The notion of Canadian trained attorneys practicing in the U.S. is nothing new. Both the legal education and training attorneys receive in Canada is highly regarded and respected by American firms. In the current competitive market for scarce talent, many firms are opening even more doors to Canadian attorneys, recognizing that hiring laterals with experience in the complexities of cross-border transactions and a high caliber of talent is a worthwhile investment. Similarly, Canadian firms will jump at the chance to acquire top talent from their southern counterparts.
So why do some Canadians consider forsaking universal healthcare, Tim Hortons, and poutine for high premiums, IHOP, and chili cheese fries? There are a number of reasons for Canadians to make a lateral move to the U.S. — and vice versa. Let’s examine how and why Canadian and American attorneys consider becoming expats.
To the 49th Parallel and North: Why Canada?
As someone who’s seen both sides now, Canada is a fantastic place to live and raise a family. There are myriad reasons why American attorneys would migrate their practice to Canada. The surge in the Google search on “how to move to Canada” is not just tied to a prospective presidential debate. Many U.S. attorneys consider answering the call of the north for personal, lifestyle, and professional reasons. It is important to mention that there are a vast number of Canadians who obtained their legal education in the U.S. and are currently practicing at a U.S. firm, and their needs will be addressed as well.
a) The Firms:
There are not as many “Biglaw” firms in Canada compared to the U.S. However, there are a number of great firm options when considering a lateral move to Canada.
Canada’s Seven Sister firms (Torys, Goodmans, Davies, Oslers, Blakes, Stikemans, and McCarthy Tétrault) are considered the country’s elite firms, comparable to the Magic Circle firms in the U.K. The next tier firms, Canada’s National Firms (such as McMillan, Miller Thompson, BLG, Lawson Lundell, etc.) and International Firms (Norton Rose, DLA Piper, etc.) all have great reputations as well. There are also a few regional firms that compete with many of the top-tier firms in specific practice areas in certain geographical locations. The most important thing to remember when contextualizing the Canadian market is that Canada has roughly 1/10th the population of the U.S. So while there may be 15 or so major firms in Canada compared to 200+ in the U.S., this is actually a large number in proportion to the population.
Practicing law in Canada is challenging and demanding at times. However, the lifestyle in major Canadian markets compared to major U.S. markets is very different. Life in Canada is more relaxed and billable hour requirements or targets are not as high as in U.S. firms. For instance, most Biglaw lawyers in Canada have a billable target rate of approximately 1800 hours, while U.S. firms can expect nearly 500+ more hours from their attorneys. Thus, attorneys can expect more balance in their lives in even the top Canadian firms compared to working at a top U.S. firm.
One of the toughest parts of moving from an American firm to a Canadian firm is watching your bi-weekly deposit drop nearly in half. However, the lower cost of living almost entirely mitigates this decrease. Toronto ranks 86th (compared to New York’s 7th) on the Economist’s index of costliest cities. The average cost of living in Toronto is 40% less than in New York. Suddenly that 47% pay cut doesn’t seem so bad.
Furthermore, the Economist’s Intelligence Unit named Toronto the best city in the world to live in when examining factors such as safety, livability, cost of living, business environment, democracy, and food security.
d) Accreditation Process and the Bar Exam:
i) NCA Assessment and Accreditation Exams
The Federation of Law Societies in Canada, otherwise known as the NCA, is the national coordinating body that ensures that every practicing lawyer in Canada is a member of a law society in one of the thirteen provinces or territories. Attorneys who have received their J.D. outside of Canada must apply to the NCA for accreditation. Each application is assessed on an individual basis, taking into account the candidate’s educational background and work experience. There are nine core subjects tested by the NCA, including Canadian Administrative Law, Constitutional Law, Criminal Law, Contracts, and Torts, etc. A candidate might have to write as few as zero exams or all nine, depending on the NCA’s final assessment.
ii) Bar Exam & Articling Period
After the accreditation process, an attorney is eligible to sit for the bar exam. Luckily, the bar exam in Canada is easy in comparison the exams in the U.S. Although there are no officially reported numbers, it has been anecdotally reported that the Ontario passage rate is well above 90%. The bar exams are open book. It is important to consult with the Law Society governing the province in which you wish to practice, because each province operates differently.
All members of a Canadian Law Society must complete a 10-12 month “articling” period, where a lawyer works with a principal lawyer who supervises and approves your work and reports to the Law Society. For most U.S. attorneys who have already been practicing, the articling period can be waived. However, this is determined on a case-by-case basis.
American attorneys are eligible for the TN Visa. It’s a simple process that requires proof that you are a lawyer (law school transcripts), an offer letter from your employee, and a $50.00(US) fee. The Visa is obtained at the port of entry and requires no sponsorship from the firm. Please note that you must be a Canadian, American, or Mexican citizen to qualify.
As a Canadian expat myself, the U.S. offers an unparalleled combination of certain business and personal benefits. In terms of business, the U.S. offers a platform to practice with powerhouse attorneys on the most high-stakes deals.
a) The Work:
Although Canada has a number of top law firms, the Am Law 200 firms in the U.S. attract big clients and more complex work, providing associates with the opportunity to work alongside some very powerful and influential corporations and individuals. The volume and dollar amounts of transactions completed in the U.S. are much greater in magnitude compared to Canada. Simply put, more attorneys in the U.S. get access to more high-stakes matters. If you want to be in the global center of legal practice, the U.S. is the best place to be.
b) Expanding your Network:
In life and in law, there is much truth to the saying, “It’s not what you know, but who you know.” Naturally, working alongside some of the most respected businesspeople, companies, law firms, and even politicians will lead to an extensive professional and personal network. Networking is critical when it comes to business development, career advancement, and even lateral moves. Networking with major law firms’ clients and attorneys opens more doors than you may realize.
Practicing at a major law firm in the U.S. doesn’t come easy, the hours are long, and the work is challenging. But you get what you give: first-year lawyers practicing at top law firms in major markets earn $160,000 USD ($207,856 CAD) their first year — New York is also expected to rise to $190,000 in the near future. While in Canada, first-years practicing at top firms in Toronto (the premier Canadian market) earn $110,000 CAD ($84,674 USD).
d) Bar exams:
Most U.S. states have two sittings for each bar exam (February and July). You must be admitted to the Bar in the state in which you wish to practice law. However, it may be possible to begin practicing prior to sitting for the exam. This is often the case for corporate attorneys, but there is rarely the same flexibility for litigators. Most firms will require that an attorney sit for the first possible seating of the exam after hiring. However, it is important to note that candidates with a civil law degree are not eligible to sit for a state bar. Candidates must possess a common-law degree (J.D. or LLB).
Canadian attorneys are also eligible for the TN Visa.
Understanding the Markets
Relocation throws a wrench in an already complicated lateral process. In all lateral moves, particularly when relocating, it is prudent to work with a recruiter who understands both the market you are moving from and the market you are moving to. Your best advocate will be the one who can fill in the gaps in your knowledge of the process, who understands your practice, your legal education, and your experiences. At Lateral Link, we invite you to contact us to discuss opportunities and the market; if you are considering a lateral move to or from Canada (or even just across the street), please give us a call.