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We must remove barriers for foreign-trained lawyers

Diversity means having a legal profession that reflects our population.

Welcome to Canada stamp on passport

It was 11:30 on a February evening, and I had just arrived in snowy Winnipeg. As my cab driver drove me to my hotel, we started talking and an all too familiar refrain emerged. When he found out that I was the CEO of the Canadian Centre for Professional Legal Education (CPLED), the conversation turned to his story.

He had come from India, where he had studied law, hoping to start a better life in this cultural mosaic we call Canada, where we encourage skilled professionals to come and build both their career and the country. However, upon arriving he found little assistance for foreign-trained law students coming to Canada. The accreditation process for acknowledging his legal credentials was unnecessarily cumbersome. Like many new Canadians, his savings quickly dwindled, and he had to take a job that would help support his family. However, this job took time away from his ability to study, sit for examinations, and actively seek an articling position. Over time, his dreams of becoming a lawyer in Canada faded.

Sadly, this was not my first time hearing this story. In a recent article, Onai Petra Paswani-Abote shares a similar one and dives into the challenges qualified new Canadians face finding meaningful employment in healthcare.

It’s no different in the legal community. Foreign-trained law students, whether they are Canadians who study abroad or students who complete their law degree abroad before immigrating here, face daunting and unique challenges. To illustrate, let's compare their journeys to those of Canadian students who graduate from a Canadian law school.

Canadian law school students are the most strategically advantaged of the groups. Part of the reason is university career services departments work hard to ensure that students are getting placed (a key statistic that schools love to use as a marketing tool for future intakes). As a result, students begin networking day one of law school. Students find summer placements during their first and second year of study and many students start their third year of law school with a secured articling position to go to after graduation.

Now, this is not to say that the process is not competitive. It is. It is also stressful for students vying to get into their preferred firm while still studying. But the system in Canada is set up to advantage these students in their articling search.

Next, are the Canadian students who have gone abroad to complete their studies. They may not have the same networking opportunities available to Canadian law students while completing their studies. But in many cases, they have family connections in Canada that will allow them to find articles upon their return. Though they still have to pass the Federation of Law Societies of Canada (FLSC) accreditation exams, what happens next, in terms of a defined career path, is more clear. Even if they don’t have the aforementioned connections, they’ve grown up in and understand Canadian culture, making them much more attractive to firms who may be less concerned about diversity and more about “fit.”

Now, we come to the foreign-trained students. They’ve completed their studies and perhaps worked as a lawyer in another country before immigrating to Canada. When they arrive, they need to study and sit FLSC examinations that show they have the equivalency of a Canadian common law degree. They also need to build a social network, find housing, and if they have not saved enough to see them through the process, secure loans, or find work to support themselves. They also have to deal with becoming a permanent resident at the same time.

They are thrust into a situation where all examinations are written in either English or French — often not their first language. What’s more, there are very few resources available to help them improve their proficiency, especially as as it relates to the Canadian judicial system. At CPLED many of our foreign-trained registrants struggle with research and legal writing in our Bar admission program. In response, we offer an eight-week course for legal research and writing, which allows for individual feedback geared at improving performance. This is helpful, but we are only one organization, and the need for these resources is beyond what is available.

Consider, too, that the FLSC issues over a thousand Certificates of Qualification (CQ) annually, making foreign-trained students a large component of the legal profession in Canada. And yet, the FLSC does not offer the career services offered at Canadian law schools.

Now, once the foreign-trained student has passed their examinations with their CQ in hand, finding an articling position should be a breeze, right? Unfortunately, foreign-trained students who are not Canadian face considerable hurdles in finding suitable articles.

First, they have no professional network, mainly because they didn’t have the opportunity to summer with firms and establish relationships. University career service departments are only responsible for placing their students, not the foreign-trained. With no support, they are forced to make cold-calls, desperate to find a firm to take them on.

For many firms, this doesn’t align with long-standing business models and recruitment programs that have worked in the past. They already have a qualified pool of candidates from Canadian law schools from which they can pick and choose. Also, if firms are looking for “fit,” foreign-trained lawyers are at a serious disadvantage as they have not been raised in Canadian culture. I have heard many times from students, “how can I get Canadian experience when no one will allow me to learn through articles?”

It’s a valid point.

Another good question is “how can law firms serve the population of Canada if their lawyers do not reflect our diversity?” The unfortunate reality is until recruitment programs address equity, diversity, and inclusion in a meaningful way, and seek to actively include the foreign-trained, these students will continue to struggle to find a placement.

Desperate for articles, many students will put themselves in precarious positions, with the potential for harassment, abuse, and unsafe working conditions. In a recent survey On the articling experience, the law societies of Alberta, Saskatchewan and Manitoba have identified that these situations exist in the articling system, which is unacceptable for the Canadian legal profession. In response, law societies have created task forces and are working to improve the articling experience to protect students.

There have been some initiatives geared to helping students navigate the waters of accreditation in Canada:

  • Ryerson’s Legal Practitioner Program (LPP), which offers students training and placements, is a solid skills-based program;
  • At CPLED we have recently relaxed our admission requirements for the Practice Readiness Education Program (PREP) for students wanting to continue with their educational path. This change will allow students in Alberta, Manitoba,  Nova Scotia and Saskatchewan to complete the educational component of Bar admission. This allows students who have not secured articles to build the competencies and skills to make them more marketable to potential employers; and
  • Global Lawyers of Canada is an organization that acts as a resource for foreign-trained students and lawyers, offering products and services designed to ease the transition to practice in Canada and support knowledge transfer.

These are all great initiatives, but more is needed to help this vulnerable group who have much to offer to Canada’s legal profession.

Some students do find support from their colleagues. Many foreign-trained professionals who have gone through the accreditation process in Canada take on foreign-trained articling students. They have a unique understanding of the trials and tribulations that these students face, and want to give back to their communities.

While this is admirable, it is not enough.

Recruitment of foreign-trained students needs to become part of every firm’s business model and every firm needs to actively seek out diverse candidates, rather than place the onus on new Canadians with no established network.

Bottom line: Diversity, equity, and inclusion are more than social responsibility initiatives. They must be foundational to business strategy. The CBA’s Diversity and Inclusion policy calls on lawyers to “identify and remove barriers to participation for those who have been historically excluded from, and remain underrepresented in, the legal profession,” and to “foster a culture of inclusion and respect where all members have the opportunity to achieve their full potential.”

It’s a powerful call-to-action for each of us.

*This article reflects the personal opinions of the author and do not represent those of people, institutions or organizations that the author may or may not be associated with in professional or personal capacity, unless explicitly stated.