South Korean-trained lawyer Sangkil Yi, had only been a legal intern at Stikeman Elliott LLP's Bay Street offices for a few days when a partner told him he was needed in a boardroom on the 54th floor right away.
"One of our lawyers was sitting there, surrounded by five Korean clients, and having difficulty with communication," recalled Mr. Yi, 40. "So I just sat down and helped them communicate."
That he was there at all is thanks to the University of Toronto's Internationally Trained Lawyers Program (ITLP), which started in 2010 with a class of 47 foreign-trained lawyers and the aim of helping them pass the necessary exams to practise law in Ontario. The program also provides three-month internships at law firms and networking help.
The participation of Stikeman Elliott and other big law firms in the program is not just altruistic. In a globalized business world, a stable of lawyers who speak foreign languages, and are familiar with other cultures, can be a key competitive asset on Bay Street.
Born in South Korea, Mr. Yi worked as an in-house lawyer for IBM and an affiliate of Chevron in his home country, while earning a masters of law from Northwestern University in Chicago in 2004. But he decided he wanted the adventure of living full-time in North America, and emigrated with his wife and two children to Toronto in 2010.
Many foreign lawyers arrive in Canada daunted by the up to 12 accreditation exams they must write to qualify to practise here, on top of all the other challenges of setting up a life in a new country. So they seek part-time jobs to make ends meet. Many never manage to get the accreditation they need. That's where the 10-month ITLP program comes in.
"In our program, we have cab drivers, we have a lot of security people, limo drivers, the Wal-Mart greeters – whatever jobs they can take to settle," said Gina Alexandris, director of the ITLP. "One of the things that we hear frequently is, 'I put my dream on hold.'"
While other law schools take in some foreign-trained lawyers, Ms. Alexandris said, the ILTP program is the first such comprehensive program aimed at helping them. The internship component also gives participants valuable access to a network of potential employers, access to what outsiders feel can be a clubby profession.
Ensuring foreign-born professionals can use their skills in Canada has been a challenge for most professions. But with a shortage of articling positions for homegrown lawyers causing what some call an "articling crisis," it might seem perplexing to some observers that even more lawyers are being funnelled into the system.
Ms. Alexandris disagrees. She points out that her program's students are already in the country, admitted by an immigration system that valued their education and skills. But once here, many have trouble becoming qualified and dealing with the job market, resulting in a waste of their legal talents.
The program is not cheap, and many students finance it with loans, although some bursaries are also available. It costs $3,500 now, but tuition is rising to $6,500 later this year for an expanded program that will include new courses and bar-exam preparation classes. The program receives financing from the federal and provincial governments.
Chetan Gupta, 31, moved here from India permanently in 2009, along with his parents. He worked as a lawyer in New Delhi, appearing before the country's Supreme Court. Now, he is an intern at McCarthy Tétrault LLP, and hopes to go on to practise immigration law in Canada.
Before he signed up with ITLP, Mr. Gupta held an administrative position, and did stints flipping burgers, making pizza, and keeping watch over a condo construction site as an overnight security guard. A job related to his legal training seemed out of reach.
"I had applied to so many places with my résumés and all, and I didn't get a call from a single application," Mr. Gupta said. "To get an opportunity to intern at McCarthy Tétrault, a firm like this, is a gift."
The law firms participating in the ITLP program by taking interns clearly believe there is a immigrant talent pool worth tapping into.
"It's a hidden gem, people like Sangkil who have a wonderful depth of experience, who are overlooked by the traditional process," said Don Belovich, a partner at Stikeman Elliott who helps with the firm's participation in the program.
Mr. Yi, who aims to finish his exams later this year, has already had a job interview with a Stikeman client. He calls the ITLP program and his internship a "golden opportunity."
"Our classmates came from all over the world," he said. "We came here to thrive, not just to survive. But there are not many opportunities and it is a very lengthy and lonely journey."