Foreign-trained lawyers hold their breath for help

Foreign-trained lawyers hold their breath for help
January 15, 2009

Paul Dalby

The legal profession in Ontario is perhaps the last place you would expect initiatives to create a level playing field for newcomers, especially from other countries.

Nigerian lawyer Nicholas Owodunni found out just how tough when he arrived one year ago with his new wife, Elizabeth, a Canadian-trained social worker.

Owodunni, 39, had trained at the Obafemi Awolowo University and the Nigerian Law School before logging seven years of general law practice.

But he was not prepared for the maze of requirements and regulations that sat between him and a law career in Ontario.

“The actual problem I had was in getting my accreditation,” he says. “I had to call back to Nigeria to get actual transcripts from law school and the university.” That took a lot of time.

Now, Owodunni must write nine exams, each costing $525 before he can search for an articling job.

Meanwhile, he has obtained his licence as a financial adviser, but he is determined to return to law.

Internationally trained lawyers following in Owodunni’s footsteps might have an easier time in the future, thanks to new plans being rolled out in the halls of Toronto’s world of law.

The first is a pilot project that seeks to bridge the gap for newcomers from overseas, which is being launched by one of the country’s pre-eminent law firms, Fraser Milner Casgrain (FMC).

Deadline for applications to the six-month paid internship program at FMC closed earlier this month and the first candidates will arrive at the Toronto law firm in early February.

The internship will break down the mysteries of the law culture in Canada and give candidates work experience to put on their resumés and provide contacts in the profession.

Those assets are considered essential to nailing down the all-important articling job that launches law careers in Canada.

Meanwhile, the University of Toronto Faculty of Law has submitted a proposal to the Ontario government for an end-to-end bridging program to help ease internationally trained lawyers into the Canadian system.

“While FMC’s work is fantastic, we need more,” says Jane Price, faculty director of professional diversity and legal opportunities. “If we get government funds, we will use FMC’s internship as a pilot to try and get other people to follow suit.”

The U of T proposal would provide international lawyers with job skills training, courses on cultural fluency, academic courses and a job placement.

Price says the decks are currently stacked against internationally trained lawyers. “Their barriers are really enormous, and I think people are recognizing we are not doing a fantastic job here.”

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