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Stigmas & Networking: Insights from an Internationally Trained Lawyer

May 2, 2017

Roz Bahrami

Having completed my first law degree abroad, I was quickly judged for not being smart enough to get into a Canadian law school. On at least two different occasions, I was told by lawyers at different law firms that I should consider hanging my own shingle in a racialized suburban part of Toronto and eventually, I will establish myself as a qualified lawyer. Perhaps there was no malice intended but that was the best advice they could offer due to the nature of the cutthroat legal market.

I am not going to sugarcoat it: I have experienced stigma for being an internationally trained lawyer in the Canadian legal industry, and more specifically, I have experienced it right here in Toronto. The bright side: there are two ways you can overcome such stigma: by cultivating an image of being as good as a lawyer that went to law school in Canada and by expanding your network.

I did not have the advantage of spending my law degree summers at a Toronto law firm. I also missed opportunities to attend OCIs (On-Campus Interviews), industry cocktail parties and other networking events in Toronto. However, what I did have was an unwavering desire to be successful in a field that I had chosen since I was a child. It sounds cliché when someone tells you to be yourself, but it is important; that’s how I landed my first big legal gig in Toronto. The best advice that I was given was “be the best version of you”, so I acted on that advice.

Pursuing a graduate degree at Osgoode Hall Law School not only helped me overcome the “internationally trained” stigma, but it also exposed me to the opportunities that go hand-in-hand with a world-class legal education. I did not have to write the NCA Challenge Exams, and I received great references from some of the best professors and lawyers in the Canadian legal market.

However, unlike some of my classmates, I did not join cliques or specific groups; I made an effort to associate and get to know almost everyone in my program. It served as a prelude to what would become endless networking with lawyers around Toronto, at events and coffee meetings. I frequently attended events held at the Ontario Bar Association at its Young Lawyers Division and I even drove to Ottawa to attend a two-day conference to network and learn more about an area of law that I found interesting. I joined different legal associations and clubs to continue to connect with other like-minded individuals.

When networking, the first thing you want to do is have the right expectations; ask yourself, what do you want out of the meeting? Not every coffee meeting or phone conversation I had with a lawyer turned into a job offer. And I didn’t expect to whip out my resume at every coffee meeting. I always went in with the expectation to learn from the individual and ask them for their advice.

Where did I find these lawyers? I literally started my search on Google. Depending on the results, I would then scour LinkedIn profiles or websites of law firms for more information. I would establish a sense of what the lawyers do and if their area of law is something I would want to practice in the future. Then I would pick one lawyer, usually one most recently called to the bar or an Articling student, and would send them an email asking to meet them for coffee. I felt that I would have more in common with someone who was new to the bar than I would have with a senior counsel. If someone suggested I do this previously, I would have brushed it off as complete nonsense. But by applying realistic parameters to my expectations, I was beginning to understand what was required for me to achieve my goal and was also developing my own networks.

Finally, I always went to my networking meetings prepared; I knew what I wanted and I was always open and candid about my concerns. I would ask about the workplace culture at the lawyer’s firm and usually ask them for general advice. These meetings were not always pleasant but I never walked away without learning something new. Based on the experience, I would then re-strategize and further focus my outreach. I knew who I was and I knew what I wanted so I never let any negative comments discourage me, but I made sure the positive ones stayed with me forever.

I would then find myself running into many of these lawyers at different events in Toronto; a reminder of how important it is to keep that connection alive. Dropping a note once in a while is always a great idea because you never know when an opportunity may open or from which direction; and you will be top of mind if you have kept in touch.

Today, I am working as a Student-at-Law at Canada’s highest ranked litigation boutique firm. While I feel fortunate, I think it would not have been possible if I had given up or taken a route that someone else thought was good for me. At the end of the day, it’s your work that counts and not where you went to law school.

In the words of Lewis Carrol, “This is impossible…only if you believe it is.”


UmairAzam_HeadshotUMAIR AZAM, is a young lawyer who obtained his first law degree from abroad. Umair has completed his LLM in Canadian Common Law at Osgoode Professional Development and was enrolled in the Law Society of Upper Canada’s Law Practice Program at Ryerson. He is currently an Associate Criminal Defence Lawyer at David G Bayliss Professional Corporation, and prior to this has completed his articles at one of Canada’s renowned boutique litigation firms in Toronto.