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"A Canadian Perspective On Attaining Legal Experience In The United States" by Reema Mahbubani


A Canadian Perspective on Attaining Legal Experience in the United States

by Reema Mahbubani

As a Canadian citizen and a first-year law student studying in New York, I found myself full of questions. How could I possibly attain valuable work experience under current visa status restrictions? How would that impact job prospects after graduation? I found myself struggling with these questions as I dealt with the competitive spirit of law school and the nuances of living in a different country.

There are many reasons why Canadian students choose to study at a law school in the United States. I chose to start my legal career in the U.S. because of my interest in cross-border commercial transactions. My hope is that this article will provide insight through my experiences as a first-year law student. The focus of this piece is to provide helpful advice to Canadian students at United States law schools by exploring two main areas: working in the U.S. and networking.

Quite often, Canadian students studying in the U.S. are included within the broader category of international students. However, it is important to remember that Canada and the U.S. share a special relationship which affords Canadian students studying in the U.S., and likewise, U.S. students studying in Canada with distinct privileges.

One of these privileges is the ability of Canadian citizens to study in the U.S. without a visa. Canadian students are able to study in the U.S. under an F-1 status which is outlined on required I-20 and I-94 documentation.

Under the status of an F-1, students can only work on campus during their first academic year. See United States Citizenship and Immigration Services, http://www.uscis.gov/portal/site/uscis/ (last visited Mar. 9, 2013). Although I would highly advise against working during the first semester of law school, I am fully aware of the financial burdens associated with being a law student. I was employed as a note taker for one of my classes during my first semester. Since it entailed the relatively easy task of forwarding my notes along, it did not impair my ability to focus on the curriculum. However, first-year marks are substantially important. This point cannot be stressed enough.

During my second semester, I had the opportunity to work as a research assistant for one of my law professors. Through this position, I was able to refine my research and writing skills. In addition, I was able to explore and understand a vast practice area about which I previously had no knowledge.

Valuable and substantial on-campus work opportunities are hard to find. Since this is the only category under which an F-1 status student can work, it is imperative to be creative. Take advantage of your law school's department of career services and your school's office of international student affairs by discussing how you can attain work experience and build your skills while still staying within the ramifications of your F-1 status.

For example, one of my peers and I had the opportunity to represent a claimant at an unemployment benefit hearing as student advocates on behalf of the Unemployment Action Center. It was a rewarding experience that allowed for the development of various skills, such as, developing a case strategy and timeline, conducting direct and cross examinations, and presenting a concise argument in front of an administrative law judge. Since this was a volunteer-based position, it was permitted under the F-1 status restrictions. Therefore, it is important to seek out volunteer opportunities that allow you to gain legal experience.

After completing one academic year at a U.S. law school, F-1 status students are granted the opportunity to work during the summer under Curricular Practical Training ("CPT") or Optional Practical Training ("OPT"). Most students prefer to utilize part of the 12-month CPT during their first-year summer, rather than the 12-month OPT grant because the OPT process is highly extensive and time consuming.

The United States Citizenship and Immigration Services ("USCIS") defines CPT as "alternate work/study, internship, cooperative education, or any other type of required internship or practicum which is offered by sponsoring employers through cooperative agreements with the school." See Aliens and Nationality Rule, 8 C.F.R. §214.2(f)(10)(i) (2010). This usually takes the form of an externship, and it "must be an integral part of the established curriculum and directly related to the field of study." 8 C.F.R. §214.2(f)(10)(i). An employment position under the CPT status can be either full-time or part-time, and you must apply for CPT after attaining an offer of employment. 8 C.F.R. §214.2(f)(10)(i). You must not exceed your 12-month grant of CPT within your three years at law school, because if you do, then you are automatically ineligible for OPT. See United States Dep't of Homeland Security, http://www.ice.gov/sevis/practical-training/ (last visited Mar. 9, 2013).

Although the USCIS does not place restrictions on whether you can get paid if attaining CPT, the American Bar Association ("ABA") does. According to the ABA's regulations, if a student is attaining CPT credit, then he or she cannot be paid by the employer for work provided.

In essence, with respect to summer employment, there are five options for Canadian students after completing their first year of law school: (1) attain an on-campus position (i.e. research assistant) with compensation, (2) utilize part of their CPT credit to attain externship credit and experience rather than being compensated,(3) attain a legal position at a Canadian company or law firm with compensation, (4) take extra courses during the summer, or (5) participate in their law school's international summer externship program if applicable.

I chose to spend my first-year summer working at a Canadian law firm after considering the pros and cons of working without compensation while paying for externship credit, along with the chances of attaining a valuable externship opportunity within the current U.S. job market. Through my current summer position, I will be able to attain substantial hands-on legal experience while being compensated. However, I did consider how working in Canada would impact my overall job prospects in the U.S. My first-year summer position is with a Canadian business law firm, through which I hope to gain and build transferable skills that will be instrumental in future positions.

OPT grants an F-1 status student to work for 12 months while getting paid. F-1 law students usually utilize this option while studying for the Bar. The process for attaining OPT involves filing an Application for Employment Authorization (Form I-765) with USCIS. See United States Dep't of Homeland Security, http://www.ice.gov/sevis/practical-training/ (last visited Mar. 9, 2013). In turn, USCIS will provide you with an Employment Authorization Document (Form-I766) which will allow you to work in the U.S. See id. OPT applications are the norm and must be submitted in advance of attaining an employment position; however, as a Canadian F-1 status student, this is not required. Rather than applying for OPT, you may choose to work in the U.S. under the TN NAFTA Professionals classification.

One of the other privileges afforded by the special relationship between Canada and the U.S. is the North American Free Trade Agreement ("NAFTA"). Under NAFTA, law is recognized as a professional employment category that allows Canadian citizens to work in the U.S. In order to qualify under the TN category, Canadian citizens must present: (1) proof of Canadian citizenship,(2) offer of employment by a U.S. employer with respect to title, purpose of employment, length of stay, and educational qualifications, (3) credentials evaluation (i.e. law degree), and (4) applicable fees at a designated U.S. port of entry. See United States Citizenship and Immigration Services, http://www.uscis.gov/portal/site/uscis/ (last visited Mar. 9, 2013).

After establishing the eligibility of an F-1 status law student to work in the U.S., it is important to address how to build and foster meaningful professional opportunities and relationships. During my first semester of law school, I was invited to many networking events, which first-year law students mistakenly believe to be disguised job opportunities. I attended these events not having a clear idea of what my purpose was in being there among hundreds of other law students. Why was I networking? An automatic response to this question is to meet legal professionals, but it is important to ask what is gained by the exchange of mass networking.

Networking is important, but it is not just about collecting business cards. It is about maintaining a professional connection and dialogue that affords both parties to gain from the exchange. The best way to build such relationships is by joining a committee at your local bar association in an area of law that you are interested in, and also by attending committee meetings. Through this exchange you will be able to build your professional network by creating meaningful relationships.

In addition, the relationships between your colleagues, professors, and others within your law school community are instrumental because they have first-hand knowledge of your abilities, level of professionalism, and ethics. Therefore, it is crucial to maintain those relationships, rather than simply attending mass networking events and collecting business cards.

It is essential to have a clear idea of your professional goals, and the requisite modes of achieving them. Working in the U.S. is a challenge, but because of the special privileges afforded by the relationship between Canada and the U.S., the process is achievable through strong strategic strides. By building meaningful relationships in a practice area that is of interest, you are building your professional network for not only your law school career, but the rest of your legal career.

Reema Mahbubani is a student at Hofstra University's Maurice A. Deane School of Law. Her past experience includes working in various capacities at a Canadian business law firm. She has experience working in the practice groups of labor and employment and commercial real estate. Reema has a strong interest in diversity initiatives. Through this interest, she developed a SharePoint intranet highlighting key diversity developments throughout her past employer's history. In addition, Reema also sat on the firm's Equity & Diversity Committee.

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This page contains a single entry from the blog posted on May 10, 2013 11:49 AM.

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