Innovative programs help foreign-trained professionals integrate into legal community

Toronto Star
April 02, 2009

Madhavi Acharya-Tom Yew
Staff Reporter

Before moving to Canada, Amrit Soar spent 18 years as a partner at one of the oldest law firms in Nairobi, Kenya.

But it’s what she doesn’t have – Canadian work experience – that is keeping her from joining the legal community in her new country.

Fraser Milner Casgrain, a law firm with 500 lawyers and six offices across the country, wants to change that, through two innovative programs geared to foreign-trained legal professionals.

The firm has developed a six-month paid internship position, as well as a mentorship program, that pairs seasoned Fraser employees with new Canadians.

Both programs share a common goal: to help newcomers make professional contacts and gain Canadian work experience while they are in the process of getting their foreign credentials recognized.

That process can take years, and cost thousands of dollars. Even advocates who say the process needs to be strict acknowledge it can put a hardship on immigrants who, in the meantime, typically find themselves shut out of the workforce.

“That’s the real challenge of it. You come here as a lawyer and suddenly you’re not a lawyer anymore,” says Fraser partner and mentor Michael Schafler. “It does take a personal toll on the person who comes here. They do need to get on with their lives and make a livelihood while they’re getting qualified.”

Karen Tuschak, Fraser’s director of paraprofessional services teaches night courses at Seneca College, and sees foreign-trained lawyers who are struggling.

“They’re in a kind of void where they want to practise law but they can’t afford to do all their exams. They’re really bright and intelligent people that have moved to a country and, all of a sudden, can’t use any of their credentials.”

Soar came to Canada in April 2007. She wanted to join her siblings here and was seeking peace after the violent outbreaks that followed Kenya’s national elections. She interviewed with job agencies but nothing came of it. “They seem positive but I think the fact that you don’t have Canadian experience is a definite negative,” she says.

She has just started Fraser’s internship program, which was developed with input from the University of Toronto, Osgoode Hall and [the Toronto Region Immigrant Employment Council] (TRIEC).

For the next six months, she will work as a law clerk in all of the firm’s practice areas.

“They’re really integrated as a full member of the firm,” Tuschak says. “Then they have Canadian experience and they have contacts, so it just opens up a whole new world of opportunity for them in Canada.”

Best of all, Soar says, it’s an opportunity that lets her make a valuable contribution to the firm.

Reference: Toronto Star