It is not an easy ride

Kirk Makin
Globe and Mail

July 02, 2009

Charu Ruparelia wasn’t expecting to waltz into Canada and transfer her legal skills with ease. Nor, however, did she anticipate an out-and-out ordeal.

A Tanzanian immigrant who obtained her law degree in England, Ms. Ruparelia first had to devote many frustrating hours to figuring out which holes in her education needed patching.

She eventually sat for eight examinations – worrying all the while that she might never find an articling position afterward.

For someone who was already grappling with a major social and cultural shift, the experience was mystifying, and a touch overwhelming: “It is not an easy ride,” said Ms. Ruparelia, 27. “I definitely found the process a lot more difficult than I thought it would be.”

But the path has been cleared for other foreign lawyers following Ms. Ruparelia’s route, thanks to a program to be launched next spring that will ease the arduous journey into Canada’s legal firmament.

Created by the University of Toronto Law School with financing from the Ontario government, the Internationally Trained Lawyers Program will prepare approximately 100 foreign students each year for accreditation.

It will be a sorely needed addition to an already existing program.

That program, administered by the Federation of Law Societies of Canada and known as the National Committee on Accreditation (NCA), has provided “challenge examinations” to foreign students since 1976.

The NCA has struggled to keep up with the inflow of foreign lawyers, and exam results have been dismaying. According to its statistics, 3,206 foreign lawyers applied to be assessed from 1999 to 2007, but only 1,245 ended up with certificates of qualification.

“A lot of us have felt that it was a great waste that these really skilled immigrants are not able to get their credentials,” said University of Toronto law dean Mayo Moran. “My sense is that the current process is really, really frustrating to a lot of people.”

Part of the high failure rate is undoubtedly explained by the fact that foreign lawyers are obliged to enroll in courses designed for Canadian law students, without benefit of a local perspective.

Deborah Wolfe, managing director of the NCA, said the most common educational gap for internationally educated lawyers is core knowledge, “such as Canadian constitutional law, and other foundational knowledge specific to the Canadian context.”

Many foreign lawyers make a couple of attempts at the examinations and give up, said Jane Kidner, executive director of U of T’s Centre for the Legal Profession. “Of the ones who do make it through, how many actually find meaningful employment in the profession?” she added. “I don’t think the numbers are very high.”

In an attempt to tailor subject matter specifically to their needs, the new program will provide two- to three-week courses in such key areas as Canadian constitutional, administrative and criminal law.

“It would be almost like a crash course,” Ms. Kidner said. “More intensive, more practical, and more focused on conveying the information that’s going to be necessary to get them up to speed quickly to pass their challenge exams.”

Equally important, the program will feature a strong practical component that includes networking, mentoring, creating résumés, preparing for job interviews, job placements and learning technical language that is specific to the Canadian legal profession.

Ms. Ruparelia – whose primary interest is in litigation and mergers and acquisitions – said the greatest hurdle the foreign lawyer faces is uncertainty and apprehension about how he or she will land a suitable articling position.

Now in the middle of a four-month summer internship with Advocates for Injured Workers, a student legal clinic at U of T, Ms. Ruparelia is gaining invaluable exposure to the law before seeking an articling position next month.

Being affiliated with a law school was invaluable in supplying her confidence and work placement contacts, she said: “This is allowing me to develop my advocacy skills further whilst gaining some firsthand legal experience in Canada. It is also a great outlet to work alongside Canadian law students and learn from their experiences.”

Norm Bacall, managing partner at Heenan Blaikie LLP, said his firm sees the program as an enhancement to its strategy of actively pursuing business opportunities in other countries.

“I think we’ll probably be looking for people with specific skill sets,” Mr. Bacall said. “Right now, our business strategy, as a firm, is to be exporting our expertise internationally. We are looking at particular jurisdictions, and somebody who has some expertise in that jurisdiction would be valuable to us.”

Ms. Moran said 10 firms have already signed on as potential employers for newly accredited foreign lawyers. “They are incredibly keen and recognize that there is an enormous pool of lawyers,” she said.

And will the new program make a dent in the ranks of frustrated foreign lawyers? “A much, much bigger one than the current process has made,” she promised.

Reference: Globe and Mail