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IpsoFacto

SCC Clerkships and French

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I have always found this forum to be very helpful, so thank you all for your insightful comments.

 

I am a student at UBC, and I just finished 1L. My first-year marks are as follows:

 

Public Law (2 credits): 81 (A-)

Transnational Law (2 credits): 81 (A-)

Legal Research and Writing (2 credits): 86 (A)

Torts (5 credits): 80 (A-)

Property (5 credits): 86 (A)

Criminal (5 credits): 85 (A)

Contracts (5 credits): 78 (B+)

Constitutional (6 credits): 87 (A)

 

Average: 83.2

 

I would like to apply for clerkships, and I would like most of all to secure a Supreme Court of Canada clerkship. My issue is this: I do not speak any French. I get the sense that being unilingual is a significant impediment to securing an SCC clerkship, though I could be mistaken.

 

Here is the essence of my question: is it possible or likely that a student with the grades listed above would secure an SCC clerkship despite lacking the ability to communicate in French? Furthermore, if French is as important as I suspect it may be, would it be wise to try one’s hardest to learn whatever French can be learned in six months, or would that effort be useless considering how little French could be learned in that short period of time?

 

There are, of course, many factors that go into securing a clerkship, and I do not mean to suggest the decision is premised on grades and language skill alone. I am simply trying to get a clearer sense for whether French is truly a “dealbreaker” or whether strong marks can overcome a deficiency in language ability.

 

Thank you.

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Competence in French is pretty much essential, unless maybe you are the gold medallist (but even then...). It's important enough that I would consider lack of French to be a "dealbreaker". Clerkships, like jobs in general, are getting more and more competitive. My 1L grades were A+, A, A, A, A, A- and I am unilingual. I did not get an SCC interview.

 

Is it POSSIBLE for you to get an SCC clerkship given your circumstances? Yes. Is it likely? No.

 

That said, you should absolutely apply. There is no harm whatsoever in doing so. If you really, really want to, try to learn enough French in the next 6 months that you could carry on a conversation with one of the judges. You don't need to be perfectly bilingual, but you do need to be pretty competent.

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It's increasingly the norm for people to clerk prior to clerking at the SCC (source, my friend clerking at the SCC). Clerk for credit (your grades and lack of French are fine if you do it in BC) if you can prior to applying for the SCC.

 

Next, I believe that McGill's strong showing at the SCC is largely in part because the students end up in the "French/bilingual" positions. There are unilingual anglophones, but your competition is stronger as more applicants are applying to the same position. Again, with prior clerking experience, and a varied CV & research positions, you should at least have a chance.

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I am unilingual, got interviews, got a clerkship, and, anecdotally, I know a couple other people who got clerkships who were essentially unilingual. This is not to say that bilingualism is not a major boost to your application, and that, in return, being unilingual is therefore a detriment, but it is clearly not an unassailable one. 

 

However, the one thing we all have in common is that we applied in 3L, not 2L, having first acquired a clerkship at one of the trial or appellate courts in one of the provinces (or at the Fed Court). The only person I know that successfully booked interviews and a job at the SCC out of 2L was fluently bilingual. I note that applying in 3L also gives you a much longer period of time to improve your French, if you wish, not to mention more grades, and more opportunities to get useful experiences on your resume (research assistant work for professors, 2L summer position giving you legal experience, etc). Also you'll probably have better reference letters if it's in 3L. Again, anecdotally, I know some people who were bilingual and who had top-flight grades who didn't get any interviews when applying in 2L, but then were successful when applying in 3L. 

 

There is no harm in applying in 2L, but if you're very committed to the idea of trying to clerk with the SCC, you should probably expect that you'll be aiming for it a second clerkship.

 

All that being said universities often offer "immersion" type programs in the summer where you can go for a month-long course where you're simply dumped into the middle of speaking and writing French; I hear it can have pretty good results. As Pheasant says, if you want to say that you're competent in French, you'll need to be good enough to carry on a conversation with a judge during the interview. 

Edited by hefeweizen
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I suspect it's worth it to upgrade from "unilingual" to "intermediate knowledge of French" if you can (in 6 months or a 1.5 years). I know a (francophone) clerk who went through the entire application process (including interviews) and was only spoken to in English the entire time. The court's workings are apparently far more English than French as well. Being able to read and at least have a basic conversation might be good enough to let the interviewers focus more on your legal experience than your (lack of) French.

 

I second the idea that you should clerk in BC if you can before applying. That's the case with the (limited pool of) SCC clerks I know.

Edited by jjbean

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Yeah, I'll second what other folks have said about the SCC as a second clerkship. I think that can help to make up for language issues. Although I'll stand by my comments that lack of French is a major strike against you. Even the people I know that I are going to the SCC after one appellate clerkship have at least an intermediate level of French.

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How is french used once you are a SCC clerk? If I worked to regain my french a bit, I might be able to carry a conversation well enough. However, in the extremely unlikely situation where I was offered a clerkship, I'd want to know that I could actually do it...

 

Do you need to be able to help draft decisions in french? Just be able to generally understand counsel or witnesses speaking in french? How does french come in to the day-to-day role?

 

Thanks.

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Of the two classmates I know of who interviewed with the SCC, one was unilingual (had 5 interviews) and the other was more or less fluently bilingual (two interviews). 

 

As for French being used, there is at least one justice who runs her day-to-day office work in French.

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How is french used once you are a SCC clerk? If I worked to regain my french a bit, I might be able to carry a conversation well enough. However, in the extremely unlikely situation where I was offered a clerkship, I'd want to know that I could actually do it...

 

Do you need to be able to help draft decisions in french? Just be able to generally understand counsel or witnesses speaking in french? How does french come in to the day-to-day role?

 

Thanks.

 

Every judge has three clerks, and at least one of those clerks is generally trained in civil law and fluent in French (often they're a McGill grad; #McGillPride). It's unlikely they would turn to the non-francophone to draft a judgment in French. You would want to be able to read submissions made by parties from Quebec / NB without having to request a translation though (I imagine).

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What is the scale for listing proficiency in French? If you don't think you can handle a French interview, do you just list 'basic' or is there some number scale?

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If you can't handle french in an interview, there's not much point putting it on your resume.

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Often times it's useful to list proficiency in terms of skills (reading, writing, listening, and speaking).

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Yeah, but if you can't even do conversational french in an interview, what are the chances any of the others will be of professional assistance?

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Being at McGill, it's fairly common to see people with strong passive skills (reading, listening) but relatively poor active skills (writing, speaking). I know very little about the work clerks do but if you're clerking for an anglophone judge, is it reasonable to expect that your second-language duties will largely consist of reading French cases and doctrine? If so, relatively poor active skills might not be a major impediment. 

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