Our journey with the Young Lawyers International Program

  • March 09, 2020

By Kate Dewey and Kevin Chao

We found our way to the Young Lawyers International Program (YLIP) and the Caribbean by very different paths. Kate had heard about YLIP before law school and knew then that she would someday apply, while Kevin had only heard of the program four months before the orientation in Ottawa. We also had very different personal and professional backgrounds coming into the program. Yet, after meeting very briefly over our three-day orientation, we decided to find an apartment together with fellow YLIP intern Devon Black. For three people who did not know each other six months ago, we have shared an entirely unique chapter of our lives here in Guyana.

We are in our last month of our YLIP placement with the Guyana Legal Aid Clinic. We have realized that it will be sad to say goodbye – to the people that we have met along the way, to the work that we have invested much time and effort into, and to the life that we have made here. After five months, we write with confidence that YLIP has not only benefitted our host organization, but it has been an incredible opportunity for us as young lawyers.

The work that we are doing is similar to that done at legal aid clinics across Canada. While the judicial system, customs, and procedures may vary from what we are used to in Canada, the challenges that clients face—abuse, stigma, lack of legal information, and barriers to accessing justice—are the same. Like most clinics, the Guyana Legal Aid Clinic has too few lawyers and too many clients. Two additional lawyers providing legal services can therefore make a large difference in the workload. We have been able to interview and manage clients, draft court documents, and lessen the burden on the clinic’s lawyers and staff. Files can be handled more expeditiously, and more clients are able to access the justice system.

As we have both recently been called to the bar in our home provinces, it is unsurprising that our time at the clinic has been an invaluable learning experience. Being exposed to a new jurisdiction and the practice of law through our interactions with lawyers, judges, and vulnerable populations has given us entirely new perspectives.

We also face new legal challenges daily. We have assisted with court matters for criminal law, family law, and other civil law matters. We have sat across the desk from persons who are facing their abusers and those who are accused of serious criminal offences. We have provided services to the elderly and to children who find themselves in intricate legal predicaments.

It would be remiss of us not to acknowledge that some of these challenges have been more difficult than others and that we have been pushed outside of our comfort zone many times along the way. Each time that this has happened, it has made us more adaptable and resilient lawyers, and, ultimately, better advocates for our clients. Our experiences have therefore allowed us to grow both personally and professionally. We will undoubtedly be returning home with a broader understanding of the law and with applicable legal experience.

Not all of our learning has been through our work—much of it has been through personal experiences with our colleagues and with the friends that we have met here. A cultural mix of the Caribbean and South America, Guyana has allowed us to embrace a lifestyle that was completely unknown to us before. Now that we are working in a different part of the world, we cannot imagine having done anything else to kick-start our careers as lawyers.

Needless to say, the two of us cannot recommend YLIP enough. While six months in a foreign work environment in the Global South may be daunting, the experience has been unparalleled and there have been a lot of fun stories along the way. We expect to come back to Canada as more experienced lawyers, more mindful global citizens, and more tanned than ever before.

Applications for the Young Lawyers International Program are now being accepted. The deadline to apply is April 30.

Kate Dewey grew up on the Magdalen Islands and Prince Edward Island. She obtained her law degree from Dalhousie University’s Schulich School of Law in 2018. After completing her articles with the Halifax Regional Municipality, she was called to the Nova Scotia Bar in June 2019 joined the municipality’s Legal Services Litigation Team as a solicitor. Kate’s pro-bono experience has primarily centered around assisting in harm reduction initiatives for persons who use substances in Halifax.

Kevin Chao was raised in Markham and attended law school at the University of British Columbia. During law school and while articling, Kevin held positions at two legal aid clinics—Rise Women’s Legal Centre in Vancouver, and Luke’s Place in Oshawa—where he assisted low-income and abused women with family law matters. Kevin was called to the Ontario Bar in June 2019 and will begin work in May as an associate at Nussbaum Family Law in Toronto.