you just want ‘exposure’ to a western legal market – maybe there’s somewhere else that you can do that. I would just research the options before committing to spending thousands of dollars and years on a degree and moving, etc. Best of luck!

  10. Hi everyone,

    Very useful information has been shared here. I am an Indian qualified lawyer with 3 years of in- house legal experience with a renowned shipping MNC. Post that I have recently completed my masters in International Commercial Law from U.K. and now planning to apply for PR.
    I do not wish to practice law in Canada and thus intend to only register myself has foreign legal consultant and work as in house counsel in any corporates in Canada. I have a great exposure in dealing with Contract management and Compliance. It will be helpful if anyone can guide me on the current legal job market scenario.

    Thank you so much.

  11. Good day,
    Question if you are a foreign trained lawyer (in my case Jamaica) can you apply to become a law clerk or paralegal based on your foreign training before doing the NCA process as I find that process expensive.
    Do you think law firms would hire a foreign trained lawyer as a law clerk or paralegal?

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