Guiding Tips for Lawyers Seeking to Requalify in Canada

Ellen Pekilis

General Counsel, CSA Group

Presume the law firm or organization you are applying to knows nothing about your school or work experience.  It is your job to educate them.

If you are a recent graduate, be aware that grading systems in other countries may be completely different.  The potential employer may have trouble understanding what your diploma meant, or how the grading system worked and what it meant in terms of your class standing.  The potential employer may not know what the entrance qualifications for your school were.

Your law school results mean less and less the longer you have been in the workplace.  If you have a lot of work experience in your home country, the potential employer may not know the reputation or work of your firm or company. Tell them what the company did, what size it was, what type of work you did, what its reputation was and why it is relevant to what you are applying for.

Toronto is an extremely multi-cultural place.  Coming from somewhere else is not as much of a distinguishing factor as you think it might be.

Aside from core legal skills, employers are looking for you to demonstrate:

English: both oral and written, needs to be perfect.  Take extra classes if your English is shaky.  Although Toronto is extremely multi-cultural, a heavy accent can reinforce people’s cultural biases or stereotypes, particularly if locals find you difficult to understand.  Consider taking classes to help reduce a heavy accent.

Organizational and computer skills. Familiarity with basic word computer programs like MS Word, PowerPoint and Excel are critical. It is a cultural norm here that you may be expected to self-manage a lot of administrative tasks such as creating your own documents, presentations and spreadsheets; booking appointments and travel arrangements; scanning and photocopying that might have been handled by clerical support staff in your home country.  This is viewed as part of the job here, particularly in an in-house or government department where there is very little administrative support.   Law firms may have more clerical support.

Research the organizations to which you are applying. A shotgun approach where you send a resume to every firm in a database is not helpful and wastes everybody’s time. If you are interested in family law, do not apply to firms that specialize in commercial law.  Research your target firm or organization and see if you can find out if they do any business relevant to your home country, in which case your contacts, language and skills from your homeland may be a real selling point.

Particular legal specialties in which international experience and foreign language skills may be an asset include IP and international arbitration.

Research the process to become qualified as a lawyer.   Don’t expect a potential employer to explain this to you or help you with it. The national accreditation certificate is a mandatory requirement that everyone from another country needs to requalify to practice law in Canada.  It establishes your credentials but does not help distinguish you from the other applicants.

Be aware that right now there are more people trying to enter the legal field than there are jobs.  It is tough for local people too; locals are also having trouble finding jobs and articling positions.

Be aware that not all difficulties in finding an articling or legal position are related to racism or cultural bias.  It is a very competitive market right now.

Be open minded about career possibilities.  Don’t limit yourself to practicing law.  Think about  other jobs a law degree can lead to.  Check the library for some books that can give you suggestions.  Two that I have used include:  “Alternative Careers for Lawyers” by Hillary Mantis, published by the Princeton Review and “What Can You Do With a Law Degree?  A Lawyer’s Guide to Career Alternatives Inside, Outside & Around the Law” by Deborah Arron.

Be prepared to move backwards or sideways in the short run to succeed in the long run.  If you had a very senior position with a lot of experience in your home country, be prepared to accept that an articling position is a junior role and you will have to do work that you used to assign to students or junior lawyers.

Accept that as you adjust to your new surroundings, you may have to report to and accept instructions from someone much younger and possibly less experienced than you are.   Do not view this as demeaning.  Accept that despite your many years of experience in your homeland, at this time and in this context, a younger person may have more expertise than you do while yougrow accustomed to Canada.

Beware of Cultural norms:  No cultures are better than others, but be aware that you may be entering a culture that may be different. Cultural competency means watching, listening and learning how people relate to each other, with a goal of relating to people and responding in ways that put people at ease and doesn’t make them uncomfortable.

Depending on your homeland, you may not be used to women in the workplace.  Be aware that women compete equally with men in the Canadian workplace.  Be prepared that your supervisor and colleagues may be female and will expect to be treated with the same respect as a male supervisor and colleagues.

Toronto is an extremely culturally diverse city. Expect to work with people from many different cultures and belief systems including co-workers who may be openly gay.  All are different but all need equal respect.

In both Canadian and American culture, there is a cultural concept called a “low power differential”.  This means, for example, that there is less of a social gap between senior managers and their workers than might exist in other countries and cultures.  Mostpeople communicate with each other on a first name basis, including colleagues, managers and clients.  Addressing someone as “Mr.” or “Ms” and their surname is never exactly wrong, particularly the first time you might them.  However, it might be considered too stiff and formal in many circumstances  and would be a signal that you don’t quite get the local culture – particularly around co-workers who would think it was odd.  Not wrong, but unusual.  In my company, for example, everybody addresses the President & CEO by his first name only.  Everybody.

Clarifying uncertainty:  Another subtle cultural concept in Canadian/US culture is clarifying uncertainty or ambiguity.  Here, the person delivering a message is expected to be very clear about their message and expectations.  If you don’t understand what the person meant, ask.  It is the speaker’s social responsibility to clarify anything that you do not understand.

Use your networks and contacts.  In your homeland, your firm may have been part of an international association like Lex Mundi or a trade association like INTA, the International Trademarks Association.   Many Canadian firms are part of these international networks and associations as well.   Find out if someone from your old workplace in your homeland can use their connections through one of these networks or associations to introduce you to a firm in Canada.  A recommendation from a network partner or association member can help give the Canadian law firm or employer some assurance of the standard or quality of your work experience in your homeland.

Reach out to unofficial networks.  There are many groups that provide support for lawyers from different ethnic groups, like the Hispanic Ontario Lawyers Association, the Canadian Association of Black Lawyers, the Federation of Asian Canadian Lawyers, or the South Asian Bar Association of Toronto.  Join groups that are relevant to you for mutual support and to find mentors from more senior members of the community who have already made the transition.

The Law Society of Upper Canada and the Bar Association have mentor programs.  You can apply to work with a mentor who can provide you with guidance.

Bridging the gap: Employers know and understand that even though you may have been a very successful lawyer in your homeland, economic necessity may have required you to take another job to support yourself and your family while you requalify and look for a job in Canada.  Employers have seen applications from lawyers who have been working as security guards and taxi drivers; whatever they can find.  Most people here  do have some exposure and sensitivity to the difficulties of immigration and resettling.  Everybody understands that you may have to do lower paying work to get yourself through the process.  Your challenge is to bridge the gap by finding some opportunities to do volunteer legal services so you can demonstrate that you have been keeping in touch with the law and legal developments over the past few years while you requalify.  Consider working at legal clinics or volunteering for research projects through the Pro Bono program.  Try to avoid having the non-legal experience as the top line on your resume.

So, what else can you do with a law degree?  When I went to law school I was convinced that practicing law meant working at a major law firm.  In fact, only a minority of lawyers in Ontario work at big law firms.   Within 10 years of graduating law school, not a single member of my graduating class at Osgoode was left at one of the major Toronto law firms.  So, what did everybody do?

·      Some left to start their own firms.

·      Some went to practice law in the government.

·      Some went in-house and work in companies.

Many others have left the profession of law entirely. Here is a list of the paths that some of my friends and colleagues have followed outside the legal profession:

·      Legal editor / writer at legal publishing company

·      Commercial / technical writer – writes annual reports for companies.

·      University/college professor

·      Primary school teacher

·      Advertising

·      Executive director of trade association

·      Property management

·      Financial advisor to individuals

·      HR recruitment

·      Started an IT company with her brother that dealt with some kind of telecommunications equipment.  Neither of them were engineers.  They were simply entrepreneurial and took a lot of risks that paid off.

·      Ran a company that sold wind turbines.

·      Investment counselor for publicly traded company –key contact for brokers

·      Runs engineering consultancy.  Before that he worked at an industry trade association.

·      Importer / wholesale of ceramic pottery from Mexico

·      Labour relations negotiator on staff in HR department of company·      Government relations / advisor to politician

·      Privacy consultant

There are a lot of jobs in compliance:  bank compliance, mining (environment/OSH, bribery/corruption, conflict minerals), retail (corporate social responsibility auditing); pharmaceutical (Health Canada/ FDA) but personally I don’t know people who have entered these fields.  I just see a lot of job ads for those types of positions, and it would be a natural extension from a legal background, probably with some sector specific education or accreditation.