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.

How to Manage


I want to make something very clear: there is no point in having a conversation about managing your time or energy if you hate your job.

There are so many CPDs, and an entire industry, geared toward helping lawyers be more organized or more efficient or whatever it is that they need to improve to bill as many hours as possible.

This is all wasted on you if you are actively hating your job right now.

Let’s be honest – the reason that you’re not getting that much done is because you don’t want to do it. You don’t want to call that client about that thing that you don’t care about. You don’t want to draft that document or make that offer or whatever because you just don’t want to be there.

I have spoken to too many young lawyers who are convinced that something is wrong with them because they aren’t hitting their billable targets, and so many of them are failing to ask a basic question: do you like what you do?

Notice that I didn’t ask whether you love what you do because that’s stupid and it’s impossible to know in the first five years of a legal career. But, you can like it. You can wake up in the morning and look forward to seeing your coworkers and learning something new and taking on a challenging new file. You can do that and if you like it, then you can decide whether you need to better manage your time or energy.

If you look around you and you say – this sucks. I hate these people. I used to be so motivated and I’m just not feeling it anymore. You should seriously consider whether this is the right place for you. Maybe even if it’s the right career. Because you’re not going to become motivated to work 2000 hours on something you don’t want to do.

I think the ‘mysterious’ loss of motivation is one of the key issues that lawyers who are unhappy face, but they consider it to be a personal failure rather than a sign of a larger problem. And I get it. It’s really hard to be someone who worked extremely hard in undergrad and law school (and loved it) and then all of a sudden feel like the brakes have been slammed on, but there’s no obvious reason for it.

Wasn’t this the job that you always wanted? Isn’t this the type of law you always wanted to practice? When the answer is yes, the lawyer quickly determines that they have the issue and if they just work harder/smarter/faster, they’ll work through it. However, that logic is flawed.

Trying to work without motivation is like trying to run through quicksand. The more you force yourself to do the work, the slower you’ll go, the faster you’ll sink and you will never reach the other side. Then the inevitable panic and downward spiral begin. You think – if I can’t motivate myself to do this work, then I must be a bad lawyer/bad person/terrible at everything. But, you’re not the problem.

The problem is a system that’s set up to put warm bodies in seats and doesn’t pay attention to the individual strengths and weaknesses of the person. It used to be the case that lawyers were apprentices. They got to work under experienced counsel and develop an appreciation for the practice of law as much as the concepts underlying our legal system.

That’s not really the case anymore. Now, new lawyers are a cog in the wheel. It may five to seven years before you ever get to actually “practice” law. You’ll spend those first few years doing a lot of the mundane document-based tasks that will eventually be done by computers. You’re not actually using your brain so you check out. You lose motivation. You wonder why you went to law school.

You hate everything.

And I don’t want that for you. So, don’t be afraid to ask yourself the question: Do I like what I’m doing? If the answers yes, then we can have a further discussion about how to make all of the pieces of the life puzzle fit together.

However, if the answer is no, we need to go back to fundamentals. You can flourish as a lawyer, you just need to find the right position. Start by checking out my post on searching for legal jobs because there are so many questions to ask. Next, do a little soul searching – you have to know yourself to know what you want. Last, put yourself out there. Meet as many people as you possibly can. It is time consuming and difficult and there are always some really awkward people out there, but you’ll get better at it and it will improve your odds of finding something you like immeasurably.

Did you find this helpful or informative? If so, please like and share!


New Lawyer Series: Think Like A Lawyer

“Think like a lawyer” is a common, if not commonly-explained, phrase that all law students and new lawyers are familiar with. It’s easy to believe that attending three years of school, participating in various hands-on clinics and working in law offices for a couple months of the year will prepare you for what it takes to be a good lawyer, but it takes more than just perfecting your drafting techniques and learning the office politics to succeed as an advocate.

In “The Sweet Science of Shifting Your Mental Venue” in the Summer 2015 edition of the ABA’s TYL magazine, Tracey Lesetar-Smith drills down on what it takes to think like a good lawyer. Here are her suggestions:

  1. Take Time to Think Even Under the Gun: “Pressure to have all the answers. . .at our fingertips can obscure a lawyer’s ability to retreat into thought, and the necessity of quality thinking time is rarely understood by clients.” So how do you take the tim you need to really think about the issues you’re being presented with? Tracey recommends getting rid of as many distractions as possible: cell phone, email, open door. Sit and think through the issue and, when you think you’re done, ask yourself what could be missing. And keep thinking about the issue.
  2. Don’t Go Through Life With a Red Pen In Your Hand: Not every potential legal issue is one that your client cares about. Know how to spot all of the issues, but learn which ones will actually matter to your client.
  3. Take Stock of Your Resources: Use your resources (time, relationships, etc) wisely.
  4. Don’t Forget the Narrative: You need to create a narrative for your client’s side of the story that makes sense to people. It’s great to be clever and come up with new legal arguments, but ultimately, if the other side’s story just makes more sense, then the time and energy you put into those clever arguments is worthless.
  5. Sweat the Details, then Don’t Sweat the Details: Do the best work you can – double and triple check everything – but don’t flip out if there’s an inconsequential typo on page 39. Young lawyers are often tasked with worrying about everything, and rightfully so. However, there is marginal utility to continuing to beat yourself up over some small errors that will ultimately change nothing.

Once you’ve mastered the fundamental skills of lawyering, you must begin to refine your thought processes so that you are able to provide the most value to your client.

The concept of providing value to clients is somewhat new to lawyers, but it is no less important than all of the things that you learn in law school. Any one could spend countless hours and dollars researching a minor point of law, but the truly great lawyers will identify the top issues that make a material difference to their clients and spend the time advocating for those things. It’s not enough to just think like a lawyer – you have to think like your client and act accordingly. That’s how you become a great lawyer.

Do you think this list is complete or is there something else you would have included?

New Lawyer Series: When You Are Called

If you missed the article titled “Letter to a Young Advocate” in the Fall 2015 Advocates’ Journal, you should try to find a copy (or check out the online version, if it’s available.)

There is never a moment when you are ready; there is only the moment when you are called.

In it, Harry Underwood recounts the time when he had to step up to the plate during a trial and gives some advice for young lawyers on how to prepare themselves to make sure that they’re ready when the time comes. Notably, he says that “there is never a moment when you are ready; there is only the moment when you are called.” I think that’s an important lesson to learn because there is no amount of sitting in your office or even attending CLEs/CPDs that will prepare you for what it takes to get up in front of a judge or jury and present your case.

The opportunities to do so are, of course, becoming fewer and farther between, but if you are a litigator, more likely than not, you will be called. Naturally, the question is – will you be able to answer the call?

Mr. Underwood gives a few tips to prepare yourself as best you can:

  1. Make it a rule to assume that from the moment you take on a case that it is bound to proceed to trial. His reasons for doing so are (1) so you won’t be afraid to try the case if it does go to trial and (2) so you will be ready to try it.
  2. Take the time at the outset of a case to develop a theory of the case and a plan to win it. Avoid seeing each stage of litigation as a battle to be won. You want to win the war and you need to have a long-term, strategic plan if you hope to do so. (of course you must continue to hone your theory and test it as things progress, but thinking in this way is what is important).
  3. “Always press on.” Keep the case moving forward. Set deadlines for yourself and your opponents, if necessary. There will always be a reason for delay, but be aware of the need to advance your client’s interests and keep things moving forward.

There are some other suggestions as well, but I thought these were the best. At the end of the article, Mr. Underwood says, simply, that developing good habits is a way to take responsibility for yourself and having those habits is ultimately what makes you a good advocate.

I couldn’t agree more. What habits do you think are important for young lawyers to master in order to become great advocates?