The law school's innovative program for internationally trained lawyers ends its first year with challenges, determination - and success stories

Story by Shree Paradkar

From the Spring/Summer 2011 issue of Nexus.

     Maureen Bennett Henry
Determined to succeed: Maureen Bennett Henry

On any given day, lawyers Gurpreet Shergill, Maureen Bennett Henry and Adil Hirani are likely to be polishing up their resumes, working the telephones, knocking on doors and interviewing, interviewing, interviewing. One of their classmates has already found an articling position and the pressure - personal, societal and financial - is on them to gain entry in the formidably challenging field of law in Canada.

They are but three students from a group of 47, mostly immigrants from 21 countries, brought together by a unique pilot program at U of T. The Internationally Trained Lawyers Program (ITLP) opened its doors to students in May 2010 to assist foreign-trained lawyers seeking to practice law in Ontario. Career adviser Jane Price, who helped to launch it, calls it "a gigantic step" in the field of law. "I'm very optimistic about its impact on the profession."

On the one side is a profession whose practitioners - on the whole - don't look like the diverse clients they represent. On the other are diverse folks arriving with qualifications but not the "Canadian experience" or know-how to practice here without jumping through a few hoops first. These range from challenge exams with particularly low passing rates to finding articling positions without a network of contacts. Add to these the usual settlement issues of moving one's life to a new country, and the stress levels keep building.

It's not that the barriers to entry in the profession are unnecessary. But, says Price "We have encouraged professional immigrants to come to Canada, and then provide no way to make use of their training. This is a recipe for unhappiness and disillusionment, and not a very productive use of people."

ITLP director Gina Alexandris is equally blunt: "I'm not sure how an immigrant can get experience here … It would be very difficult for a lawyer not familiar with the system to get Canadian work experience."

Student Karena Cui, 35, who emigrated from China two years ago, says her inability to get a job is due to her lack of experience here. It's also a different legal system, she says; a civil law system in China versus a common law system here that makes it very difficult for Chinese to pursue law in Canada.

"There are very, very few Chinese lawyers practicing in Canada," says Price, who argues that lawyers with cultural affinity to a segment of the population would draw people to a legal system that is otherwise not easily accessible to them.

This is where the ITLP, which received a $4 million grant from the Government of Ontario in June 2009, steps in. For $3,500, it trains qualified students for the National Committee of Accreditation exams and educates them about the licensure process. It's a 10-month program combining academic training and an unpaid internship.

At the group's celebration of completion in March, valedictorian Shahrina Salam said, "This was the toughest and also the most rewarding 10 months I have ever lived."

The training includes coaching for the challenge exams, dealing with career development issues, and participating in seminars and workshops with professionals. Sure, the newcomers can study for the NCA exams on their own, but students speak of classroom synergy and teacher feedback as essential tools to the learning process.

"The experience we got through the program - including exposure to communication skills and English language skills - has been very valuable," says Gurpreet Shergill, 48, who went to law school at India's Panjab University. "We would not have been able to find the resources available to us without the program."

For Maureen Bennett Henry, lacking the right connections was a challenge to jump-starting her law career in Canada. "The program has helped us to open doors in terms of our networking. The exposure the program gave us to the profession has been tremendous." Prior to doing the course, she says, "We didn't know some of the processes, we didn't know places to go, where to look for support."

She values, for instance, the Faculty of Law arranging student access to Supreme Court hearings and meetings with judges before attending sessions in court.

Henry is a case study in determination. She graduated from law school in Jamaica at the University of the West Indies (Mona). When she came here to get her equivalency, she was assessed by the NCA and asked to do nine challenge exams. She needed a study break. But the bank she worked at did not grant her a five-month break, even without pay. She decided to leave her job to do the ITLP.

During the course of the program, she lost her husband, her companion of 19 years, to stomach cancer. And she battled emotional and financial crises while taking care of her six-year-old daughter. There were times, she says, when she didn't have enough money to buy a GO Transit pass.

But she says, "God opened doors I didn't even know existed. Things just worked in supernatural ways." Her sister and other family members helped her with money, and she hunkered down to do her exams and the internship.

"I keep telling myself, once we get accredited, once we are called to the bar, we will be fine," she says.

Nirav Bhatt
Nirav Bhatt says the ITLP helped him gain Canadian experience,
"the most fundamental of contributions."

The theme of help from family is repeated with Shergill, whose brother and sister are supporting him financially while he studies and applies for jobs.

At the crux of the ITLP is the internship at workplaces to give students exposure to critical "Canadian experience."

Nirav Bhatt, 25, a student who landed an articling position at a small firm in the Brampton area, can't emphasize enough the role of the internship in his success.

"The program helped me to get Canadian experience … the most fundamental of contributions." Bhatt says he would not have received the exposure to as many as eight internship interviews were it not for the ITLP.

The internships place emphasis on research and writing skills that are uniquely Canadian. Shergill says he would have liked more training to be productive and more effective at internships. "In India, with litigation courts, there is hardly any memo writing. The tools there are different - most research is still done via books and legal journals."

Henry was familiar with the research tools, having used them in Jamaica. But she found the writing style different. "It is a lot more concise … stronger and crisper" than what she was used to.

Price agrees. There is no room for "flowery" writing, she says. "Legal memos are quite distinct. The language is more succinct. There is not a lot of background analysis … it's very distilled."

Despite these challenges, Lucille D'Souza, senior counsel at RBC, where Henry and Shergill did their internships, says, "These students were extremely well-prepared with a solid knowledge of Canadian legal principles and the ability to jump into any research or drafting project that they were assigned."

While setting up the internships, program co-ordinators were thrilled to find firms stepping up, firms such as Blake, Cassels & Graydon LLP. That's where Canadian-born Adil Hirani, 32, who studied law at the University of the Witwatersrand at Johannesburg, South Africa, landed.

Hirani practiced for two years at Webber Wentzel, a top tier South African law firm. He returned to Canada in 2009 and his assessment by the NCA required him to do nine challenge exams. "My single qualification (LLB) didn't allow me to work here," he says.

For him, an internship meant an otherwise inaccessible opportunity to be on Bay St., even if it also meant slogging it out seven days a week, knowing the firm was not hiring. "You have to be committed to being a lawyer," he says, "I've had to put my life on hold (to give it a chance)."

His research skills were considered below par compared to the articling students at Blakes at first, which he says he recovered with training, and his drafting skills and opinion work were above average.

While Hirani's workplace challenges were profession-related, workplace differences can also be cultural, says career adviser Price. "There are different perceptions about the role of students. 'Shopping for jobs' where you actively seek out work is common here, but for students from other cultures, it might seem pushy."

There are also differences in degrees of hierarchy. Students "won't necessarily play the devil's advocate, and a supervisor might think the person is being passive, when in fact they are just being polite." To that end, the program also has a half day of training with host supervisors on cross-cultural conflicts and issues.

Cultural differences also posed an interesting challenge for ITLP teachers. Kubes Navaratnam, a teaching assistant for the legal ethics and professional responsibility course, says his biggest challenge was the diverse set of assumptions underlying students' interpretation of Canadian law. "These varying unspoken assumptions often presented challenges in our discussions, because students were not always aware of the premise of another's argument."

The concept of "shades of grey" in Canadian law proved to be the biggest learning curve that most students had to overcome, he says. The teachers focussed the students' attention on identifying issues and the applicable law in a given scenario, rather than finding the right answer. They worked on making students comfortable with the notion that there might not be a right answer.

At the end of the program, two of the students have landed jobs - one in an articling position, the other in communications work for a law firm. For the rest, the program has filled them with optimism and the knowledge that they'll be making informed decisions.

Karena Cui credits the program for familiarizing her with the Canadian legal system, and opening her eyes to all the possibilities in the legal field. Having considered her options, she has decided to change course.

"I will complete a paralegal program and get my diploma this October, then take the paralegal licensing examination next February."

For Shergill, Henry and Hirani, the search continues to find articling positions. Their classmate Bhatt has one piece of advice. "Attend all or any networking sessions."

One thing is certain. They won't give up.

Photographs: Mathew Filipowich (Henry), Michelle Yee (Bhatt)