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.

Continue reading “Foreign-Trained Lawyer Series: The Licensing Process, Part II”


Foreign Trained Lawyer Series: The Licensing Process, Part I

You’ve successfully completed the NCA process. Congratulations!

Unfortunately, the bureaucracy doesn’t end there. The following post is going to discuss the licensing process in Ontario only. That is the only process with which I’m familiar because it’s the process that I went through. I will note, though, that once you’re called to the bar in one of the provinces, there is a streamlined process for practicing in other provinces, however, I have not explored that and will not do so here.

The Licensing Process

Lawyers in Canada are self-regulated, meaning that it is the lawyers themselves who govern entry into the profession and the rules by which we all practice. In Ontario, the Law Society of Upper Canada (“LSUC”) is the governing body for lawyers. All lawyers who are admitted to practice in Ontario must go through the licensing process, which includes sitting for the bar exam and articling. This is the same for foreign-trained lawyers, although you may not need to article depending on your practice experience in your home country. As a side note, the number of articling positions has steadily decreased over the last few years and the LSUC introduced the Law Practice Program as an alternative to articling. It is still a pilot project and has only been approved for another 2 years. I’m going to break this down over the next couple of posts because this will otherwise be a bit too daunting to read in one go.

The LSUC’s Expectations for New Lawyers

The purpose of the licensing process, according to the LSUC is:

. . . to ensure that candidates have demonstrated they possess the required entry-level competencies, in order to provide legal services effectively and in the public interest.

Seems straight-forward enough, right? Well, sort of. Continue reading “Foreign Trained Lawyer Series: The Licensing Process, Part I”

Foreign Trained Lawyers Series: Don’t let the NCA get you down

So you want to be a Canadian lawyer?

Foreign trained lawyers must prove that their law degree is equivalent to a Canadian law degree regardless of where they went to law school or how well they did. In order to do this, one must go through the National Committee on Accreditation, which is

a standing committee of the Federation of Law Societies of Canada. The mandate of the NCA is to help Canada’s law societies protect the public interest by assessing the legal education and professional experience of individuals who obtained their credentials outside of Canada or in a Canadian civil law program.

(I am convinced that the NCA is actually just one person, but that’s a conversation for another time.)

In order to sit for the bar exam in any Canadian province, foreign trained lawyers must obtain a Certificate of Qualification from the NCA. One obtains the Certificate of Qualification by either 1) passing a series of challenge exams in areas assigned by the NCA or 2) taking and passing classes at a Canadian law school in the subjects assigned by the NCA.

Both processes are expensive and time-consuming, however, there are pros and cons to both. The challenge exam option is great for people who have already trained in a common law jurisdiction and have the basics of English legal principles down. You have to study by yourself, but the NCA provides a syllabus and some practice tests to get you going. There are also some commercial outlines available if you’re so inclined (however, just as in law school, doing your own outline is by far superior.). The downside to this option, though, is that you are all on your own and it can be a very isolating process. The exams are also only offered four times a year, so if you don’t pass or you’re unable to attend one of the sittings – it can take a really long time to complete the process.

As for the class option, I can’t say much about it because I didn’t do it, but all of the big law schools in Toronto, at least, offer some sort of program for foreign trained lawyers and they market themselves as learning + networking + cultural experiences. These are probably great for people who know nothing about common law or Canadian legal culture and who need a lot of support. I am sure they’re great programs, but the cost is quite high and I imagine that taking a few months off, if not more, to go back to “school” is a luxury that not many new lawyers in the country can afford.

The self-study option is also expensive and can be quite ridiculous depending on how many exams you’re assigned. Each exam is $315 and everyone has to take at least 5 (so 5 * $315 = $1575) and that’s BEFORE you enter the licensing process.

Did I mention that this whole thing is rather expensive?

Anyway – I’ve set out the steps and some information about applying below. Keep in mind that I went through this process in 2013, so I’ve made an effort to look up what I could, but some things may have changed since then.

Submitting Your Application

This is the point at which you go down the rabbit hole. The NCA is a bit of a black box in terms of how they assess applications. Basically, you send them your law school transcripts, your CV or resume, etc. and $410 (again, it’s a really expensive process) et voila! in two months you get an email with a letter attached stating that you have to take the five foundational courses and perhaps some others. When I applied there were only four required courses and I only had to take those four. However, I have known people who were assigned anywhere from 4 to 12 exams (the entire list of exams is here). Not surprisingly, the more exams you are assigned, the less likely you are to actually follow through. But – don’t give up immediately if you’re assigned a lot of exams. I have also known people who challenged their assignments on the basis of some experience they had and they were able to knock down the number of exams that they had to take.

Taking the Exams

As I said, the exams are offered four times a year. The schedule is available here and is updated regularly. Each exam is 3 hours long and is open book. If you’ve gone through a common law school before, it is your basic first year exam structure. Issue spotters, short answer, nothing too crazy.

If you have to take more than 5 exams, it’s unlikely that you’ll be able to/want to take them all at the same time. It’s much better to spread it out and take like exams together to increase your chances of success. For instance, Constitutional Law and Foundations of Canadian Law are basically the same thing. All of the core subjects will have things in common that will make it easier to study for them together. Of course, if you’re asked to take Family Law and Business Organizations – you’ll just have to do the best you can.

All of the exams are offered in various locations in Canada. You can, however, apply to take them in your home country if you can find a school that meets the criteria necessary to be a foreign testing center. This can be a game changer if you’re not the kind of person that likes to sit in a room with 300 other stressed out lawyers to take a three hour exam. I was able to find a local law school in Washington, D.C. that had already been used as a testing center before and take the exams in a room, by myself, and just focus on what was happening on the page rather than hearing people cough and move around me.  I had to arrange some things with the school beforehand and have them get in touch with the NCA to let them know what was going on, but it was the best decision I made, by far.

Regardless of where you take the exam, the schedule is the same. So, if the exam is being held on a Tuesday 9AM in Toronto – you will take it on that same Tuesday at 9AM wherever you are in the world.

Now let’s be clear about one REALLY IMPORTANT thing:

Exam Results

Examinations are graded on a pass/fail basis (i.e. 50% is considered a pass).  Results will be released approximately 10-12 weeks from the date of the last scheduled exam of each session.  (emphasis added).


You don’t need to blow this thing out of the park. You just have to pass and a pass is 50%. Even though they’re asking for everything except your first born, the NCA is not looking for legal geniuses. They are looking for minimal competence. They want people who can read English and understand how common law works and understand how to apply the law to facts in a minimally competent way.

The exams can be challenging, but they’re not impossible. Use whatever resources you have available to help you understand the information. If it’s not the right time to take the exams due to family obligations or work commitments – just wait. I think you have something like 2 years from the time you get your NCA assessment back to obtain the Certificate of Qualification. UPDATE: You have five years to complete the assessed courses. (However, anecdotally, I would imagine that the longer you take, the less likely it is that you will actually complete the exams.) Take your time. Do it right. You’ll do great!

A Word Re Timing

I applied for my NCA assessment in February 2013. I heard back in about six weeks, just before the close of the application for the May exams that year. I debated for awhile about sitting for the May exams just to get it over with, but I didn’t think I would have enough time to study properly. I ended up sitting for and taking my four exams in August 2013. When the NCA says that results will take 10-12 weeks, what they really mean is results will take 12 weeks, but we like to be optimistic. I received my results approx. 12 weeks later, but it was too late to enter the licensing process in Ontario at that time, so I had to wait until the March 2014 process opened in January or so to start that process.

Although the NCA is part of the Federation of Law Societies, it does not coordinate its exam dates and the dates for releasing its results with the individual law societies. So, just keep that in mind if you have a “drop dead” date by when you need to be done with everything.

Anyway – at the end, I received a very short email indicating that I had passed all of my exams and that my Certificate of Qualification was in the mail.

At the end of the day, I spent about $1600 for a piece of paper to tell me that my law school education was roughly equivalent to that received by Canadian students. If I were making the rules, I think I would just make the bar exam harder and let anyone sit for it because I fundamentally believe that increasing the barriers to entry into the legal field is bad for lawyers. I was fortunate that I had a job lined up and was able to expense a lot of the costs associated with becoming a lawyer in Canada, but I know it’s a much harder process for most and I don’t honestly see why that has to be the case.

Have you been through the NCA process? Do you have any tips/tricks to share?

Check out my first post on Foreign Trained lawyers

Foreign Trained Lawyers

Canada is, rightly, proud of the multicultural society that has been created over the past fifty years or so. One thing that people don’t necessarily consider when they think about multiculturalism is the need for lawyers and other civil servants who are representative of the population as a whole. It is, after all, a democracy.

Having knowledge of both the Canadian and particular cultural norms is especially helpful for creating more access to justice. However, becoming qualified as a lawyer in Canada is not that easy if you’ve been trained elsewhere.

There are many reasons why this is the case and there are some perfectly legitimate barriers to entry into the Canadian legal market. But, in my view, there are some fundamental problems – mostly having to do with the administration of the various programs – that makes it extremely difficult for most people to even start down the path to becoming qualified in Canada.

This is a series that will take a look at how lawyers from other countries can become lawyers in Canada. It also applies to Canadians who earn a law degree in another country with the hope of returning home to practice. It’s a long, expensive and uncertain path for many, but as someone who went through it relatively recently – I hope to shed some light on the process and provide some guidance to those who have earned law degrees in a foreign country and are hoping to practice in Canada.

I was extremely fortunate to have entered the process as a U.S.-trained lawyer because the legal  system is similar, English is my first language and I graduated from one of the top law schools in the United States. I recognize that the experience that I had is not the same as many others. I have heard tales of people taking years to complete the qualification process, only to find out that they can’t article or that they just don’t have enough money to continue.

I have also heard stories from Canadian students who have always wanted to be lawyers, but didn’t get accepted to a Canadian law school so they go to the U.K. or Australia with the plan to return upon completion of their degree. This, in my opinion, is a bad move. There are some who have done it – for sure – but it seems to be a very frustrating process and a very difficult path. Although there are a lot more law schools in the U.S. that make it unnecessary to travel out of the country if you’re hell-bent on becoming a lawyer – my advice to those of you considering this option is the same as that I would give to someone who would consider attending an unranked school in the U.S.: Don’t do it. It’s not worth it. There are other ways of making an impact in people’s lives or being involved with the legal system than taking on, potentially, mountains of debt with no guarantees of even having a job at the end.

As everyone knows, the market for legal services has changed drastically in the last few years. That’s not news. But, it seems that young would-be lawyers are still making the decision to go to law school on the basis of old information. I hope to provide some up to date advice to keep you from making costly mistakes.

Are you a foreign-trained lawyer? What was your experience like? Let me know in the comments.