Thursday Thinkpiece: Internationally-Trained Lawyers Need More Than Just NCA Exams

For those of us raised in Canada and who studied law here, it can be easy to forget that the way we practise law is very… Canadian.

While we’re all aware that there are substantive differences between Canadian law and the law of other jurisdictions, it’s much easier to forget that the practice of law varies just as much from nation to nation. There’s more than one way to do almost anything, and the Canadian legal system is founded on a very specific set of choices, norms, and traditions.

Upon arriving in Canada from her native Australia, and despite her background as an academic from another common law system, Dr. Kellinde Wrightson – now Executive Director of the Foreign Trained Lawyers Program at the Faculty of Law, University of Calgary – felt a surprising measure of culture shock. With the help of mentors and colleagues within the Alberta legal community, she found her feet; but she wasn’t willing to simply forget the barriers and biases she observed along the way. Now an associate Professor of Law, Wrightson decided to write the very text she would have found helpful during her own adjustment period.

As her publisher, when we first agreed to publish Decoding Canadian Legal Research, Writing, and Conventions, we thought of it as merely a supplement to our existing legal research text The Comprehensive Guide to Legal Research, Writing & Analysis. But as we became more familiar with the manuscript, we realized we’d be publishing something much more important. Decoding would grow, before our eyes, into a code-breaking guide to the eccentricities of the Canadian legal system as seen through the eyes of a recent outsider.

How is our system eccentric? Well, for starters, we have articling, unknown in most of the legal world. We have the concept of parallel systems of law and equity. Our lawyers must pass both a barrister and a solicitor exam to be called to the bar. But these are just some of the well-known “big things”. To get a sense of the mysterious small things, imagine this: you’ve been a lawyer in India for decades, but you wake up one morning as an associate in a Canadian law firm. Your first meeting of the workday is a Zoom gathering of your county law association, and it starts with someone reciting an Indigenous land acknowledgment. The implications make your head spin, but no time to think about all that – it’s off to court to set a date for a trial. You scramble into your robes and rush to the courtroom – where nobody is robed (but will be, come afternoon, when you return in your street clothes). Then it’s back to the office to draft some pleadings which will be dropped right back on your desk, with half of the content – the best parts! – crossed out.

The most unlikely part of this story, of course, is the part about waking up as an associate in a Canadian law firm. THAT doesn’t just happen. Instead there are years spent requalifying, competing with local graduates for opportunities, and often despite years of practice experience, fighting a continual battle to defend your credentials.

Internationally-trained lawyers face huge obstacles in their quest to earn the right to practise here. It’s on all of us to do what we can to improve the welcome that we extend to them. By demystifying critical aspects of the system that most of us take for granted, Decoding Canadian Legal Research, Writing, and Conventions is Dr. Wrightson’s gift to those who follow her onto our shores. We at Emond Publishing are so proud to be its publisher.

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