Foreign-Trained Lawyer Series: The Licensing Process, Part II

If you missed Part I of this post, check it out here.

Yet Another Application Process

Becoming a lawyer in Ontario costs a lot of money and takes a lot of time. There are many steps and lots of dollars that will flow from your pocket to the powers-that-be. This may seem critical, but it’s just a fact. It’s not cheap, but it is worthwhile if this is your chosen profession.

The licensing process is a two-step process that includes the barrister and solicitor exams. From the LSUC website:

Part I consists of the online entry of your information and payment of the non-refundable application fee of $160.00 (plus applicable taxes). . . .

Part II requires you to file, with the Licensing and Accreditation Department, a printed copy of your application along with required documents. This printed copy of your application must be commissioned or notarized. . . .

If either your online application (Part I) or the commissioned/notarized printed copy of your application, supporting documents and application fee (Part II) are received by the Licensing and Accreditation Department after the deadline, a late filing fee of $75.00 (plus applicable taxes) will be applied to your account. Applications with an outstanding application fee/late fee or incomplete documentation will not be processed.

It is strongly recommended that you apply by the deadline to avoid the late filing fee and to ensure that registration for the Licensing Examinations and Experiential Training is not delayed or jeopardized.

A Word on Timing

Once you submit your application, you can choose when to take your exams. There are three exams periods for each year: June, November and March (of the following year). The deadline to apply is usually sometime in December the year before you intend to take the exams. For example, for the 2017-2018 exam cycle, the deadline was December 2, 2016. This deadline is for candidates that wish to take an exam in June 2017, November 2017 or March 2018. For foreign-trained lawyers, if you are planning to take your NCA exams and take your bar exam at the earliest opportunity, it is important that you pay attention to the timing of these steps because you cannot enter the licensing process until you have received your Certificate of Qualification (“CQ”). Unfortunately, the dates and times for the NCA exams do not necessarily coincide with the deadlines for the bar exams in the different provinces.

For instance, I took my NCA exams in August. When the NCA says that it will take eight weeks for you to receive your results, they really mean that it will take eight weeks. So, even though there was a bar exam scheduled for November, I did not have my CQ in enough time to register for that exam and I had to wait until March of the next year to sit for both the barristers and solicitors exams.

In 2017, the NCA is offering exams in January, May, August and October. I believe that these are the same months that they are offered every year. Therefore, if you wanted to complete the NCA process in time to sit for the November bar exams in Ontario, you would need to complete your exams in May, at the latest. If you wanted to wait until March 2018, you could take the exams in August, at the latest. Sitting for the October exams is not advisable unless you 1) don’t mind paying the late fee for entering the licensing process after the deadline or 2) don’t plan on taking the licensing exams until later in 2018. This may vary, however, depending on the schedule of the province where you wish to practice.

Whatever your timing, just be sure you have a good sense of it before you enter the process. Once it was all said and done, it took me over a year to be called to the bar in Ontario. I submitted my NCA application in February 2013 and was called to the bar in June 2014. For a variety of reasons that I will discuss in later posts, I don’t think it’s possible to go through this process much faster.

The Licensing Examinations

As already stated, the exams are offered three times a year. They are open-book and seven hours in length. Additional information is available on the LSUC website. The exams are offered on two different days, two weeks apart. Once you become a candidate in the licensing process, you will receive all of the study materials in a very heavy box, delivered to your door. You do not need any other materials, however, most students in Ontario put together indexes (or more accurately, indices) that identify key words and page numbers for ease of reference during the exam. It’s a bit complicated to explain it here, but if you don’t have access to a law student in Ontario who is also studying for the exams, I believe that there are some commercially available indices that you can find through a Google search. I cannot speak for any of them personally as I was fortunate to receive indexes from a student when I was studying, but I’m sure you can figure out whether it’s helpful for you or not. The reality of the situation is that, you need to read through ALL the information at least once to make sure you have a grasp of the material that is being tested. The index is really just an aid once you have a good sense of the information – you’re not going to have the time to look up every single answer during the exam if you’re not already somewhat familiar with the material that is being tested.

It is reported that the passage rate for the Ontario bar exam is really high so it would be easy to think that it’s an “easy” exam, but if you’re not familiar with taking a multiple choice law exam in a high-pressure situation with 300 other equally-stressed individuals then there’s nothing easy about it (especially if English is not your first language). The trouble with trying to determine your chances on the Ontario exam is that the LSUC publishes virtually no data about the exams and they do not release practice exams or questions. This is markedly different than the experience that I had in the U.S. where, for New York at least, Barbri and other study companies are able to get real questions from the bar examiners to provide you with a simulated test-taking environment. Again, there are commercially-available practice exams, but they are just created by the companies themselves – they are not able to provide you with real questions from the bar exam. That doesn’t mean it can’t be helpful to get some practice in, especially if this format is not one you’re used to, but you have to appreciate that there is no way to actually know what’s going to be on the exam before you sit down in the room.

A Note on Self Care During Exam Prep

I think that the single best thing that you can for yourself when you’re preparing for the exams is to pay special attention to your self care. There is a lot of material to get through and there are never enough hours in the day. Set a reasonable study schedule early and try your best to stick to it, but if you miss a day here or there, don’t beat yourself up. Do the best you can and build in some down time. Take the day before the exam off because, to be honest, if you don’t know it by then, you’re probably not going to. Eat well. Sleep. Make sure your mind and body are prepared for the exams because it really is mind over matter when you’re on hour five of the exam and you’re faced with a series of questions that you don’t know the answer to. Don’t let the pressure and stress keep you from realizing your dreams.

My Thoughts on the Exams and the Exam Process

It’s now been a few years since I took the exams, so keep that in mind. I would like to share a few thoughts though – if you have taken a U.S. bar exam – especially New York or California – you are unlikely to find the Ontario bar exam to be particularly challenging. It is all multiple choice and it’s open-book. You don’t need IRAC or the cursory knowledge of New York’s criminal code to answer the questions. This is a good thing, but, as multiple choice exams are wont to do, sometimes there are the dreaded all-of-the-above or none-of-the-above answers that will make you hate life. You still need to read through the materials and have a grasp of how it all works. Don’t sleep on this one.

The proctors for the Ontario exams are notoriously strict. ON THE DAY OF THE EXAM, MAKE SURE YOU READ AND FOLLOW ALL OF THE RULES RE WHAT YOU CAN AND CANNOT BRING INTO THE EXAM ROOM. On the day of my exam, a number of people were sent back to their cars because they attempted to bring items in that weren’t allowed. Just be prepared and leave the stuff you don’t need in your car. They will not make exceptions. They do not have that kind of authority. They are generally retired people who are just helping out and they will not necessarily be nice. They will send you a detailed list about what you can have with you, the kinds of snacks you’re allowed (no apples or carrots, please) and how it should be carried (inside a clear sandwich bag). No exceptions. Nothing else allowed.

Once you’re in the exam room, all paper must stay in the exam room. This means that every index that you prepare, any handwritten notes you’ve made in the margins of the materials, any and all paper that comes in with you stays there, forever and ever. I ran into a particularly ridiculous issue during the lunch break. I had brought with me a store-bought sandwich that was wrapped in paper. It took no less than five minutes to convince them to let me take my sandwich, in its paper wrapping out of the room so that I could eat in peace. Multiple people were involved in making this decision. They are really sensitive about it. If there is some piece of paper that you plan on having with you and you want to keep afterward – make a copy beforehand. Otherwise, it will be lost.

Re the exams, I did not find either of them particularly challenging, but I took the New York bar exam previously, so my idea of a difficult exam was skewed. However, I did find the solicitors exam to be slightly more difficult than the barristers – perhaps this is one of the reasons I prefer litigation – it just makes more sense to me. I finished both exams with time to check my work and go back to some questions that I was unsure of on the first round. I refer you back to the self-care section above because I really think that a big reason for this was the fact that I was not freaking out whenever I came across a question that I did not know the answer to. Rather, I did my best to narrow down the possibilities, marked what I thought was right and then kept moving. I didn’t let the stress of not knowing paralyze me. I’m certainly not immune to stress during exams. I share this information because it’s something I’ve struggled with for a long time and I finally found some strategies for managing it that work.

I hope this is helpful!

More Questions?

If you have strategy questions – feel free to ask away in the comments. However, if you have more technical questions about the exams, exam schedules, etc., please go to the LSUC website or contact the LSUC directly. I am not connected with them in any way and only share my experience in hopes of being helpful.


5 thoughts on “Foreign-Trained Lawyer Series: The Licensing Process, Part II”

  1. As a foreign trained lawyer, upon receiving your NCA CQ , were you required to completed articles? Or if you had previous legal experience did you receive an exemption? If so, how do exemptions usually work?

    1. Hi Mia –

      The short answer is that yes, all people looking to get called in Ontario need to complete articles unless they receive an exemption or abridgment of the articling term (which is normally 10 months). I did receive an exemption from articling, but that’s a whole separate process that you have to go through and it includes getting your former employers to verify that you have learned certain skills that you would ostensibly learn during your articles. There is a bunch of information that you have to provide to get an exemption or abridgment, and that is covered on the LSUC website here:,_based_on_prior_experience. I hope that helps!

  2. Hi, First of all, thank you so much for writing your blog. It is immensely helpful; live saver actually. I was wondering if you could share some tips as to how to prepare for the NCA exams (and pass them successfully)? Things like, should we invest in books or buy notes? etc etc.

    1. Hi Aditi –

      Sorry for the delay in responding. In preparing for the exams, I think that the most important thing is starting early and developing a study plan. It may feel like you have a lot of time but there are always things that come up (life!) and you want to build some down time into the study schedule as well. I found that being deliberate about my study plans and setting time aside each day to read the cases made it easier to digest the material than trying to cram it all into my brain at the last minute. In terms of actual technique for preparing, it depends on how you study, and your familiarity with common law. I prepared outlines like I did in law school and found that the process of developing the outline and then synthesizing the material before the exam helped me retain more information. Even though the exams are open book, you only have three hours to take them so you can’t rely on the ability to look information up quickly. If you need to find a case name or something like that, it’s fine, but you really need to have some sort of quick reference available so you don’t have to flip through hundreds of pages. That’s where the outline and condensed outline really helped and I put page numbers in the outline just in case I needed more information.

      Also, I bought all the books and was able to sell them on to other NCA exam takers once I was done with them. It’s definitely worth it to have your own copies of the books. There are some commercial outlines available, and I think I’ve mentioned them in a blog post before, but I would’t recommend using them if you have time to make your own outline. It can be time consuming but you will get a lot more out of it.

      I hope that helps. Let me know if you have any other questions!

      1. Thank you, Valarie. I am going to take your advice to my heart and follow it in word and spirit.

        If you ever need any kinda help, I would be more than delighted to help you in any way possible. All you need to do is let me know. Merci beaucoup.

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