Canadian Lawyers Abroad – Avocats canadiens à l’étranger: Using Law to Improve Lives

For this edition of the Progressive Lawyer Spotlight, we shine it on Canadian Lawyers Abroad – Avocats canadiens à l’étranger, an amazing organization that supports good governance, rule of law and human rights work in the developing world and Canada. We recently spoke to Executive Director Brittany Twiss who took time out of her very busy schedule to fill us in on what CLA-ACE is all about.

Progressive Lawyer: Please give us an overview of the kind of projects CLA-ACE is involved in.

Brittany Twiss: CLA-ACE is a catalyst for positive social change. Through education and engagement we are increasing access to justice for marginalized populations worldwide, and enabling law students and lawyers to use their legal training to make a difference. Two extraordinary women, Yasmin Shaker (International Trade and Investment Counsel, Department of Foreign Affairs, Trade and Development) and Catherine McKenna (Ottawa Centre Candidate, Liberty Party of Canada), founded CLA-ACE in 2005 in Ottawa.

At present, we have three major programs in operation:

National Dare to Dream Program

We are positively transforming the way First Nation, Métis, and Inuit youth aged 11-14 perceive and engage with the justice system through meaningful interaction with legal professionals and fun, justice-focused learning activities. Dare to Dream is now in operation in Toronto, Ottawa, Saskatoon, Calgary and the Siksika Nation, with over 150 students and 80 volunteers participating.

National Student Chapter Program

We have Student Chapters at 15 law schools across Canada where we educate and engage students on pressing social justice issues. In the fall of 2014, we worked with various refugee law experts to draft a report and host an intensive two-day conference on “Access to Justice for Refugees” at UOttawa. After attending the conference, the students from across Canada returned to their schools to host their own refugee rights events and contribute reports to our national student journal.

International Student Internship Program

We enhance the capacity of international and indigenous human rights organizations, and provide law students with important learning experiences beyond the classroom. Since 2005, 120 students have provided valuable legal assistance to 35 organizations in 10 countries. In the summer of 2015, students will be placed in Kenya, Ghana, Namibia, Thailand, India, Bangladesh, Alaska, D.C., and throughout Canada.

PL: How do you pick partner organizations?

BT: We collaborate with other non-profit organizations that share our mission to use law to improve lives. Typically an intern host organization will conduct work in the areas of human rights, good governance and/or the rule of law, and will be working towards increasing access to justice for marginalized or underserved populations. The host organization is required to provide our interns with a legal supervisor and substantive, meaningful and educational legal tasks.

PL: Do you have student groups in all law schools?

BT: Currently, we have 15 Student Chapters at law schools across Canada. This includes, Dalhousie University, Lakehead University, McGill University, Queen’s University, Thompson Rivers University, Université de Montréal, University of Alberta, University of British Columbia, University of Calgary, University of Manitoba, University of New Brunswick, University of Ottawa, University of Saskatchewan, University of Toronto, University of Victoria, and University of Windsor.

Brittany Twiss
Brittany Twiss

PL: How many students do you accept in your summer internship program?

BT: This year we are placing 23 Canadian law students with grassroots international or Indigenous human rights organizations. We make an effort to place at least one intern from each law school with an active Student Chapter. Please click here for more information.

PL: What do you look for in a law student that applies for the internship program?

BT: We look for driven, enthusiastic law students with a demonstrated interest in social justice, human rights and international law. Previous experience working abroad or with an Indigenous organization is considered an asset, but we also look at students’ extra-curricular and volunteer experience, as well as their course selections and research projects. Here are some of the other essential skills CLA-ACE looks for in an applicant:

  • Extremely organized, reliable and professional
  • Strong research, writing and communication skills
  • Demonstrated self-initiative and ability to work independently
  • Ability to balance competing priorities and adhere to deadlines
  • Demonstrated cultural sensitivity

PL: What kind of student gets involved in these campus groups?

BT: Typically, students that are interested in international law and social justice get involved with our Student Chapters. Often students are drawn to participate based on the annual theme. For example, this year, we chose to focus on Refugee Rights and attracted many students that are interested in doing immigration and refugee work. In previous years, we focused on Corporate Social Responsibility, Access to Justice for Indigenous Peoples, and Children’s Rights to name a few.

PL: What do you recommend to a law student interested in pursuing a career in social justice?

I get asked this question a lot, and speak to students often on this topic. Here are five recommendations:

1. Be prepared to work hard and play the long game. You may not graduate law school and get hired by the UN (for example), but you can obtain the required skills and experience to land your dream job if you are strategic. Don’t discount the value of working for a Canadian law firm for a period of time, which will earn you a certain level of respect and credibility.

2. Network and get involved. Building and maintaining relationships is key to opening up doors. Volunteer, take on research projects, go to events, etc.

3. Be professional and respectful. First impressions are very important (this includes emails, Facebook and other forms of social media).

4. Be willing to take risks and jump on opportunities when they arise, even if it doesn’t feel like the “perfect” time.

5. Stay calm and stay focused. It’s all going to be okay – really. Don’t lose sight of why you went to law school.

In addition we have put out a publication about “how to become an international lawyer,” which may be of some help.

PL: What is your background? How did you decide to do what you are doing?

BT: I graduated from Queen’s University with a degree in Sociology in 2008, during which time I was actively involved in youth mentorship/diversion and worked in a criminal law firm. Following graduation, I traveled to Arusha, Tanzania where I volunteered with a local non-profit organization that aims to prevent violence against women and children and HIV/AIDS. This was an incredible expeirence, but also very difficult. Ultimately, I learned about the difficulties of advocating for human rights in a society devoid of the rule of law, reaffirming my desire to become a lawyer.

During first year of law school, I applied and received an internship through CLA-ACE at ECPAT International in Bangkok, Thailand, an organization tasked with combatting the commercial sexual exploitation of children. After my second year, I summered at a family law and Charter litigation boutique firm in Toronto. In my final year of law school, I joined CLA-ACE part-time as the Director of Student Programs, and spent my first semester studying abroad in the United Kingdom. Following graduation, I articled and worked as an Associate at a prominent family law litigation firm in Toronto. While I always anticipated that I would work in the non-profit sector, it was important for me to get called to the Bar and obtain experience working as a lawyer in Ontario. I enjoyed family law, but felt that I should jump on the opportunity to join CLA-ACE as Executive Director, which I did in August 2013.

PL: Why is the law so powerful in evoking change around the world?

BT: The law is powerful because it shapes our understanding of human rights and provides a means for advancing equality and diversity as well as upholding justice. The rule of law creates accountability on behalf of policymakers and government, which is essential in a democratic society.

PL: Tell us about your initiatives in the Canadian North. Why did CLA-ACE get involved when theoretically this is not “abroad.” What are the challenges of promoting the Rule of Law in Northern Canada?

BT: CLA-ACE’s work within Canada with Aboriginal peoples and communities amped up in 2010 as a result of a push from Former Chief Justice Antonio Lamer, a member of our Advisory Board, about why weren’t we do more in Canada to support Aboriginal peoples and organizations. We began supporting the work of- and offering internships with various organizations including the Yukon River Inter-Tribal Council, Yukon Conservation Society, Yukon Human Rights Commission, the Legal Services Board of Nunavut, Law Society of Nunavut, Nishnawbe Aski Nation in Thunder Bay, and more recently the Mikisew Cree Nation in Fort McMurray, Alberta and the Chiefs of Ontario in Toronto. I think one of the great things about CLA-ACE is that while we are “international lawyers” we care about and respond to issues here at home.

PL: Do you see Canada as being perceived differently in the world today versus when CLA-ACE started?

BT: I think Canada continues to be perceived internationally as a leader when it comes to good governance, rule of law, and human rights, however there is obviously work to be done. This year, we have been raising awareness about the rights of refugees and Indigenous peoples in Canada, for example.

PL: How much support do you get from the legal profession? In your experience is there a strong pro bono ethic that is building in Canada?

BT: CLA-ACE receives significant support from the legal profession, especially with regard to our Dare to Dream program. Each year we rely on a number of law firms for funding to support program delivery, and now to volunteer in our Dare to Dream program to engage and mentor Aboriginal youth through justice education.

We believe that members of the Canadian legal community are well placed to make a difference in their communities or international initiatives. Most lawyers and legal professionals recognize this as well and are motivated to take on pro bono activities for their own enjoyment and fulfillment. So yes, I do believe there is a strong pro bono ethic, and I can say that the lawyers volunteering in Dare to Dream are super devoted and enthusiastic. I think it’s spectacular that they take the time, despite their high pressure and demanding jobs.

PL: Tell us about your “Dare to Dream” project.

BT: Dare to Dream was created in 2012 by CLA-ACE’s co-founder Catherine McKenna and Karen Restoule, an Ojibway woman now leading the Justice Strategy for Chiefs of Ontario in Toronto. In essence, the program aims to break down barriers by building relationships between Aboriginal youth and legal professionals with the goal of positively transforming the way Aboriginal youth perceive and engage with Canada’s justice system.

Specifically, Dare to Dream is a justice education and outreach program for First Nation, Métis, and Inuit youth aged 11 to 14. Through our collaboration with Aboriginal leaders, the legal community and like-minded non-profit organizations, CLA-ACE is providing Aboriginal youth with meaningful opportunities to expand their understanding of the justice system, develop critical thinking and leadership skills, and to “dare to dream” about graduating from high school and pursuing a law-related career.

PL: How are you funded?

BT: CLA-ACE primarily receives funding from Canadian foundations, businesses and law firms that are interested in promoting human rights, access to justice and diversity. We also receive donations from private individuals via Canada Helps and Aeroplan Beyond Miles.

PL: Thank you so much for your time. For further information on Canadian Lawyers Abroad – Avocats canadiens à l’étranger please visit their site here.

Until next week!