A couple of random thoughts.
Visas - the most common visa that you get at a law firm is a TN (NAFTA visa). These are really very easy to obtain. The downside is that they have no permanence to them. If you are interested in staying for the long term, a lot of people have issues obtaining a Green Card because the firms will not provide it to them. So this is one thing to look at if you have the luxury of picking between firms.
Returning to Canada - a lot of Canadians want to go and practice down here for a few years and then leave biglaw and return to do something in Canada. For an aspiring transactional lawyer, the US experience is solid gold in Canada. You will be a hot commodity when you return - having worked on some significant matters. Your experience is largely transferrable and is seen as beneficial. Further, because Canadian law firms get a lot of their work by doing the Canadian piece of a deal driven by a US or international firm, your connections are seen as valuable as your experience. As you get older, so will your colleagues at your US firm and Canadian firms will rely on you to make introductions for business development purposes (assuming you stick around for a bit and actually get to know people). This can be an excellent way to distinguish yourself for partnership consideration.
For litigators, the situation is a bit murkier. Big US firms do high dollar and complex litigation. This means large teams and as a junior you are not necessarily going to get the kind of experience you need to be a real litigator. There are stories I have heard of people coming back from the US having been at some of the top firms for 5 or 6 years and then joining a large Canadian firm. At their new Canadian firm, they don't have the comparable experience of a Canadian fifth or six year lawyer and thus shortly run into difficulties. The way to avoid this is to to as much pro-bono as you can. And the US firms offer exceptional pro-bono opportunities that you can leverage into learning the skills you need to be a real litigator after you exit from biglaw. I know that some Canadian big firms have this same problem (massive commercial litigation where the junior people are never given real responsibility) but the sense I get is that it can become a real problem if you stay in the NYC too long. That said, there is a long track record of people coming back from NYC to various parts of Canada and having extremely successful careers. So the negative experience may be a bit of an outlier. I would say the vast majority of litigators I know who have gone to NYC have had no problems coming back to Canada. In fact, their NYC experience has been extremely positive for their Canadian careers. Most of these people tend to have very solid profiles so that may be part of it. I mention the experience drawback as a cautionary tale (and one that Canadian employers are very aware of).
Getting hired - Back in the days before the financial crisis it used to be relatively easy to go down to the US (mostly NYC) as a Canadian law grad if you were at McGill or U of T (Osgoode also sent a number of people down; aside from Osgoode it was pretty hard from less well known schools - including UBC - but not impossible and the people who went down tended to be gold or silver medalists). One guy I know had a 3.0 (median class position) from McGill got a job. After the financial crisis, NYC biglaw became a lot harder for Americans to break into (fewer jobs). This has changed somewhat this year as the number of positions has increased. Due to a reduction in the number of summer associate positions, many firms which had hired a lot of Canadians stopped looking in Canada. Now, it seems that you need Dean's list or close to from U of T or McGill to have a shot at NYC. I don't know about the situation at Osgoode. The attention of NYC firms has not returned to Canada and it may never. That said, there are some tips you should follow if you are interested in it:
1) Law journal - for reasons that I have never really come to understand US firms LOVE law journal. Get on it.
2) Grades - all the US firms expect deans list or near dean's list grades (top 10-15 %). There may be some flexibility on this, but this is my general understanding of current trends.
3) Clerking - If you clerk at the SCC, you'll have access to NYC biglaw even if you didn't summer. Other clerkships don't seem to generate interests from firms (for those who weren't summer students at those firms).
4) Networking - there are a lot of firms that have a history of hiring Canadians that stopped doing OCI. There are still a number of Canadians at those firms. If you send those people an email, they may be willing to help you out (especially if they are an alumnus of your law school). That may be a way into these firms that don't do OCI with a higher likelihood of success than simply sending your CV to the email address on the webpage. These firms receive thousands of unsolicited applications and so getting a position without going through OCI's is quite difficult. Going through the side door may be helpful in this instance.
Clerking - if you want to clerk, going to a US firm can be tremendously advantageous. My friends' experience has been that Canadian firms do not really love clerkships. They will tolerate them, but they really want you to clerk after you've articled and even then many of them will not promise you a job after your clerkship. The US firms, on the other hand, love clerkships. If you are a summer associate and you receive a full-time offer after your summer and you then get a clerkship the US firms will delay your offer until you have finished your clerkship. On top of that, many of them will give you a $50,000 bonus for clerking and promote you by a class year (you would start at $170,000 vs. $160,000). They tend not to care what Canadian court you clerked at and so will offer this bonus to those at the Federal Court (clerkships (wrongly) viewed somewhat suspiciously by large Canadian firms) as well as the provincial courts of appeal and certain provincial superior courts. So if you are interested in clerking, summering at a US firm can be an immensely smart (and lucrative) thing to do - especially when compared to the uncertain benefit of clerking to a Canadian employer. I have long found the Canadian employers attitude towards clerking to be silly and shortsighted but what do I know.
Edited by aspiringsolo, 27 September 2014 - 08:14 PM.