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Canadian lawyers working in the US.

For several years now, there has been much talk about the brain drain of talented and skilled Canadians drawn to higher pay offered in the US. From nurses drawn to Texas to talk of US law firms recruiting the cream of the crop from Canadian law schools, talk centers around the loss to Canada, rather than the myriad of personal reasons the individual expatriates have for working in the US.

Adam Lepofsky, director and founder of RainMaker Group, a Toronto based legal recruitment firm, acknowledged that the recent recruitment trend of US law firms was directed at both Canadian lawyers already practicing in Canada and recent law school graduates. He advised this recent trend caught fire in the spring of 1998, although it has slowed down since mid-2001.

Why Canadians? Mr. Lepofsky confided that top US law firms "developed an appreciation for the articling program" and the training that Canadian lawyers received in Canada -- "the whole package". By way of explanation, he advised that a number of Canadian lawyers had been working in places such as New York, Boston, and California, and the "Canadians shone and word traveled fast", resulting in the trend of recruitment catching fire.

In order to practice law in the US, the Canadian lawyer or law school graduate needs to pass the State Bar Exam and be admitted to that State Bar in which s/he wishes to practice law. From a recruitment perspective, Mr. Lepofsky advised that once an offer is made, the Canadian lawyer or recent law school graduate works at the US law firm doing junior tasks that do not require signing authority, such as research, drafting, and due diligence work, while waiting to write the State Bar Exam.

US law firms do offer salaries much greater than Canadian law firms, and typically pay moving expenses, but the phenomenon of Canadian lawyers working in the US is more complex than simply the attraction of greater pay and the pursuit by US recruiters. The reasons for moving to the US and the paths taken are as varied as the individuals who make this very personal decision.

For instance, Melynnie Rizvi moved to San Jose, California when her husband, Ali, received an offer to transfer there with work. Ms Rizvi graduated from the University of Alberta Faculty of Law in 1999, articled in Edmonton, Alberta, was admitted to the Law Society of Alberta in 2000, and is currently awaiting the results of her California Bar Exam.

Prior to making the decision to move to San Jose, the couple did a fair amount of research, as they were concerned about big city crime rates and the different health care system in the US. She also discovered that "anyone who is admitted to practice law in a foreign jurisdiction can practice law in California upon passing the Bar Exam", and advised that the California State Bar Exam is a 3 day long exam, 6 hours a day, testing 14 substantive law subjects. Optional study courses, covering lectures and exam writing workshops, are offered at an average cost of $2,500 US.

Ms Rizvi had a unique strategy. After moving to San Jose, she obtained a work visa and secured a paralegal position at the law firm of Baker & McKenzie, an international law firm with offices in Canada, while preparing to write the California State Bar Exam. She felt this would be a good way to get some exposure to the practice of law and to learn the US legal system through hands-on experience. Ms Rizvi observed the main differences in the practice of law as follows: "Because the justice system [in the US] allows huge awards for punitive damages, there is an extreme amount of litigation going on. The litigation process itself is a lot different from Canada. There is a huge emphasis on privacy rights here and protecting people's and company's private information, so the discovery process is extremely burdensome. There are also a fair amount of class action lawsuits ... Also, most lawsuits claim damages in the hundreds of thousands if not millions, so there is a lot more work and legal fees than in Canadian law firms".

Although the average first year associate's salary at any mid-size to large California law firm is substantially higher than in Canada, Ms Rizvi described the broadness of her experience: "I also like the experience I am getting here, because I do a lot of international work, which I would not get to do in Edmonton ... I would definitely recommend others to come and work out here. Not only does the weather make it worthwhile, the experience that you get is invaluable. Even living out here is such a different experience, as I have met and worked with people from all over the world ... as there is so much opportunity for people in California and there is such an international market here".

On the other hand, she noted drawbacks to the California lifestyle. Most people have to commute to work, traffic is "horrible", and "it is very difficult to get good service in restaurants, banks, grocery stores, etc." Thus, what Ms Rizvi found that she misses the most about Canada is her family and friends, and the friendly people in Alberta. She also observed that many brands are not available in California, such as Crispy Crunch and Coffee Crisp chocolate bars, and Tim Horton's coffee.

On the east coast, Vincent de Grandpre works at Simpson Thacher & Bartlett in New York City, one of the largest litigation firms in the US, and confided that there are "always a mix of reasons and circumstances that lead people to New York", and to the US in general, that are far more complex than the phrase "brain drain" may lead readers to think.

In 1996, Mr. de Grandpre graduated from the Faculty of Law at McGill University in Montreal, Quebec, and articled in Quebec for both the courts and a private law firm. He originally planned to teach and practice in Canada, but then he was offered a fellowship to study at Columbia University in New York in the area of intellectual property law (IP).

Thus, he originally went to the US to study and pursue his interest in the "new developments in IP, particularly how IP applied to the Internet". He felt that US law was more advanced, with more court decisions, than Canadian law in this area stating that "in the US, there is a large movie and music industry so there is more interest in solving these issues than in Canada". After studying at Columbia from 1998 to 2000, he approached a headhunter to locate a US firm that would be a good fit for his unique background.

He described the process of being admitted to the New York State Bar as paper intensive. The first step is to write the New York State Bar exam, usually written in July, with results coming out in November, and if you pass the exam, you need to provide an Affidavit of Moral Character, a complete record of all employment, and other documentation, a process that takes anywhere from 2 to 6 months to complete.

Mr. de Grandpre described the differences in practicing law in New York versus Quebec: "New York is a special place where work is done on enormous cases and huge deals, where the monetary value is high and as a result work is very thorough ... litigation is very aggressively pursued".

One of the main differences, and he emphasized a positive difference, is the amount of pro bono work done by large US law firms. For example, Mr. de Grandpre advised that in 2000, his law firm spent approximately "30,000 in pro bono hours" with "at least half of the associates in the firm doing pro bono."

When first asked what he misses most about Canada, Mr. de Grandpre bluntly stated: "Cookies. American cookies are very bad. Half the fat and twice the sugar is the general rule for everything!"

Turning serious, he advised that what he in fact misses most about Montreal is the ease of leaving the city: "New York is a wonderful and addictive city [but] New York is not what you call a lifestyle choice. In New York, you are quite handsomely compensated to be available to work", and so it is rare for him to leave the New York to go to the cottage for the weekend.

Mr. de Grandpre fondly notes that he was born and raised in Montreal and definitely intends to return someday: "I am conscious of the fact that Canada is the community that nurtured me".

Robert Valdmanis, who graduated from Faculty of Law at the McGill University in 1994, traveled yet another path and pursued an alternative legal career. Mr. Valdmanis was a communications consultant prior to attending law school, and returned to this field afterwards, putting his legal skills to work in the "court of public opinion". He became a partner at Gervais Gagnon & Associates, a communications consulting practice, which he described as a great firm with great opportunities.

Three years ago, the opportunity arose to join The Dilenschneider Group in New York City, and Mr. Valdmanis moved to New York City where he has been working as a management consultant. He provides advice to CEOs about corporate communications and investor relations. His work includes providing "litigation support"; that is, managing the impact of litigation on a company's reputation with investors, customers, employees, suppliers and so forth, and thus he works in concert with a corporation's legal team to develop strategies to address these issues.

Intrigued by the prospect of experiencing life in New York City, he moved to New York, but, like the other Canadians in this article, his original intention was to work in the US for the short term, always intending to return to Canada. Mr. Valdmanis described the allure of New York as having an absolutely intense energy: "There is unlimited choices for everything: shows, culture, dance, sports" with so many interesting people. He noted that the down side is that "they are in a hell of a hurry". He misses the fresh air and quick access to lakes and mountains in Canada, and admits that he even misses the snow, or at least "the first 10 days of winter".

It is clear that Canadian expatriates have a myriad of reasons and paths that lead them to the US that are much more complex than the allure of big money. Although these expatriates appreciate the unique practice opportunities offered by large US law firms, they continue to fondly remember those things which are uniquely Canadian.
COPYRIGHT 2002 Legal Resource Centre of Alberta Ltd.
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Author:Mah, Connie L.
Date:Jun 1, 2002
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