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In memory of Jocelyn Frazer, the Alberta Law Society’s Ombudsperson and Practice Advisor.

I just came back from the Law Society’s second networking event for Internationally Trained Lawyers (ITLs) in Calgary.  While there, I had a flashback to my first Canadian job interview for a legal assistant position, where I was asked if I could type 60 words per minute.

At the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg, France, where I supported a bench of 40+ judges as a fully credentialed lawyer – with two of my own assistants – I never really had a chance to test my typing skills. “Sure, I guess I can do 60”.

The interview was a tough reminder that transitioning into the Canadian legal profession as an ITL would not be an easy endeavour. A year after that interview, I  would be at UVic starting my first year of law school (well, if you don’t count the previous seven years I spent practicing as a lawyer all over Europe). Three years later I would article at one of the “big firms” in Calgary.

At the time, the accreditation process was in its infancy and the Law Society’s drive to recognize and help integrate ITLs was led by Jocelyn Frazer, the Law Society’s Ombudsperson and Practice Advisor. Jocelyn was just an amazing human being. She worked tirelessly with the National Committee on Accreditation (NCA) in Ottawa, with law firms big and small here in Alberta, and anyone who could help mentor and support the wave of ITLs that was about to hit Alberta.

Ten years later, these internationally trained lawyers have completely redefined the legal market in Alberta. The NCA has a process that accommodates civil lawyers, as well as those from common law jurisdictions. Students can take exams overseas, the timelines and accreditation steps are all set out, easy to follow and allow foreign trained lawyers to obtain the equivalent of a Canadian law degree. The Law Society is also fully engaged and supportive of ITLs in all kinds of ways. It is great to see Jocelyn’s hard work leading to a market for legal services where diversity of skillsets, cultures and languages is celebrated and acknowledged in a meaningful way.

At the ITL networking event, I saw lawyers from every continent – former judges, prosecutors, human rights lawyers and senior commercial attorneys. We exchanged stories about our legal cultures and education, our expectations and our realities, our language skills and what we are best at. Each of these lawyers brings to the table an incredibly rich and diverse background and skillset.

It is no longer the world of “typing 60 words per minute”. Instead, they article and work everywhere – from government to big firms, medium and small firms, solo and niche practices, Big 4, in-house, family, criminal, tax, you name it, the ITLs “fit in” and succeed practically everywhere. This is what our legal market looks (and sounds) like today – the languages and different ethnic backgrounds are an advantage, something that is leveraged to develop new practice areas, attract new clients and files, bring new energy into our boardrooms and courtrooms.

You can immediately tell that these practitioners know a thing or two about commitment, patience and hard work – the very three things that made Alberta a Province in the first place.

You can immediately tell that these practitioners know a thing or two about commitment, patience and hard work – the very three things that made Alberta a Province in the first place.

The networking events for these lawyers no longer focus on “breaking into the market”. ITLs  are growing the market – starting their own firms, enriching old, well-known legal shops and redefining what the profession is about in modern day Alberta. It turns out that ITLs bring not only languages or new cultures into the office, but also a whole range of legal skills and backgrounds that were developed overseas, which can (and should) be capitalized on in Canada. Many of these lawyers have investigated human rights cases and war crimes, worked at multinational energy giants in European capitals, developed government policies and legislation in Africa. The list goes on.

From what I heard and discussed during the course of  this event, it is clear that our law firms and in-house groups are starting to recognize these skills and connections, and put them to good use here in Alberta, which was exactly the Law Society’s vision 15 years ago. I am sure Jocelyn would have been pleased to know how far we have made it as a profession, and how much this recognition means to so many lawyers (and their families) who have chosen Canada as their new home.