Want to be a lawyer? Go down under - Macleans.ca

Want to be a lawyer? Go down under

If you don’t make the cut in Canada, Bond University wants you

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It was 3 a.m. as Warren Beil tried to toss a garbage bag into a dumpster and it burst over his head. At that moment, the Vancouver kitchen manager decided that it was time to explore other career opportunities. “I don’t want to be a chef,” he said to himself. “I think I’m going to go to law school.” It was December 2003, and he had already missed application deadlines at every Canadian university. Yet just a week later Beil, then 23, was on his way to Bond University, a law school in Australia that actively targets and recruits Canadian students.

Five years later, Beil — now completing his articling at a Vancouver law firm — is one of a growing number of future lawyers who are going abroad for their legal education. In 2007, 562 foreign-trained graduates applied to the National Committee on Accreditation, requesting the right to practice in Canada, up from 225 in 1999. If current trends continue, that number could grow by 200 applicants in as few as three years, according to Vern Krishna, a University of Ottawa law professor and former Treasurer of the Law Society of Upper Canada.

Bond is, by far, Canada’s most popular overseas law program. Since its founding in 1987, Australia’s first private university has geared its law program to attract Canadians. More than 140 are currently enrolled—making Bond’s population of Canadian law students almost as large as that of the University of Calgary’s faculty of law. Students meet fellow Canadians through the Canadian Law Students Association and study with visiting profs from the University of Saskatchewan, the University of Manitoba, and the University of Western Ontario. They can even study Canadian constitutional law (Canadian corporate law courses are in the works, too) and get credit from the University of Manitoba. To top it off, it all takes place on a campus in the suburbs of Gold Coast, Queensland, a lush paradise that is a hybrid between Miami Beach and Waikiki.

Victoria Heron, a manager with student recruitment agency AustraLearn, says there are three primary reasons students choose Bond: to get through law school faster (a law degree at Bond takes only two years, not three), to gain international experience—and because they weren’t accepted at a Canadian law school. Eric Colvin, a Bond professor and former dean who used to teach at the University of Saskatchewan, says that two-thirds of graduates return to Canada to practice law and most have no problem finding jobs and articling positions. “The students say that they are able to get employment,” he says. “The fact that they have got their law degree from somewhere like Australia makes them somewhat exotic and interesting creatures and law firms are very willing to see what they’ve got to offer.”

Beil thinks his global outlook gave him an edge when applying for articling positions. “A lot of the Canadian law grads have never worked. They have never done anything,” he says. “In this market, employers just want to see something different. I got out there and saw the world and it makes me way more interesting.” But among his peers at the University of Toronto where he later completed a second law degree, Beil had to fight Bond’s stigma as Last Chance U. “The appearance of Bond to a lot of people in Canada is that the school will let anybody under the sun in,” he says. “People say, ‘You went to Bond because you couldn’t get in anywhere else. You’re not as smart as the rest of us.’ It’s simply not true.”

However, the only entrance hurdle at Bond (no LSAT!) is a 75 per cent average, and even that is flexible. Although it is difficult to compare entering averages since each university calculates GPA differently, it appears Bond’s standards are significantly lower than its Canadian counterparts. For example, most applicants offered one of the 101 seats in the first year class at the University of Manitoba had a cumulative GPA over 3.75, approximately 81 per cent. At the University of Toronto, Canada’s most competitive law school, only 180 of 1,900 law applicants were admitted for 2008/09, with a median undergraduate average of approximately 85 per cent. Conversations with a number of Bond students and alumni suggest that many choose Bond precisely because of those less demanding admission requirements.

Krishna likens programs such as Bond to offshore medical schools, often in the Caribbean, that cater to affluent American (and now Canadian) students who can’t get into universities closer to home. Krishna says that as long as graduates are finding jobs—and he believes they are—these schools are offering an important service. “From a Canadian public policy point of view, these foreign schools serve an enormously useful purpose because they are training Canadians at their cost.”

“The fly in the ointment is these [foreign] schools are only available to those of substantial financial means,” Krishna says. Like the Caribbean medical school option, a law degree from Bond doesn’t come cheap. With an annual tuition of over $35,000, Bond is among the world’s most expensive law schools. In comparison, annual tuition in the law program at U of M is $8,600; a year at U of T, Canada’s most expensive law school, costs $20,155. (Note that Bond’s annual tuition is for three semesters.)

Bond professor Eric Colvin, who was instrumental in the move to bring more Canadian students to Bond, thinks the entrance requirements at Canadian schools are “artificially high.” He says law schools have expanded in other Commonwealth countries, allowing anyone with the intellectual capability to handle a legal education to get one. “Canada is in quite an unusual situation,” says Colvin. “There has been no expansion in legal education for a generation, since the late 1970s. And yet you’ve had enormous expansion in the economy, the legal profession and demand for legal services.”

The province of Ontario doesn’t agree that Canada needs more lawyers. Or at least not more lawyers whose educations are partially paid for by taxpayers. In July 2008, Ontario Minister of Training, Colleges and Universities John Malloy announced the government would not fund any new law schools—dashing plans at Laurentian University, Lakehead University and for a joint program at Wilfrid Laurier and the University of Waterloo—because of concerns there may not be enough entry-level jobs to go around. A recent Law Society of Upper Canada taskforce reported that as many as 1,730 law school grads could be sparring for Ontario’s 1,300 existing articling positions by 2009.

Although Canadian law schools know exactly where their graduates work, Bond couldn’t provide employment data about their Canada-bound grads. Matt Miernik, director of student recruitment agency OzTrekk, says, “Australian universities generally haven’t done a very good job of tracking their international alum.” But anecdotal evidence, according to Miernik, suggests that around three quarters of Bond grads returning to Canada find employment within six months of their credential being recognized. Colvin says most go to mid-sized firms. Canadian Bond alumni can also be found at top firms including Lawson Lundell and Blake, Cassels & Graydon in Canada, Davis Polk & Wardwell and Skadden, Arps, Slate, Meagher & Flom in New York, Freshfields Bruckhaus Deringer in London, and at leading firms in Australia. Bond’s first Canadian law grad, Brian Jean—who graduated in 1991— is the member of parliament for Fort McMurray and parliamentary secretary for the Minister of Transport.

Even if the jobs are there for foreign-trained lawyers, getting a foreign law credential recognized in Canada can be a long and expensive process. The National Committee on Accreditation (NCA) assesses each applicant individually to determine whether they have the same education and experience as Canadian L.L.B or J.D. graduates. After looking at the applicant’s country and language of study, university, grades, professional certifications, experience, and length of program, the NCA recommends what the applicant must do to demonstrate that they have sufficient understanding of Canadian law. Most provinces use these recommendations in setting their requirements for call to the bar. Candidates are required to do one of three things: pass up to 16 challenge exams to demonstrate their knowledge, complete additional course work at a Canadian university (one to two years), or complete an entire Canadian L.L.B. degree. It takes between two to five years for most foreign-trained lawyers—who come from everywhere from Bangladesh to Ghana—to complete the NCA’s recommendations, according to Laurie Clark, NCA administrative assistant, and each exam costs $525.

In most cases, graduates with strong marks from recognized schools in common law jurisdictions like Bond are asked to sit challenge exams. Bond alumni say they were usually asked to write between eight and 10 exams. Miernik says Bond graduates typically take 12 months to complete the tests; the maximum time he’s heard a Bond student take is 18 months. Belinda Jesudasan, who is now an articling student at boutique Toronto litigation firm Teplitsky, Colson LLP, successfully completed eight exams in less than a year after graduating from Bond in 2006.

Only after gaining a certificate of qualification from the NCA can applicants begin the bar admission process, which involves writing bar exams and completing ten months of articles before being called to the bar.

A handful of Bond graduates, including Beil, avoided this series of hoops by transferring to a Canadian law school. Kym Stasiuk, who finished his law degree at Queens after transferring in 2005, says the transfer option is more likely to be available to students who have the marks to get into schools back at home. Although every Canadian law school he applied to initially rejected him before he went to Bond, Stasiuk scored an articling position at a top Toronto firm and was called to the Ontario bar in June 2008.

Others have shrugged off the whole exhaustive Canadian licensing system and moved south of the border. In some U.S. jurisdictions, graduates of recognized foreign law schools can simply cross the border and write the bar exams—and if they pass, they’re a lawyer. Sean Ainley, who graduated from Bond in 2007, passed his New York bar exam this spring after only two months of preparation—but he’s still looking for a position at a firm.

Even after navigating the onerous task of coming back to Canada, locales with names like Surfer’s Paradise Beach continue to resonate with many ex-Bondies. For Warren Beil—who was called to the bar September of last year— Bond is still very much on the mind. “I wake up in Vancouver some days and just miss that Bond way of life.”

– photo courtesy of Bond Sarah