Maybe you are thinking of moving to Canada, or else you have just moved here. Congratulations!
But, you are an internationally trained lawyer…what next? Read on for the process of becoming a lawyer in Canada as a non-Canadian lawyer.
If you were practicing as a lawyer outside Canada, the process of getting accredited might seem overwhelming initially. Leaving the comfort of your practice back home and restarting your career in a new country requires patience and determination.
In this article, I discuss the various stages of the licensing process. I will also share some tips to succeed. I hope it helps you to move forward towards your goals. Feel free to jump to the section that is most relevant to you.
Below: Infographic on How to Become a Lawyer in Canada for Internationally Trained Lawyers PDF.
A step by step breakdown of the licensing process for internationally trained lawyers is as follows:
I. Send University Transcripts to National Committee on Accreditation (NCA)
It all begins with accreditation. The NCA assesses the legal education credentials of internationally trained lawyers. You need to instruct your university to send transcripts to NCA. If you are unsure how to get your university to send transcripts to NCA, you can contact NCA for clarification. The committee has been set up for international lawyers and they are extremely helpful throughout the process.
Send your international bar or law society registration to NCA
If you were called to the bar or registered with your home country’s law society, you will need to send a certificate or letter of good standing from the relevant authority. Again, the certificate or letter should be sent by the authority directly to NCA.
The NCA takes 6-8 weeks to assess your credentials and send its report. There are five mandatory exams for everyone and depending on your transcripts and work experience, you may be asked to take additional exams.
II. Complete NCA Competition Exams
There are five mandatory exams that everyone must take- (i) Criminal Law, (ii) Constitutional Law, (iii) Foundations of Canadian Law, (iv) Administrative Law, and (v) Professional Responsibility.
The most difficult part is starting! Once you start, it gets easier. NCA exams are required to be answered in a specific format. If you feel you need help to prepare, you can register with certain universities or find NCA tutors. Below are some links to university courses:
- York University’s Online NCA Exam Prep: http://www.osgoodepd.ca/graduate-programs-and-courses/internationally-trained-lawyers/online-nca-exam-prep/
- University of Alberta Faculty of Law NCA Exam Prep: https://www.ualberta.ca/law/prospective-students/itlp
- If you are interested in earning a LL.M. degree while preparing for NCA exams, you can enroll for University of Toronto’s Global Professionals Masters of Law Program: https://gpllm.law.utoronto.ca/
Logistics of NCA exams:
NCA exams last for 3.5 hours. The exams are held in a big hall and each candidate has an entire desk to herself. There is sufficient place to keep your books and notes on the desk. There are two large wall clocks to help you keep track of time. If you are unable to see the clocks clearly, you can ask the proctors to re-position them. You can also carry your own analogous (traditional watch with a face) wrist watch. Digital watches are not allowed inside the exam hall.
You will have to leave your phone and bag outside the hall. Make sure to turn off your phone before entering the exam hall. You should carry a few different pens and pencils.
Tips from NCA students and professors:
- Carry something to snack on. You may not get sufficient time to snack during the exam but if you feel nervous, dark chocolate has been known to calm some people. You may also need a sugar boost so carry whatever may give you energy and keep you alert.
Timing exam questions
- Timing is most important. Each exam mentions a suggested time limit. Write down the end-time next to the question on the question paper so you know when you need to stop. For example, if you start writing the paper at 9 am and the first question suggests 50 minutes, write 9:50 next to that question. When your clock shows 9:49, you know it’s time to move on.
- Reserve a few minutes from each question. If the question suggests 50 minutes, give yourself 45 minutes (see the reason below).
- As soon as your time is up for the question, move on to the next question and make a note on your question paper to come back to the partially completed answer. Also, write quick notes for that partially completed answer on your question paper so you know what you meant to cover. For example, if you’re writing about freedom of speech and expression and you run out of time before covering the limitations and case law, write limitations and name of the case on the question paper. That way, if you have sufficient time to come back to that question, you know where to pick up.
- Begin each answer on a new sheet of paper. The answer sheets for NCA exams are like a flip note pad. They are not numbered, and you are required to number them as you write your answers. So, for Question 1, page 1, you need to number it as 1/1, for the next page, you’ll number it as 1/2 etc. This is really helpful when you need to complete a partial answer.
- If you reserve 3-5 minutes per question, you will have sufficient time to come back to your partially completed answers.
- If you run of time and don’t have enough time to go back to your partially completed answers, just write the rest of the answer in point format. This does not guarantee that the examiner will give you credits for the points but at least you can demonstrate that you knew the answer and would have written it out if you had more time.
- Don’t make your answers too long. You have limited time to answer all questions so don’t repeat what you’ve already written.
- A few days before the exam, start practicing hand-writing. We generally use our laptops to write notes and most of us can not hand-write for 3.5 hours. On the day of the exam, your hand will cramp up and your handwriting will deteriorate as you struggle for time. Practicing hand-writing (at your own speed) a few days before each exam can be helpful on the actual exam day.
- Take ear plugs. If you’re the kind of person who gets distracted by the sound of page flipping or munching, then take a pair of ear plugs. They make a huge difference.
- Don’t discuss the paper after leaving the hall. Everyone has a different analysis and just because your analysis was different from others does not mean you were wrong.
After Completing All Exams:
Once you successfully complete your NCA exams, you need to apply to NCA for a Certificate of Qualification.
Once you receive your certificate of qualification, you are at the same level as JD students in Canada.
You then need to complete your bar exams and articling requirement (unless you are exempted from articling).
III. Register with the Law Society
Once you successfully complete all the exams, you need to register with the Law Society.
You will need to complete an online profile and mail some documents to the Law Society. From the time that you register, you have three years to complete your articling requirements and bar exams. So, if you plan to take a break, don’t register just yet.
At the time that you register, you’ll have to declare whether you want to register for the Law Practice Program or find an articling position.
As a foreign trained lawyer, you may find it challenging to secure an articling position, either because of limited opportunities for foreign lawyers or due to the application timeline.
Most articling applications are sent one year in advance. If you are focussing on NCA exams, you may not have thought about articling applications. However, don’t be discouraged and keep looking.
What comes first – bar exams or articling?
You can either write the bar exams first and then start articling or you can article first (you can also do both concurrently if you can manage your time).
The key is to complete both requirements within the stipulated three years and the order does not matter.
IV. Articling or Law Practice Program
If you are unable to find an articling position, you can register for Ryerson’s Law Practice Program (or its equivalent program in another province).
Some articling positions for internationally trained lawyers maybe unpaid or for minimum pay.
If you can secure a paid position with a well-known firm or lawyer, you don’t even need to consider the alternative.
But if you are like most internationally trained lawyers, you may need to evaluate which option works better for you – unpaid articling or Law Practice Program.
If you have an opportunity to secure post articling full-time work with the same principal, you may want to consider the no or low pay articling option.
You will need to do some analysis of your own.
Ryerson’s Law Practice Program (LPP)
Ryerson’s LPP is an alternative to traditional articling. The program typically enrolls 250-300 candidates a year, including JD students from Canada.
The program itself is exceptional, particularly for those who have extensive work experience in their home countries and for candidates who want to set up their own practice.
The program lasts for 8 months and is divided into two phases- the first phase consists of online and in-person training and the second phase consists of articling with a principal. Candidates are required to complete both phases.
- First four months: For the first four months, candidates are divided into various groups. Each group consists of 4-6 candidates. The groups are referred to as ‘firms’ and candidates in each group are like law firm colleagues.
Each firm is assigned a ‘mentor’, who provides practical guidance and advise to the candidates. A mentor stays with the firm for two months and at the end of the initial two-month period, new mentors are assigned to each firm. Candidates are required to work from home or home office and most meetings are conducted on webcam.
There are weekly meetings with the mentors, firm colleagues, and managing/program directors ‘partners’ of the firm. There are also in-person weeks, which are held three times during the program.
There are many legal areas that are covered during the online training phase, including business law, criminal law, civil law, real estate, and administrative law.
Candidates learn the following skills during their training:
- Using legal management technology
- Checking for client conflict
- Drafting retainer agreements
- Opening and closing client files
- Managing notes in client files
- Communicating with clients
- Conducting meetings
Candidates also learn how to conduct the examination in chief and cross-examination. Each firm has to interview and represent real-life clients (not virtual clients).
Candidates receive individual assignments as well as group assignments.
- Final four months: During the second Phase of the program, candidates are required to work with an articling principal. Most candidates get placed through Ryerson’s job listings. However, sometimes candidates need to find articling placements through their own efforts. Ryerson guides the candidates on how to approach lawyers/law firms and provides informational material that can be handed over to the prospective principals.
Some candidates are hired back by their articling principals (subject to full-time availability).
A note about work permit for those who are on a student visa
You will need a work permit to work as an articling student or to complete the Law Practice Program. Neither Ryerson nor the articling principals arrange for work permits. If you are on a student visa, you need to apply for a work permit before commencing LPP.
V. Bar Exams
Bar exams are nothing like the NCA exams! There are two Bar exams that all aspiring lawyers must successfully complete- Barrister and Solicitor.
- Barrister exam covers civil procedure, criminal procedure, family law, public law, and ethics & professional responsibility.
- Solicitor exam covers business law, real estate, estate planning, and ethics & professional responsibility
Length of exams
Each exam is split into two sessions of 3.5 hours each. The total length of each exam is 7 hours. You get a one-hour break after the initial 3.5 hours. Make sure to take a protein packed lunch to sustain you till the end of the day.
All questions are multiple choice.
Logistics of Bar Exams
The exam halls and seating arrangements are similar to the NCA exams. However, unlike NCA exams, you cannot take any wristwatch inside the exam hall (not even analogous).
The time is projected on the wall along with a countdown monitor, showing how many hours or minutes are remaining.
You are required to check-in your bags and coats. You cannot take pens or pencils inside the exam hall. There will be pencils, erasers and a calculator on your desk.
You can take your books and any notes that you may have made for the exam but whatever you take inside the hall will remain there. After the exam, you cannot carry any books or paper (not even a tissue) out of the exam hall.
If you intend to study or revise during your break, you may have to carry an extra set of materials and leave it in your backpack.
All the materials are shredded so you don’t have to worry about privacy issues.
Questions will be split into subject areas, so you will know what questions pertain to which subject area. The sections are also clearly marked (e.g. business law questions follow the header “business law”).
However, ethics and professional regulation questions are mixed with each subject. There isn’t a special section for ethics or professional regulation questions.
There are a lot of questions on ethics and professional regulation so make sure you study it well.
Tips for Bar Exams
- Don’t bother memorizing the material. There is a lot of information in each material. You should ideally read the material thrice and make notes for easy reference.
- The second time that you read your material, you may feel like you don’t remember anything- it’s normal! Follow Law Society of Ontario’s guide on how to study for bar exams.
- Prepare or buy indices. Indices are a detailed database that helps you find the relevant answer quickly in your materials. Don’t rely on the chapter index provided with the materials. You can order indices from various sources like Ontario Law Exam or Emond. If you buy the sample exams, you may get free indices.
- Bind your materials if you can. Some people prefer spiral binding as it is easier to flip through the material. It is also advisable to bind or file each subject separately since questions are categorized by subject area (if you are answering business law questions, you only need to open business material and ethics and professional regulation). No matter how you choose to organize your material, just make sure you don’t waste flipping through it during the exam.
- If you don’t want to bind or file the materials separately, at least take file ethics and professional responsibility in a separate folder (since that will remain open throughout the exam).
- Take a pair of earplugs. If the sound of pages turning and people coughing distracts you, earplugs can help a lot. Whether you think you may use them or not, carry a pair with you.
- Take a bottle of water and stay hydrated. Make sure you check the rules on a water bottle. Only clear bottles are permitted. You may not have the time to drink the water during your exam (if you’re racing against time) but at least it’s there if you need it.
- When studying, refer to your indices. The last few weeks, as you’re going through various topics, randomly check your indices to see if you can find that topic. If you feel something is missing, take a red pen and add that term (and page number) in your index.
- When practicing with your indices, write short answers (like “30-day deadline”) next to the term in your index. For example, for an appeal that must be filed within 30 days, write “30 d” with a red or green pen next to the data in your index.
- Some people mark their material with two different highlighters- one color to highlight timeline or deadline and another color to highlight everything else. If you are visual, you can try that.
- Take a bar countdown timer. It will help you stay on track. From time to time, you should check where you are and where you should be. It will also help you speed up or keep pace. If you realize you should be 10 questions ahead, just speed up, for the next 10 questions, quickly scan and choose whatever you think is the right answer. If you get the time in the end, you may be able to come back and check your indices but don’t slow your pace.
- During the exams, if you get stuck on a question, use the elimination strategy. There are always two questions that are obviously wrong, so strike them out. Then determine which one, from the remaining two, is the ‘best’ answer. Instead of focusing on the ‘right’ answer, look for the ‘best’ option.
- Do not leave any question for later. If you are not sure about an answer, don’t waste time and highlight your best guess. Then, make a note on the question paper so you know you have to double check the answer if you get the time. Most people do not get the time to check their answers and just in case you cannot check back, at least you won’t leave it blank.
- If you are left with 5 minutes, with 10 or 20 questions to complete, make every effort to read (or visually scan) each question before choosing the answer. At least it will be an educated guess.
Bar exams are grueling and by the end of the day, you might feel exhausted. Make sure you stay hydrated and eat protein to sustain your energy.
VI. Call to the Bar
Once you successfully complete all licensing requirements, you will receive an email from the Law Society, inviting you for Call to the Bar ceremony.
You will have to go to the Law Society’s office on designated days to sign the rolls (a big register with the names and license numbers of all lawyers in the province). You can also sign the rolls before the ceremony, provided you inform the Law Society in advance.
The ceremony is held at Roy Thomson Hall in Ontario and you can invite your family and friends. The Law Society will send you an information sheet with details of what you need to wear and a list of places where you can rent a robe for the ceremony. You will need to call the store and go there for robe fitting.
On the day of the ceremony, you will need to carry your robe with you. You will wear your robe in the designated dressing room. You will then be escorted to your seat. When it’s time to receive your license, a group of candidates will be escorted to the staging area. Once your name is called, you will step on the stage and receive your license. The entire process is explained before you are called on stage.
It is a proud moment, and, on that day, you remind yourself that it was worth the wait!
Finally – the long journey is over.
It’s now time to find work as a lawyer (if you haven’t done that already) or start your own practice.
Many congratulations – you have earned it!