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The Power of Bilingualism in the Legal Profession – Event Recap

Natalie Livshitz

Wednesday, February 4, 2015

On January 28th, 2015, I was glad to partner with the CFCJ to host a panel event titled “The Power of Bilingualism in the Legal Profession.” Osgoode Hall Law School opened its doors to an esteemed group of panelists:

I was inspired to promote bilingualism in the legal profession after trying out and then being accepted for the position of French Language Oralist for the Laskin Bilingual Moot. During this process, I was made aware of the difficulties that the law school had faced in terms of finding French-speaking students to fill this role. A shortage of French-speaking law students translates into a shortage of French-speaking legal professionals. This is unacceptable in a province where the citizens have broad rights to access justice in French (for more on French language rights in Ontario, see the 2012 Access to Justice in French report from the Ontario Ministry of the Attorney General.)

In addition to improving access to justice, in Canada, bilingualism opens many doors for legal professionals. One of my goals for this event was to inspire law students to develop or improve their French language skills, which would in turn improve access to French legal services in the legal profession in the future.

The panel offered invaluable insights for law students who hope to practice in French. It began with a discussion regarding how to fulfill the lawyer’s duty to advise clients of their French language rights. Baril reminded students that the ability to present evidence in the client’s preferred language leads to good results and a tactical advantage; Rouleau reinforced this point by emphasizing that testifying in one language above another can shape perceived credibility. When a client whose first language is French is forced to testify in English, this may compromise the testimony and reflect poorly on the client. Unfortunately, requesting a French trial may result in delays, so clients often choose to testify in English to expedite the process.

While Baril warned that practicing in French is difficult, all of the panelists encouraged students to not be intimidated to proceed in French. Although keeping terminology up to date is a challenge, it is well worth it. Baril explained that being a French speaking litigator broadened his exposure and experiences, providing him with major opportunities in Washington and China. Justice Rouleau spoke to the demand to French language skills in the common law market, asserting that his skills gave him cross practice experience and made his career. Burke addressed public practice, stating that French language opportunities are plentiful. By leveraging her skills, she was able to advance and inform French language services. Bouchard emphasized the importance of links to the Francophone community in terms of networking opportunities that open up for French-speaking lawyers.

The panel event concluded with some practical advice for students, including a personal anecdote from Justice Rouleau that gave students a good reason to resist using Google Translate: the judge reminisced about receiving a document from a lawyer with his name listed as “Justice Roll”, a literal translation of his name from French to English. He was thoroughly unimpressed.

Bilingual skills are in demand in Ontario’s legal profession and having the skills to fill this demand will not only improve access to justice but will also enrich your legal career. For more information about pursuing bilingualism in your practice, be sure to check out the many resources mentioned during the panel discussion including: AJEFO, the Law Society’s numerous student oriented events and French Professional Development Programs as well as the various ongoing programs,  events and crown counsel evaluation available through the Ontario Ministry of the Attorney General.

Natalie Livshitz is currently a student in her last year of the joint JD/MBA program at Osgoode Hall Law School.