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


New Lawyer Series: Lawyer Bullies

You will at one time or another deal with a lawyer bully. It may be opposing senior counsel or it may be someone you work with directly. It is an issue that is, unfortunately, not dealt with in law schools given the general lack of focus on practical lawyering skills. Lawyer bullies can not only make your practice difficult, but they may even lead you to conclude that you’re not cut out to be a lawyer. It’s easy to say that you shouldn’t let a lawyer bully push you around, but it’s much more difficult to put theory into practice when you have someone screaming at you, constantly berating you or generally just making you feel like you’re incompetent.

There may be very little you can do to change the lawyer bully’s behaviour, but there are some things you can do to minimize the impact that it has on your life and, ultimately, your career.

  1. Do not respond in-kind. Screaming, yelling and flying off the handle may feel good in the moment and there are, no doubt, plenty of perfectly good reasons why you might feel justified in giving someone a “taste of their own medicine”, but as a young lawyer you cannot give in to these temptations. Senior Lawyer X may be known to be horrible to people, but usually people only put up with that stuff because they’re also known to be a great advocate. That’s not an excuse, it’s just life. As a junior lawyer, you have not established yourself and cannot expect others to give you the same latitude. It goes without saying that this also means that you should not, under any circumstances, take out your frustrations with senior lawyers on administrative staff. You don’t have a right to turn into a bully yourself.
  2. Develop patience. As an ambitious person, you may not be used to waiting or biding your time. You want what you want and you will get it when you want it, right? Well, it just doesn’t work that way in the legal profession. It will take at least 20 years before you’re really considered to be competent, so you might as well start developing a patient mindset early on in your career. Now, this doesn’t mean that you should become meek or docile in the face of egregious behaviour. What you should do is keep your client in the forefront of your mind and accept that you may have to deal with this person now in order to advance your client’s interests, but it won’t last forever. Develop coping mechanisms to limit the amount of interaction you have. This leads me to my next point:
  3. Practice Defensively. The principle here is the same as driving defensively. You don’t know what those other idiots on the road are going to do and you can’t control them anyway, so maintain your distance and speed at a reasonable level and steer clear of drivers who are distracted or otherwise don’t seem to know what they’re doing. In legal practice, this takes the form of having clear records of your interactions with someone (e.g. letters, emails , etc.). If someone insists on calling you and they shout abuse over the phone, take notes immediately after to document the time, date and nature of the call. If necessary, write down quotes of what they said that you found offensive. The Law Society of Upper Canada (and I would imagine most state bar associations) take civility very seriously and, while it would be improper to try to change someone’s behaviour by threatening to file a complaint, if you feel that someone’s conduct has really gone beyond the bounds of decency there are steps you can take to deal with it. The first step should be speaking with someone more senior in your office, if possible, to determine whether you’re in the right. If you don’t have anyone in your office to speak to, then you should call the Law Society’s confidential practice management helpline to get a professional opinion about the conduct you wish to complain about. Once you’ve got an opinion from the Law Society, you can determine what your next step should be. A word of caution though: civility is not just a requirement for those who you interact with. You also should not rush to file complaints for relatively trivial matters. We all have bad days sometimes and say or do things that we later regret. Look at the totality of the circumstances and try to give the lawyer the benefit of the doubt when possible. If there is no justifiable reason for continued harassment or abusive behaviour then you should not hesitate to take advantage of the resources available to you.

Obviously, these tips won’t shield you from ever working with or for someone who is completely unreasonable and difficult. However, they will help you build a reputation for being reasonable and for having integrity, and that is the best reputation any lawyer can hope to have among their colleagues.

NOTE: If you are being subjected to harassment of any kind and you find that it is impacting your ability to do your job well due to heightened emotional and mental stress, the Law Society has numerous, confidential resources to help you. You can speak with someone over the phone, in person or through email and it’s free. Do not let someone else’s bad behaviour end your career. Ask for help. It’s there for the taking.