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November 08, 2020

It was August 31st 2018, around 6.30 am, when I woke up and checked my phone (well, who doesn’t? That’s the first thing you do, right?) and I saw an email from the University of Toronto (UofT) with the subject line “GPLLM Admissions Decision – Congratulations!”. That was when it hit me that I have actually made a life changing decision of leaving my home country, India to move to Canada permanently.

My husband and I had been involved with the Canadian Permanent Residency (PR) application process and received news a few days prior, our application had been approved and we were to send our passports for visa stamping. After having done a ton of research around the NCA exams, Law Society’s lawyer licensing process, and the available opportunities for internationally trained lawyers in Ontario, I decided to send in my application for the Global Professional LLM Program (GPLLM) at the UofT on the last date of the application deadline! It took them one week to send me the admission decision and then I had two weeks to pack, leave the country and start my classes from 14th September 2018.

With that, I booked my flight with my two-and-a-half year-old son (who has never been on a flight for more than 2 hours) so I can land in Toronto on time. My husband decided to tie up some loose ends of 32 years of our lives in India, all alone, before joining me. The whole process of completing my NCA exams through the Masters program, getting re-certified as an Ontario lawyer, writing the Ontario bar exams, and finding a job as an in-house legal counsel seemed like a very long (and lonely) road ahead.

My priorities when I decided to make the move were: (a) to find a place to live, (b) get a job that will use my legal skills in any manner possible (even if it is scarcely required), and (c) to find a good day care / Montessori for my son. Obviously, the first and last ones were easier to find if you have financially planned for it, but getting a job was a different ball game. It requires you to highlight your soft skills, transferable skills and your non-professional business and self-marketing capabilities that have not been in use for so long.

Right after my PR got approved, I started my job search early on while I was still in India, even before planning the date of my actual arrival or getting admitted to the GPLLM. I would like to think that this certainly helped me and moved me in the direction of researching and reading up about résumé drafting, highlighting my transferable skills and reaching out to as many lawyers as possible on LinkedIn to seek informational interviews. Nobody is going to respond to “Hi, I want to connect with you to expand my network in Canada” and we all know that by now. Being specific in my questions and giving a short and crisp introduction about myself proved useful in many ways. I specifically targeted lawyers in my area of practice to understand how hiring and upskilling worked in the Toronto legal market. My question was basically “what kind of skill sets do you look for in hiring a legal assistant or an internationally trained lawyer who is enrolled in the lawyer licensing process?”.

Within a week, I was left with two options – a Contracts Manager at a fully remote / virtual company in a Learning & Development space or a Legal Assistant in a mid-size law firm, located in downtown Toronto. The first one came through Indeed (Canadian job portal) and the second one through one of my LinkedIn informational interview expedition. How I ended up with two “offers” within a week’s time is something I still wonder about! My expectation out of the whole job search process was to network as much as possible and maybe, find a job within 3 to 6 months’ time. I was willing to make myself available to work for free to actually demonstrate my skills. The one thing I want to acknowledge here is that both the hiring managers I spoke to were open minded, non-judgmental and they genuinely wanted to give me a chance.

Of course I went with the first one, being a fully remote opportunity, as I had quite a few years of experience in working remotely and thought I would be able to juggle work, studying and child care if I had that kind of flexibility. Most of all, I was extremely clear about what I wanted to do, which is to continue being in the corporate world and take up an in-house position. Not that I hate it but from my experience, working in a law firm setting was stressful for me, especially with long work hours and paucity of work-life balance, I simply did not want that.

So, here’s a list of few things that helped me sail through my job search and immigration process:

  1. Prioritize. The first thing to do is make a list of things you want to achieve in the first year of landing. I had completing my Masters and one attempt at writing the Ontario Bar Exams on my list for year 1. Focusing on the important things on your list sets you up for success because you know what you are aiming for.
  2. Be clear on what you want! Sometimes, an opportunity will show up in the most unexpected and misplaced manner and could be the one that you have always thought you could pull off. But, if that is not what you want for yourself in the long run, then that should not be a choice you have to make.
  3. Be open to starting from scratch all over again. Many people tell me that being a contracts manager is really not the right job for a lawyer with almost 10 years of legal experience and that it is taking a step down from what I have accomplished. But hey! I cannot be a lawyer until I get re-certified, can I? Know where you stand in the market, at all times.
  4. Trust the process and talk to people. I had three colleagues in my company introduce me to three different Bay Street lawyers from different practice areas (Yes! They will help if you ask or in some case, even without asking if they have come to be acquainted with you). I spoke with all three of them about my work experience and finding articling positions and the answer I got was “go for an exemption. You have so much experience that you can leverage to get the exemption”. Who thought that an articling exemption was even an option? Especially, when we all know the difficulties for an internationally trained lawyer to find an available position.
  5. Set low expectations and be prepared for at least 6 months without a job. That is exactly what I did. Opportunities are around the corner and you just need that one person to see your capabilities; until then, you should be ready to wait and keep trying. Nobody leaves the country without a job, unless there is a mismatched expectation flowing out of your past experience! The person who hired me at my company did not even see my face before she offered me the job. This is just to say that there are people who look solely for superior skill sets. Make sure your résumé and references do all the talking.
  6. Stay put if you like your workplace and colleagues. Did I mention that this awesome company I worked at as a contracts manager offered to promote me to “General Counsel” a day before my call to the Bar? Yes! You heard it right! Why? Because, they truly valued talent and supported me in every single way possible throughout my licensing process, be it giving me two weeks off to study for the Bar, reducing my work load on Fridays so I could attend classes or giving me the flexibility to choose my work timings. Also, I loved the peace of mind this place brought to me in so many ways.

To look back and think about all that has happened in the last two years, I must say that having lower expectations, knowing that the weather in Toronto won’t be on my side and having to take care of my education, career, son, home and family all by myself, all of which came as a package, has really helped me see the light at the end of the tunnel.

About the Author: Anjana Bhaskaran is an internationally trained lawyer and the General Counsel at a Toronto based Learning & Development Company called Box of Crayons, Inc.

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