Lawyers are valued around the world for providing professional legal expertise in a wide range of fields that cross business, public service, and dispute resolution. Relied upon for skills in negotiation, advocacy, and problem solving, lawyers in Canada are highly regarded and can pursue countless career opportunities in the country.
If you’ve recently graduated from your legal studies or have been practicing as a lawyer in your country, immigrating to Canada as a lawyer can open new doors for your career. In this article, we outline the various immigration programs available to help you move to Canada as a lawyer, the licensing process to practice law, and how to build your career as a lawyer in Canada.
In this article:
Reasons for moving to Canada as a lawyer
As an internationally-educated lawyer, settling in Canada can be an attractive opportunity for a variety of reasons including:
Lawyers earn high salaries in Canada
Although salaries for lawyers vary based on province, experience, and area of practice, lawyers across Canada generally earn a high salary. The median income for lawyers and Quebec notaries (both fall under NOC 41101, previously 4112) in Canada is $116,940 per year.
Lawyers face good job prospects in Canada
Job opportunities for lawyers and Quebec notaries are considered good in every province and territory according to the Government’s Job Bank, except in Ontario and Northwest Territories, where prospects are fair. Across Canada, the supply and demand for lawyers is expected to be balanced over the next several years with job openings being relatively equal to qualified applicants, including new immigrants.
Immigration programs for internationally-qualified lawyers
Canada welcomes newcomers with in-demand skills and qualifications to apply for permanent residence (PR). There are several PR programs you can choose from to move to Canada as a lawyer.
Federal Skilled Worker (FSW) program
The Federal Skilled Worker (FSW) program is an Express Entry stream that allows skilled internationally qualified workers to immigrate to Canada. Under this program, applicants are selected for PR based on their Comprehensive Ranking Score (CRS) rather than their profession.
Your CRS score is based on factors such as your age, education, work experience, language proficiency, and other factors. You also get additional points if you have a Canadian job offer, a provincial nomination (see below section on PNP), or Canadian work experience or educational credentials.
Provincial Nominee Programs (PNP)
Most Canadian provinces and territories, except Quebec and Nunavut, have Provincial Nominee Programs that allow them to nominate applicants who can help bridge labour shortages. After you choose the province you wish to move to, you may be able to apply for PNP directly (paper-based application) or through the federal Express Entry program.
While some provinces use CRS scores to shortlist applicants, others nominate skilled professionals for National Occupation Classification (NOC) codes with pressing labour demands. In such cases, you may have a better chance of receiving a provincial nomination if the province is looking for lawyers (NOC 41101, previously 4112, TEER 1).
Quebec Regular Skilled Worker Program (RSWP)
To work and settle in the province of Quebec, applicants with the skills, training, experience and French language skills must apply through the province’s Regular Skilled Worker Program (RSWP).
Applicants in all occupations can submit an Expression of Interest (EOI) under the RSWP. Selection under this program is based on factors such as age, language proficiency in French and English, years of experience, education, and more. If selected, you receive a Quebec Selection Certificate (also known as a Certificat de sélection du Québec or CSQ) and can apply for PR with the IRCC.
Atlantic Immigration Program (AIP)
The Atlantic Immigration Program (AIP) is a federal program that allows skilled foreign workers (and international students who studied in Canada) to settle permanently in one of Canada’s Atlantic provinces: Nova Scotia, New Brunswick (NB), Prince Edward Island (PEI), or Newfoundland and Labrador (NL).
Selection under the AIP is not based on occupation. You may qualify for the program if you have at least one year of full-time paid work experience (1,560 hours) in the last five years, meet language requirements, and have a full-time job offer from an Atlantic Canada employer.
How to become a licensed lawyer as a newcomer
As an internationally-qualified lawyer, you must become a member of a law society in Canada before you can practice law in a province or territory. However, to do this, you first need to earn a Certificate of Qualification issued by the National Committee on Accreditation (NCA). The Certificate of Qualification qualifies you for the bar admissions program in every province or territory, except Quebec (which practices civil law instead of common law). The time and effort required to become a licensed lawyer will vary by individual and is based on your education, work experience, and fluency in English or French.
Who can apply to earn a Certificate of Qualification from the NCA?
All internationally trained legal graduates can apply, including if you are considering immigrating to Canada or are a newcomer with a law degree from your home country. You can apply from anywhere in the world. Your citizenship, nationality, and where you live do not matter in the assessment process. Because this process can take some time, it’s ideal to apply before arriving in Canada. Use the NCA’s self-assessment before proceeding with your application for additional guidance on what to expect in your individual case.
If you want to practice civil law in Quebec, you must undergo evaluation by Barreau du Québec (for lawyers) or the Chambre des notaires du Québec (for Quebec notaries). The NCA does not assess the legal education and experience of people who want to practice civil law in Canada, or who want to become members of the Barreau du Québec or the Chambre des notaires du Québec.
How to earn a Certificate of Qualification from the NCA
For the NCA to assess your education and experience, you must complete a three-year qualifying law degree. A qualifying law degree allows you to practise in the jurisdiction where you studied, provided you successfully completed the bar admission process. If the school is approved by the organization that governs the practice of law in your jurisdiction, the NCA will generally recognize it. The only way to accurately ascertain your eligibility is to apply for an assessment by the NCA. Here’s an outline of how the process works:
Complete your online assessment application
Once you’ve decided to pursue a Certificate of Qualification, you need to complete an online assessment application through the NCA. You’ll be assigned a file number and a password to access your candidate profile and track the status of your application.
As part of your application, you will need to provide additional documentation, including:
- All original documents for courses completed during your pre-law university level education, if applicable. Your original or official pre-law university transcripts may be mailed to the NCA from you personally, or from your university.
- All official documents and transcripts for courses completed in an approved law program, and courses or examinations completed in a licensing process. Official transcripts for your legal education must be sent directly by your school. The NCA does not accept these documents directly from applicants.
- If currently or formerly licensed, documentation outlining the date you were called to the bar and your status as a member in good standing in the relevant jurisdiction . You must arrange for an official letter or certificate of good standing to be sent to the NCA by the bar association or bar council.
- An updated curriculum vitae outlining your qualifications.
- Additional documents that NCA considers necessary to assess your qualifications.
Translation of documents
If your documents are in a language other than English or French, they must be sent to the NCA along with copies of an exact English or French translation completed by a Canadian certified translator, or a non-certified translator with an affidavit indicating the translator’s qualifications and that the translation is of the original document.
Have your application evaluated by the NCA
Each application is evaluated on an individual basis by the NCA to determine eligibility for a Certificate of Qualification. As an applicant, you must demonstrate you have acquired the competencies and skills equivalent to those required of graduates of approved Canadian common law programs, as set out in the National Requirement.
Complete your assignments as prescribed by the NCA
Once the NCA finishes its assessment of your application, you’ll receive a letter that describes the legal education (assignments) you need to complete to ensure your knowledge of Canadian common law is equivalent to that of someone who got their law degree in Canada. This assessment decision is valid for five years from the date of issue.
As an applicant, you’re required to demonstrate competence in eight common law knowledge areas, known as core subjects, that have Canadian-specific content: Canadian Administrative Law, Canadian Constitutional Law, Canadian Criminal Law, Canadian Professional Responsibility, Foundations of Canadian Law, Contracts, Property, and Torts. This may be achieved through one of three paths:
- Write and pass NCA exams, or
- Complete assigned subjects at a Canadian law school, or
- Complete a combination of one and two to meet some requirements by writing NCA exams, and the remaining by completing courses at a Canadian law school.
Legal research requirement
If your qualifications are assessed after January 1, 2022, you will also need to complete a course in legal research and writing offered by an approved Canadian common law program or through the Canadian Centre for Professional Legal Education (CPLED).
If you’re an internationally trained lawyer without common law experience
The legal tradition you studied will impact your assessment, however the NCA considers applicants from legal systems without a substantial common law component on a case-by-case basis. If you have no common law exposure, you are not likely to receive any recognition for your legal education and experience and may need to complete an LLM program or enrol in individual courses to proceed in the NCA assessment process.
If you earned your education and experience in a mixed jurisdiction that includes common law, the NCA will consider the common law content of your programs and experience. You can gain the required common law exposure that you lack by:
- taking an LLM program or enrolling in individual courses.
- being licensed as a lawyer, barrister, or solicitor in a common law jurisdiction through successful completion of courses or exams.
- being certified as a paralegal or notary in a common law jurisdiction.
The NCA will reconsider your file once you successfully complete at least four common law subjects at which time it will assign you the courses you still need to take to earn the Certificate of Qualification.
Write NCA examinations
You may register for NCA examinations only after receiving an assessment decision from the NCA indicating your eligibility. You’re permitted to write an NCA examination up to three times within five years of the assessment decision.
Once you’ve successfully completed all the assignments (including exams) outlined in your assessment decision, you will be issued your Certificate of Qualification. At this point, you’re eligible to apply for entry to the bar admissions program in any province or territory (except Quebec).
How long does it take to earn a Certificate of Qualification?
According to the NCA, the average time to get your Certificate of Qualification is two years from the time you apply for your assessment. Gathering documents typically takes two to six weeks, but may be longer if you earned your law degree over ten years ago or in a country where administration is not efficient.
The NCA assessment can take six to eight weeks, followed by the completion of your assignments. While you have five years to complete your assignments, the NCA offers 10 months as the minimum amount of time it takes. Keep in mind this is dependent on the number of assignments you must complete, the number of attempts to pass your exams, and personal obligations.
Become a member of a law society in Canada
Every lawyer in Canada is required by law to be a member of a law society. Canada has 14 provincial and territorial law societies that govern over 136,000 lawyers across Canada, 4,200 notaries in Quebec, and 10,600 independent paralegals in Ontario. (Ontario is the only province that requires paralegals to be licensed). Each law society is established by provincial and territorial law and ensures that legal professionals in its jurisdiction meet high standards of competence and professional conduct.
Applying to a law society is the final step to being able to practice as a lawyer. To become a member of a law society, you must review the requirements for the province or territory you wish to practice in. Once you’ve applied and registered with the law society in the province or territory you wish to practice, the licensing process begins. Most provinces allow you to start the licensing process virtually from outside Canada, however, finding remote articling work may be difficult. Refer to the list of the Law Societies in Canada for details:
Articling requirements vary among law societies and you may be able to apply for an exemption in some circumstances. For example, the Ontario Law Society offers the option to attend the Law Practice Program (LPP) in lieu of articling, and if you’ve practiced law in another jurisdiction, you may apply for exemption from both articling and the LPP.
If you’re required to complete an articling component, you must apply to become an articled clerk through your law society and arrange an articling placement. As a clerk, your work must be supervised by a principal—a lawyer or law firm that agrees to train and supervise your work as an articled clerk.
Students may be required to write examinations before being called to the bar, however this will vary among law societies. For example, the Practice Readiness Education Program (PREP) is the official bar admission program for the law societies of Alberta, Manitoba, Nova Scotia and Saskatchewan, and is mandatory for students applying to the bar in any of these law societies. In British Columbia, the Professional Legal Training Course (PLTC) is the law society’s bar admission course and is part of its admission program, whereas in Ontario, students are required to write the barrister and solicitor examinations. Generally, the examinations can be written while you’re articling.
Become licensed to practice law
After completing all the law society’s requirements including articling, exams, paying fees, as well as being judged to be of good character, you’re eligible to be licensed to practise law and to attend a call to the bar ceremony.
How to become a licensed lawyer in Quebec
Quebec is the only province with a civil code, which is based on the French Code Napoléon (Napoleonic Code). The rest of Canada uses the common law. Therefore, if you wish to practice law in Quebec, you must obtain a full permit for a foreign lawyer or jurist. This permit can be issued to a foreign lawyer who wants to become a member of the Barreau du Québec.
To obtain the permit, you must apply to the Equivalences Committee of the Barreau du Québec for equivalence recognition which includes required documentation and the payment of a fee to have your application reviewed.
Upon review, the Barreau du Québec’s Equivalences Committee determines the conditions you need to fulfil to become a member. This includes:
- Education and training requirements that must be completed at one of five law faculties located in Quebec (one is also in Ontario) within five years from the date of the decision.
- Completing the professional training program by Québec’s Bar School as well as a six-month articling period.
- Passing a French language examination if you don’t meet the law society’s minimum language requirements.
After meeting all the requirements, you can apply for entry on the Roll of the Order and become a member of the Barreau du Québec. Once approved, you’re entered on the Roll after taking the oath of allegiance and the oath of office.
Practice in Canada as a Foreign Legal Consultant
As a foreign lawyer living in another country, you can practice law in Canada by obtaining a Foreign Legal Consultant (FLC) permit through a law society. You may apply if you are qualified to practice law in a country other than Canada, and you wish to give legal advice in a province or territory in respect to the laws of your home country. A Foreign Legal Consultant is not qualified to give advice and services on Canadian law.
In-demand jobs for lawyers in Canada
The job prospects for lawyers are good, according to the Government’s Job Bank, in most parts of Canada, with the exception of Ontario and Northwest Territories where prospects are fair. Lawyers are most in-demand in Manitoba and Quebec (for lawyers and notaries).