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LSO bencher candidates shed light on barriers faced by internationally trained lawyers

Tuesday, April 16, 2019 @ 9:42 AM | By Amanda Jerome

Internationally trained lawyers face barriers to the profession that include systemic racism, biases based on “Canadian experience” and a difficult to access articling process, studies and lawyers say.

However, this group of legal professionals continues to grow, making up 30 per cent of all applicants licensed in 2018. Candidates running in this month’s Law Society of Ontario (LSO) bencher election are paying attention and want to give them a voice at the table.

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Atrisha Lewis, McCarthy Tétrault LLP

Atrisha Lewis, a senior associate with McCarthy Tétrault LLP and a bencher candidate for the Toronto region, is advocating for internationally trained lawyers, noting the LSO should improve ways to integrate them into the profession.

“I think it’s important because it’s really a fairness issue. I think we’ve got some systemic barriers in our profession that prevent foreign trained lawyers from accessing our profession,” she said, pointing to the report “Closed Shops: Opening Canada’s Legal Profession to Foreign-Educated Lawyers” by Lauren Heuser as an example of the disparity in employment match rates.

The report, released in 2017 by the Centre for International Governance Innovation and the Institute for Canadian Citizenship, notes that the employment match rate for lawyers born and trained in Canada is 69 per cent, compared to 12 per cent for internationally trained lawyers.

Lewis acknowledged that the law society has paid a lot of attention to diversity and inclusion issues and initiatives, but needs to do more to support internationally trained lawyers, who represent a “huge segment of the legal population.”

“That’s why I think it’s important to be a voice because [foreign trained lawyers] historically haven’t had a voice. I think it may not be a popular cause to champion, but I think it’s the right thing to do,” she stressed.

Lewis believes legal professionals might not want to advocate on behalf of internationally trained lawyers because of the articling crisis. She acknowledged that it’s a “protectionist view” to have, but the concern she sees is: “if we make it easier for them, if we help this bloc of people, are we hurting our own?”

Lewis is not an internationally trained lawyer, as she graduated from the University of Toronto. However, her family immigrated to Canada from the Seychelles when she was very young, so she has “seen firsthand the struggle that immigrants [and] foreign trained people [face] to find work in Canada.”

One of the barriers internationally trained lawyers face, Lewis said, is the licensing process, which she described as “cumbersome,” “complex” and “individualized.”

Lewis also noted the timing of exam results being released can interfere with candidates’ ability to sign up for the bar exam, creating another barrier.

“There [are] some timing issues in the process that are administrative that I think could be tweaked to make the timeline more streamlined,” she explained, adding that one of the biggest barriers to entering the profession is getting an articling position.

“We’ve heard about the articling crisis, obviously, and I think that’s particularly acute for foreign trained lawyers,” she said, highlighting the lack of an access point for candidates who trained outside Canada.

“I think about how I got a job and it was through on campus recruitment. Firms came to U of T Law and interviewed me, and I got a second-year summer job,” she explained, adding that the last time she interviewed for a legal position was in 2010.  

“When you think about that, it’s kind of crazy because you get your second-year summer job, and that’s how you get your articling job,” she noted, adding that leads to a career in the profession. “If you are not on campus and you can’t do the on-campus recruitment process then you’re never getting into that funnel, or that path, and it just makes it so much harder to get in when you miss the big easy entry way that everyone funnels through.”

Lewis believes on-campus and interview reform will make a “material difference for foreign trained lawyers.”

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Isfahan Merali, bencher running for re-election for the Toronto region

Isfahan Merali, a bencher running for re-election for the Toronto region, said that, although Convocation makes decisions about the governance of the profession in the public interest, it’s important to adapt the governance model “to the many ways in which the composition of the profession is changing.”

“The law society does recognize that there’s a growing number of internationally trained lawyers who are applicants to the licensing process,” she explained, noting that in 2018 the number of internationally trained applicants represented 30 per cent of all licensees.

Merali is not an internationally trained lawyer herself, but she has been mentoring internationally trained lawyers and National Committee on Accreditation (NCA) students over the past six years and has heard of the numerous barriers they face.

“Sometimes it’s because of the systemic discrimination that we know exists in the legal profession, or stereotypes or bias that comes from someone’s different ethnic origin, or country of origin, or accent, or language, or creed,” she said, adding that foreign trained lawyers not having “Canadian experience” is a “ridiculous” barrier people come up against all the time.

“The [Ontario] Human Rights Commission has looked at this issue and, in my view, that term ‘Canadian experience’ is code for other things, which are really just stereotypes and bias about someone’s ethnic origin or country of origin. That is a barrier I think [that] is unacceptable. Certainly you should be looking at their skills and training experience, and of course it’s appropriate for law societies to set standards to meet educational, experiential and ethical requirements. It’s important to ensure competence, but there are barriers that I think are posed for internationally trained lawyers, which are not only inappropriate, but actually I think are a barrier for the employers,” she added, noting the enormous skill set internationally trained professionals can bring to the table.

Merali pointed to the consultation process done by the LSO’s Challenges Faced by Racialized Licensees Working Group, which found that “internationally trained lawyers often face a combination of disadvantages, such as few professional network opportunities; language challenges; a different culture than their colleagues; lack of critical transition from law school to a first professional position in Ontario; and lack of mentors and contacts.”

Merali noted that there’s “confusion or lack of sufficient information on the licensing process,” so even though the LSO has some resources available, she thinks internationally trained lawyers still find it difficult to navigate through the information.

“The other barrier I hear about often is the NCA exam process is difficult because it requires self-study and you have to get your own course materials, and I think that’s why a lot of students take the LPP program because of the assistance they get. A lot of students tell me how cost-prohibitive it is and that the length of time that it takes to do the exams impacts employment opportunities and when they can do their bar,” she added.

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Akshata Srinath, internationally trained lawyer going through licensing process in Toronto

Akshata Srinath, is an internationally trained lawyer going through the licensing process in Toronto. She graduated from Bangalore University with a bachelor of arts and law degree and was called to the Delhi Bar Council in October 2011. She subsequently did a dual master of laws course from New York University School of Law and National University of Singapore, graduating in 2014, and has a combined five years of work experience at firms in India and Singapore, yet she’s facing barriers in Canada.

“The entire [licensing] process was time-consuming. Since I have five years of experience, going through the NCA process and studying again was challenging. Since I had experience in two jurisdictions, I presumed it would be easy for me to get an articling position. That wasn’t the case hence I had to seek an exemption from articling,” she explained in an e-mail to The Lawyer’s Daily.

Srinath has had recruiters tell her that her resumé was not Canadian enough, which she said really made her question her experience. She noted that the emphasis on Canadian experience is “disheartening” it seems as if her international experience is not good enough for the local market.

“[T]here is a stereotype that foreign trained lawyers are not as good as law students who went to Canadian universities,” she added.

“Everyone will tell you to go for events and meet-ups, but it becomes difficult to repeat the same thing over and over again and [it] impacts you emotionally. For a person like me, who really wants to practise law and nothing else, these are the major barriers,” she explained.

Srinath believes law firms can help by making space for internationally trained lawyers in their articling programs, so they can prove their skill sets along with articling students from Canada.

Merali acknowledged that although more needs to be done to assist foreign trained lawyers, the law society has several resources available to assist them.

“One of the initiatives is the law society, in conjunction with the government, developed a career map for internationally trained lawyers,” she said, adding that the map explains “in clear language” the steps needed to be licensed in Ontario.

“It’s a small initiative, but it can really help. The law society is also been working closely with the [Ontario] Office of the Fairness Commissioner to ensure that the requirements of fair access [under the] Fair Access to Regulated Professions and Compulsory Trades Act is implemented in our licensing process,” she noted, adding that the law society is also represented on the Council of the Federation of Law Societies of Canada, which promotes development of national standards.

“I think this is an area where I think it would be nice to see even more work to ensure more fairness and equity and looking at breaking down the specifics of the process that internationally trained lawyers go through and how we can make it more accessible,” she explained, noting that the LSO is also a member of  the Ontario Regulators for Access Consortium, a group of regulators that work together to improve access to professions by internationally trained individuals.

According to the LSO website, voting starts on April 15 and closes on April 30.