The phrase, “I went to Law School abroad”, is often met with two assumptions in the Canadian legal market: 1) the student didn’t do well on the LSAT and 2) as a result, wasn’t admitted into a Canadian law school. While these may be perfectly legitimate assumptions that hold true in some cases, they are also incredibly reductive and unrepresentative of the truly myriad reasons for why Canadians may choose to pursue an international legal education. Further, they highlight a problematic bias that Canadian legal education is superior to most foreign degrees, which makes it difficult for those immigrating to Canada after completing legal education, and many times having establish legal careers, in their own home nations.
Before I outline alternate reasons for why Canadians go abroad, allow me to provide some personal context. I am a Canadian who did both her B.A and M.A in Canada while working in financial services, where I decided to work for a few years after graduation before pursing legal education. During that time, I was exposed to my company’s UK operations which piqued my interest in living abroad. Given that I held dual Canadian-EU citizenship and worked for a UK-headquartered company, the possibility of obtaining an LL.B in the birthplace of the common law took hold of me as a plausible idea until, in 2016, I took the leap and moved to London, England. Before arriving in the city with a couple of huge suitcases and an excitement for the two years ahead, I’d spent merely 36 hours in London on a long lay-over—just enough time to discover that London’s bustling legal and financial global epicentre would be a fantastic host for my legal education and personal development.
In my cohort of approximately 50 international law students at City, University of London—many of whom were Canadian—the reasons for attending a UK Law School were vastly different and unique to each student. Over the last few months, I’ve also had the privilege of speaking with international law students and lawyers from schools all over the world while researching a recent CBA National op-ed. Despite having very different stories and reasons for going abroad, all these students shared two things: 1) evidenced tenacity and a deep-seated desire to practice in Canada, and 2) a disappointing experience with bias against international candidates during the articling and legal recruitment process.
This second quality is not only disappointing but also has concerning implications for the Canadian legal market’s ability to adapt in a quickly changing and globalizing legal landscape. In an effort to expand the dialogue around international legal education, here are some common reasons why Canadian students decide to study law abroad.
Going Abroad Is More Financially Feasible for Some
It’s no secret that the cost of law school in Canada is a big obstacle for many students and, somewhat counterintuitively, going abroad can be cheaper. Dual Canadian-British citizens, for instance, are generally not charged international student tuition meaning their yearly tuition is a mere £6000 – £8000; dual Canadian-EU citizens with at least five years of residency in the EU enjoy the same privilege which brings yearly tuition costs in at 50% or less of the average Ontario law school.
For those without dual citizenship or sufficient residency in the EU, international tuitional rates apply. However, even at these higher rates, compressed and accelerated two-year LL.B programs can result in cost savings or at least a break-even situation simply by virtue of being shorter, saving students one year of tuition and living costs.
Granted, international students still have the added cost of the NCA exams when they return to Canada, but this is far below that of law school tuition and can reasonably be completed alongside employment.
Do More in Less Time
Canadians who already hold undergraduate degrees are able to pursue accelerated LL.B programs in countries like the UK and Australia. And while these compressed programs are challenging, they allow students to move into employment faster by completing their LL.B in two years rather than three. This is especially attractive to mature students, like myself, who also have Canadian graduate degrees and considerable work experience.
Additionally, in the three-year timeframe it takes to complete a J.D in Canada, international students can obtain both an LL.B and LL.M —and for those who want to qualify in the UK, the Legal Practice Course (LPC) as well.
International Opportunities & Personal Development
Law can be quite a jurisdiction-specific career but going abroad can unlock more jurisdictions and provide career flexibility. Truly, the ability to cross-qualify in Canada, the USA, and the UK exists with any degree from those countries, but going abroad allows Canadian students to add a UK/European perspective onto their likely well-developed North American one. The opportunity to study, volunteer, and (sometimes) work in a different culture for two or more years provides a fully immersive experience.
During my time in London I studied alongside British and European students of all socio-economic backgrounds, volunteered for both a low-income housing support legal clinic and a commercial law clinic dedicated to start-ups, and worked in “The City” for a FTSE 100 company. In short, I experienced and engaged with British society from a variety of perspectives and learned to thrive in different social settings; I’m confident this experience will help me effectively interact with clients from all backgrounds.
Regardless of the extracurricular activities a student assumes while abroad, the initial act of leaving one’s support network of family and friends in Canada and moving to a foreign country where they may not know anyone, throws the student into a high-intensity “personal growth” training program where resilience and networking become key elements of success. So many of the students I studied with, including myself, noted a desire to expand their comfort zone and push their personal limits as the driving force behind pursuing their law degrees abroad.
The Classic Reason
I’d be remiss if I didn’t acknowledge that the competitiveness of Canadian law schools and the LSAT are indeed sometimes reasons for students to seek international options. However, for a law graduate who has completed their degree, navigated the NCA qualification process, and found their way to your firm’s doorstep seeking a chance to bring their international experience to an articling role, holding their inability to study law in Canada against them is not only unfair but also an unproductive way to screen candidates.
After years abroad, that candidate is not the same person as the one who initially applied to a Canadian law school. Rather, they’ve proven their personal resilience and dedication to law by not giving up at that stage and finding a viable, though challenging, alternative and embracing the difficulties of pursuing it. They are the candidate who was willing to uproot their life to pursue a legal career, return to Canada to navigate the NCA exams, and penetrate a fairly closed career market (often) without the help of a university career advisor; they will apply this same tenacity and dedication to their work and representing their clients.
So, next time you ask and internationally trained law student (or lawyer), “Why did you go abroad?” do so with an open mind. Their answer will provide insight into the person they are today and the type of professional they will be at your firm—not the one they were two, three, or more years ago.
About the author
I am a recent LL.B graduate interested in corporate law and specifically the legal development and challenges around technology, artificial intelligence , and intellectual property. Originally born and raised in Canada, I moved to the United Kingdom in 2016 where I’ve been working in corporate risk and studying at The City Law School (City, University of London). Currently, I’m in the process of qualifying as a Lawyer in Ontario (with other jurisdictions in mind).
In addition to blogging for NCA Tutor, I also manage my own blog called “The Transition”. My writing aims to provide helpful information about the Canadian qualification process to UK Law Students wishing to qualify in Canada and Canadians considering legal studies in the UK.
For more daily thoughts on technology law and more, follow me on Twitter (@TiffAtLaw); and if you are looking for a break from law, my travel photos live on Instagram (@TOPhoto_14) for your enjoyment.