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.


New Lawyer Series: Think Like A Lawyer

“Think like a lawyer” is a common, if not commonly-explained, phrase that all law students and new lawyers are familiar with. It’s easy to believe that attending three years of school, participating in various hands-on clinics and working in law offices for a couple months of the year will prepare you for what it takes to be a good lawyer, but it takes more than just perfecting your drafting techniques and learning the office politics to succeed as an advocate.

In “The Sweet Science of Shifting Your Mental Venue” in the Summer 2015 edition of the ABA’s TYL magazine, Tracey Lesetar-Smith drills down on what it takes to think like a good lawyer. Here are her suggestions:

  1. Take Time to Think Even Under the Gun: “Pressure to have all the answers. . .at our fingertips can obscure a lawyer’s ability to retreat into thought, and the necessity of quality thinking time is rarely understood by clients.” So how do you take the tim you need to really think about the issues you’re being presented with? Tracey recommends getting rid of as many distractions as possible: cell phone, email, open door. Sit and think through the issue and, when you think you’re done, ask yourself what could be missing. And keep thinking about the issue.
  2. Don’t Go Through Life With a Red Pen In Your Hand: Not every potential legal issue is one that your client cares about. Know how to spot all of the issues, but learn which ones will actually matter to your client.
  3. Take Stock of Your Resources: Use your resources (time, relationships, etc) wisely.
  4. Don’t Forget the Narrative: You need to create a narrative for your client’s side of the story that makes sense to people. It’s great to be clever and come up with new legal arguments, but ultimately, if the other side’s story just makes more sense, then the time and energy you put into those clever arguments is worthless.
  5. Sweat the Details, then Don’t Sweat the Details: Do the best work you can – double and triple check everything – but don’t flip out if there’s an inconsequential typo on page 39. Young lawyers are often tasked with worrying about everything, and rightfully so. However, there is marginal utility to continuing to beat yourself up over some small errors that will ultimately change nothing.

Once you’ve mastered the fundamental skills of lawyering, you must begin to refine your thought processes so that you are able to provide the most value to your client.

The concept of providing value to clients is somewhat new to lawyers, but it is no less important than all of the things that you learn in law school. Any one could spend countless hours and dollars researching a minor point of law, but the truly great lawyers will identify the top issues that make a material difference to their clients and spend the time advocating for those things. It’s not enough to just think like a lawyer – you have to think like your client and act accordingly. That’s how you become a great lawyer.

Do you think this list is complete or is there something else you would have included?