Canadian Journal of Commercial Arbitration: Building an International Corporate Law Career

Hannah Johnston

On March 15, 2021 the Canadian Journal of Commercial Arbitration (CJCA) presented “Building an International Corporate Law Career.” The panel was composed of Jack Maslen (BLG), Vasuda Sinha (Freshfields), and Benjamin Adelson (Kirkland & Ellis). 

Moderated by CJCA Co-Editor-in-Chief Milan Singh-Cheema, the panelists discussed life after Queen’s and law school, working domestically and abroad in a variety of domains, and how they recommend students who want to emulate their careers might go about doing so.

Question 1: The Path to Working Abroad

The panelists began with detailing how they found themselves in international positions after graduating. All three articled in Canada before setting out.

Jack Maslen opened the panel by discussing his trans-national path to working at BLG. He began practicing with Bennett Jones in Toronto and took an opportunity for an internal transfer to Bennett Jones’s office in Qatar, where he worked exclusively on international arbitrations. He then studied for a Bachelor of Civil Law (equivalent to an LLM) at the University of Oxford, after which he practiced in London before heading home to Calgary. He now has a broad litigation practice with domestic and international elements, focusing on insolvency, securities, and oil & gas matters.

Vasuda Sinha articled in Ottawa and worked in commercial litigation before finding her current role. Vasuda is now a Senior Associate at Freshfields in Paris, where she is part of a dedicated international arbitration practice group. She has experience in cross-border disputes and appeared as counsel before arbitral tribunals and the Supreme Court of Canada. Vasuda speaks English, French and Hindi. Before articling, she spent a year in London, UK as a Fox Scholar, an experience she credited with increasing both her interest and her ability to work internationally.

Benjamin Adelson practiced at Blakes in Toronto before taking a job with Weil Gotshal in New York, after which he was recruited to help open the Dallas, Texas office of Kirkland & Ellis LLP. He is a transnational lawyer working primarily on private equity in the energy sector, as well as bankruptcies. Along the way, Benjamin passed the Ontario, New York, and Texas bar exams.

Question 2: How Canadian Lawyers Should Look for International Positions

All three panellists said to reach out to people whose work you are interested in. Both Vasuda and Benjamin also mentioned that they found their current position by speaking to someone they knew who worked there, and that some things will just fall into your lap, but only once you have done the legwork to generate opportunities. They also advised that, once set in motion, the hiring process can move quite quicky.

Jack recommended that students reach out to other Canadians in cities or practices where they would like to work. He said that Queen’s alumni and Canadians in general usually like to help each other and will make time to do so. This may be a more difficult ask right after graduation, so a better option may be getting called to the bar in Canada, gaining some experience, and then being able to make a stronger pitch to international employers.

CJCA Managing Editor, and Queen's Law Professor Joshua Karton stressed that it is much easier to take Canadian credentials abroad then try to transfer foreign qualifications into Canada. Although Canadian employers may value international experience, even something like the New York bar can take time to get recognized in Canada. This supports the idea that it may be best to graduate law school and article in Canada, and then apply elsewhere.

Vasuda also recommended that students stick out their articling positions in Canada if they think there is a chance of coming back at some point. Her advice was to ask yourself why you want to leave Canada, and then what you like about the law. She said to also call someone you see who is doing something interesting, especially if you notice you’ve studied at the same school. Try not to worry about being ignored, she says. You are never entitled to an interview but the people you would want to work are usually willing to engage. She also encouraged students to look past law firms, since a lot of interesting international work takes place outside traditional legal roles.

Benjamin said that bigger firms are more used to hiring internationally, and this can make the process easier for Canadian applicants. That said, it is still possible to be hired directly from law school to a firm outside of Canada (despite what the Career Development Office might say). Benjamin said that he had his heart set on litigation, but it didn’t work out at his first firm. He also considered coming home from New York before taking his current role in Texas, and his advice was to keep an open mind to other possibilities.  

Question 3: Ways to Impress an Interviewer

Jack mentioned how small the legal community in Canada is, so it’s important not just to make connections but also to maintain them. Impressing an interviewer is partly about making a connection with them, but there are a lot of different ways to do this.

Vasuda said one way to make a good impression is not to dwell on the firm environment and work/life balance. Instead, she recommends mentioning an interesting case that this person has worked on, and ask if this type of work is common or something that you could get involved in. It is not a good idea to make the impression that you only care about work hours.

Benjamin recommends that interviewees be as direct as possible. It is important to have stories and qualifying examples to back up your values, but lawyers like it when you can get to the point. There is no value in hedging or being overly modest; if you think you would be a good fit for a role, then say so forthrightly, and give an anecdote or example to back up your claim.

The panelists closed the question period with personalized questions based on their own previous experience. Jack noted that the process of coming back to practice in Canada after working aboard was, at least for him, quick and seamless. Also, that his experience working in London on some of the world’s largest-scale arbitrations was both a selling point to his current firm and something that gives him confidence now when he takes on a complicated dispute. Benjamin said that, within the US, New York is the biggest hub for Canadian lawyers, but that there were other jurisdictions like Silicon Valley, Chicago, and Texas where Canadians can find interesting jobs. He also mentioned a sense of familiarity that is beneficial for business development with potential Canadian clients. Vasuda mentioned that her three languages were helpful to her work but not necessary. Also, that her firm in Paris offered opportunities to learn French, but that most arbitration proceedings are in English.

Overall, this event was a great way to help Queen’s law students see how they can find jobs abroad, and also possibly return to domestic practice. The biggest take-aways: stay in touch with your network and where they end up, remember that not all international law jobs for Canadians will be at a firm, keep an open mind to jobs that might be outside of your intended area of practice, and if you find people doing the kind of work you want to do, be proactive in reaching out to them.