FMC program inspires others to take action

Michael McKiernan

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Karen Tuschak (left) and Amrit Soar accepted the Vision Award for Immigrant Inclusion at the Toronto Region Immigrant Employment Council Immigrant Success Awards late last month.

When Amrit Soar arrived in Canada, she knew it wouldn’t be easy to qualify to practise law here.

Despite almost 20 years of experience in Nairobi, including seven years as a partner at a leading Kenyan firm, she expected a few hurdles. “I was hoping within two years, maybe two and a half,” she says.

Three years later, the clock is still counting on her effort to get qualified.

A costly and frustrating accreditation assessment gave her a clue that things weren’t going to go as planned. Then came the news she would need to take six exams despite the fact she had come from a common law country.

“You come in, and there’s a void,” Soar says. “You were a lawyer in Kenya and now you’re no longer a lawyer in Canada. It’s important to get into the job market, and I feel there should be a way to get into the job market that is legal-related.”

But a unique six-month paid internship for internationally trained lawyers, founded by Fraser Milner Casgrain LLP, offered Soar an escape from that void. She became the first intern in the program last March.

Soar rotated through the company’s main practice groups in much the same way an articling student would. Although she found the legal world here a lot more technology-driven than in Kenya, she says there were more similarities than she had expected in the way firms operate.

“Whenever I talked to lawyers, I always got the impression that it’s much more difficult to be a part of a Canadian law firm if you haven’t studied here and assimilated to the full system. I found it was far easier than that to fit in.”

Karen Tuschak, FMC’s director of paraprofessional services, supervises the internship. She says it has proven so successful the firm is now rolling it out to its offices across the country.

The idea started in late 2008, when FMC spotted a gap in assistance offered to lawyers trained abroad and began working with the Toronto Region Immigrant Employment Council (TRIEC) to find ways to help. Within months of those first meetings, FMC had set up the scheme and begun interviewing candidates. The speed of implementation impressed Elizabeth McIsaac, executive director of TRIEC, who says it demonstrated the firm’s commitment to change the system.

“They brought together senior partners, the head of [human resources], the head of diversity, and the managing partner for Toronto. In many cases, it takes time for decisions to come, but the decision-makers here were already saying, ‘Let’s go.'”

As a result, TRIEC recently rewarded FMC with one of its Immigrant Success Awards. For McIsaac, it’s hard to overstate the importance of the internship because of the fundamental change it makes to the system. She says Canadian students can enter a stream from the moment they’re in law school, working summer jobs and progressing from one opportunity to the next, something that’s not open to internationally trained lawyers.

FMC also took on the role of cheerleader for the program by, for example, working with the University of Toronto to help create its new bridging program for internationally trained lawyers and encouraging other Bay Street firms to take part. Starting in May, U of T will begin preparing foreign-trained lawyers for work here through a program that includes a work placement inspired in part by FMC’s internship.

A recent report commissioned by Ontario’s Office of the Fairness Commissioner praised the U of T program for integrating immigrants. The same study surveyed internationally and domestically trained people attempting to gain entry to Ontario’s 37 regulated professions, including law. It found that only 25 per cent of those trained abroad received licences, compared with 60 per cent of those trained in Canada.

“It’s a good investment by the province,” says Jean Augustine, Ontario’s fairness commissioner. “We need more programs like that. And I was really buoyed by the fact that there are several of the larger firms involved.”

Soar says she got particular benefit from the backing of a big law firm because of the networking opportunities it presented.

“When I did arrive here, I didn’t know many lawyer friends. I linked up with lawyers who had come here from Kenya, but at Fraser Milner I actually got a chance to network with people in the fraternity.”

But Tuschak says networking can work both ways as the firm can make new connections with immigrant communities.

“They bring a wealth of information we wouldn’t be able to get any other way. They have an insight into areas we service our clients in because we live in such a globalized economy. It makes good business sense.”


Reference: Law Times