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Lost in translation

Students who get their law degrees abroad have to do more exams before they can article here.
|Written By Matt Gorman
Lost in translation
Matt Gorman wrote seven NCA exams in one week.

FACT: An increasing number of Canadians are deciding to obtain their legal training outside Canada. According to statistics published on the National Committee on Accreditation’s web page, the number of applications submitted for evaluation has been consistently increasing since 1999, with a dramatic 34-per-cent increase in 2009.

By far the largest pool of applicants comes from England, the United States, and Australia. Although some applications are submitted by foreign nationals who have decided to meet various provincial bar requirements for personal reasons, a large percentage come from Canadians who have chosen to pursue legal training abroad with the intention of practising back home after completing their law degree.

Various overseas law schools are even catering their LLB and JD programs to Canadians. For example, Bond University law school in Australia has a staff that includes Canadian legal scholars who offer courses in Canadian administrative, constitutional, public, and criminal law and procedure.  

This dramatic shift in the way Canadians do their legal training is not surprising. Firstly, competition is fierce these days for a seat at a Canadian school. If you applied to the University of Toronto’s JD program for the 2010-11 academic year, you would have been up against 2,219 applicants battling for a spot in a 190-seat class. Similarly, the University of British Columbia’s law school receives approximately 2,000 applications annually for a 180-seat first-year class. Admission to the law school at the University of New Brunswick for the 2010-11 academic year meant receiving one of the 80 seats desired by about 1,000 applicants.

Secondly, more and more students are attracted to the exotic experience of receiving their legal training abroad. A number of law schools in England offer a condensed two-year senior status LLB, which is available to students who already hold an undergraduate degree. The universities that offer this accelerated LLB program reserve approximately 10 seats in each first-year class. The universities of Cambridge, Cardiff, Exeter, Kent, Leeds, Nottingham, Oxford, and Queen Mary (University of London) are among some of the leading U.K. law schools that offer the program. Various Australian law schools offer similar ones that are slightly longer in duration.

Going to law school in England or Australia could be a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity and experience. However, students need to be mindful of the arduous process that needs to be completed upon their return to Canada.

All students who have obtained a foreign law degree (regardless of whether it was completed in a common law jurisdiction or not) must begin an application with the Federation of Law Societies of Canada’s NCA, which is the official body that assesses credentials for all internationally trained lawyers who want to practise law in Canada. The application is simple: fill out a short form, send in your law school and undergrad transcripts, and include $450.

The NCA reviews each application on a case-by-case basis and will respond with a letter detailing the specific exams that need to be taken before one can be granted a certificate of qualification. Each exam fee (which has recently been dramatically reduced) is currently $400.

Canadian universities have cleverly taken note of the increasing number of law students returning to Canada to qualify and have introduced programs to meet the demand. For example, for $3,500 you can apply for the Internationally Trained Lawyers Program at U of T, a 10-month course designed to prepare students for the NCA challenge exams. This fee does not include texts and materials or the actual NCA application and exam fees. Osgoode Hall Law School offers a similar prep course for $2,141.35, which includes 90 hours of instruction.

It is important to note that these prep courses do not replace the necessary NCA process, but merely aim to prepare one for it.

The million-dollar question for students who decide to go abroad for law school is: how many exams need to be completed before one can obtain a certificate of qualification and become eligible to article in Canada? Although each application is evaluated on a case-by-case basis, the current NCA policy seems to be that if one has completed a three-year LLB or JD program in a common law jurisdiction or has been called to the bar in a common law jurisdiction, the number of examinations is four (criminal & procedure, administrative, constitutional, and foundations of Canadian law).

For those who complete the two-year senior status LLB from an English institution, they should expect seven exams upon their return to Canada. Unless a student decides to enrol in a Canadian law school or signs up for the NCA prep course offered by U of T or Osgoode, the exams are self-study and, though not insurmountable, are by no means easy.

Depending on your timeline and start date for articles, completing all seven NCA exams in a seven-day sitting is not unheard of. Twenty-one hours of test-taking in one week is a daunting task, but may be necessary for some applicants.

Going abroad for law school, like everything in life, has its benefits and drawbacks. Canadian legal institutions are internationally recognized and the professors highly regarded. The Canadian law school experience is obviously something to be missed for those who decide to go abroad. On the other hand, obtaining legal training overseas in places like England and Australia can be a culturally rich and truly international experience. However, such an experience is not cheap and completing the NCA process upon one’s return may dissuade many from embarking upon this uncertain yet exhilarating journey.

No matter which path a student follows, studying law is challenging, exciting, and an academic privilege. The face of “the lawyer” is constantly changing in our beautifully diverse country, as is the way such lawyers are being trained. This makes for a fascinating legal community filled with varying perspectives, unique backgrounds, and differing legal lenses by which to view the world.

A native of Yarmouth, N.S., Matt Gorman is a 2010 graduate of the LLB program at the University of Leeds. He recently completed his NCA examinations and will commence articling at Cox & Palmer in Halifax this June.

  • In Joint Program then transferred out

    AL
    I finished my 1L at one of the many joint JD/LLB programs between a US school and a Canadian school. Subsequently, I transferred to another US law school. I disagree about foreign law education being inferior or the notion of being a diploma mill. It is far from it. Having done my 1L at both US and Canadian institutions, I can assure you if one side is more "spoon-fed" that would be the Canadian side. In the US, it is NOT a choice to be called upon under their Socratic method. In Canada, my classes were much more of the note taking variety with the occasional discussions on a voluntary basis. This is my experience and don't be so quick to assume and judge someone's academic decision.

    To Matt Gorman, thank you for your informative article. It helps to understand the process before we dive into it head first.
  • RE: Lost in translation

    Descartes
    I am someone who went away to study law. I graduated from an American law school. The reason I went away is because I wanted to experience something new. American law schools are very stratified, I went to a solid school. I learned about the different schools of thought, which have barely taken root in Canadian law schools. For example, the law and economic movement which has a rich history in America. If you look through the faculty scholarship at any of the Canadian law schools compared to some of their American counterparts, you can tell that legal scholarship in America is much more rich probably due to their earlier founding. America gave me a lot of opportunities to study under some of the leading scholars. It was a great but very challenging experience. I have to disagree with some of the commentators on this board who think that Canadian schools are elite institutions. It is this elitist thinking that makes Canadian institutions insular.
  • Oxford: I CHOSE to study abroad

    Anna
    Thank you to those of you who are defending a Canadian law student's choice to study abroad. Indeed, mine was a choice and I chose to go to an excellent school in the UK where I had an amazing academic and cultural experience. I certainly had a choice of good Canadian schools and I certainly was not 'spoon-fed' at Oxford. It was the most rigorous academic setting I have encountered to date and I met a plethora of international friends, which I'm grateful for. I also had a chance to do internships and join clubs that are different from the Canadian law school experience. I think adding diversity of experience to the legal arena is precisely what Canada should be about. Yes, there are some stumbling blocks along the way, but I don't think 'easy' was what any of us law students was looking for when we decided to pursue the law. I'd like to think that most of us are pursuing a life experience that will take you somewhere in life. We're not all going in the same direction; we don't have to.
  • RE: Lost in translation

    LM
    What the NCA and the academic community don't appreciate is that a formal legal education is a relatively unimportant element of what constitutes a good lawyer. A university won't teach you how to handle a tough client or multiple transactions or long hours or winning work. It won't even necessarily teach you the law that you'll need on a day to day basis. From speaking with a few partners at bigger firms, it seems that some Canadian law firms are waking up to this, having missed the boat on excellent candidates who might not have the usual Canadian academic credentials. They now look to hire for the brain and wider skill-set, not the location of the school on the CV (Granted the name of the school might help them figure out if there's a brain there, but suffice to say, the prejudice against foreign-educated lawyers is lessening).
  • RE: Lost in translation

    PS
    I agree with AW. Overall, the prejudice on this topic of Canadian students going outside Canada to read for an LLB is unbelievable and in the long run can only be detrimental to our system as a whole. The reality is that more Canadian students should be encouraged to study abroad. After all, there are only a handful of Canadian institutions that offer LLB degrees of which few are recognised internationally as superior educational institutions. Do we as Canadians really want such a strictly homogeneous population of lawyers representing us? Surly we as the Canadian people, and Canadian's who desire a career in law deserve better. Are we done with striving to better our legal system or are we content with simply protecting desirable jobs for those who wish to pump their dollars into average Institutions? Wake up people. What has been suggested is some sort of grotesque academic eugenics and it makes me sick to think that this type of discriminatory attitude exists in Canada.
  • RE: Lost in translation

    AW
    I think this comment is completely inaccurate in every respect. Firstly, many students who go overseas seek change and diversity. Many love the idea of spending 2/3 years abroad studying, traveling, meeting new people, etc. You say "they" as though you are certain of these students' motives. Secondly, with regards to students being "forced" into their "second best," this is misleading as well. To reiterate, many students travel abroad for law school because it is their "first best." Many of the law schools in the UK/ Australia have far better world rankings than Canadian institutions. There is a reason why students from all over the world flock to UK institutions. Thirdly, regarding self study prep, many law students (Canadians included) have their hands held throughout law school. To undertake a legal subject, on your own, is one of the best means of training...period. The misinformation, prejudice, and arrogance regarding this topic is unbelievably staggering.
    AW
  • RE: Lost in translation

    SM
    I agree with much of what you say but I believe that the majority of those trained overseas have harder time getting work, often due to these prejudices. I agree regarding the quality of Universities in the UK. I am not referring to Oxbridge. Many schools in the UK however have a quota of internationals they wish to take, and lower their standards to fill the positions. While studying some subjects overseas is justifiable, law is a professional subject centered around a country's legal system. In most cases (unless you are just interested in studying the subject academically) you would be better equipping yourself for the Canadian workplace studying here. While I agree self study is effective, by only needing to achieve a pass students may have a disincentive from studying thoroughly. An employer would have a hard time distinguishing these students and gauging your knowledge. Having said all that, first class students will always shine through. Just be aware of the downsides.
  • RE: Lost in translation

    SM
    Both sides raise valid points. While it is possible to succeed in achieving a legal career in Canada with international qualifications through hard word (and connections), the majority of students who go overseas would much rather stay in Canada. They do not choose to pay higher tuition and study a law different from that which they wish to practice because of a desire to enrich their educational experience or distinguish themselves from the crowd. These students may be at a disadvantage when it comes to employment as they are seen as having been forced to settle for their own second best. Those who go overseas and obtain high marks have a good argument for equal treatment but they still face the stigma of settling for second best. Further, it would be less attractive to employers to hire someone who has 'self studied' a Canadian course for the NCA which is graded on a pass/fail basis rather than having the subject taught at a recognized institution with a gpa awarded.
  • RE: Lost in translation

    AB SO
    Tuition rates are about the same, actually. It is true that potential lawyers should not view foreign study as a shortcut, and some do. But blanket statements about what people did or did not choose are an unnecessary stigma. There's one way to find out a candidate's position - ask them, straight in the eye, in a job interview. A lawyer conducting interviews for their firms ought to be good at sorting the bullsh***ers out.
  • RE: Lost in translation

    PS
    The lack of guidance given by the NCA is unfortunate, so the detail of your experience is both helpful and interesting to read. The comments at the bottom of your article are equally interesting and in some respect expose another story that should be told. That being the protective nature of the legal community in Canada.
    Yes the market may be flooded. This is another reason you should be trying to set yourself apart from the crowd. Study in another country, experience their culture, and learn their laws.
    English law can be used in a persuasive manner in the Canadian court room. In addition, a good understanding of how laws have developed in other common law countries will broaden your prospectives and enhance your understanding of Canadian legal doctrine.
    So if you're thinking about studying abroad, keep the positives in mind and don't be discouraged by those who think that by studying in Canada entitles you to one of the few jobs.
  • RE: Lost in translation

    Matt
    I have encountered many Canadians who have studied law abroad, all of whom have different reasons for doing so. Some can't get into Canadian schools, some want a new experience, and some like having the option of practicing in England/Australia.

    Despite the current fierce competition for articling positions, the majority of Canadians I know have secured articles at top firms across the country. This is a sign that firms are branching out and giving chances to bright students who decided to do something different. With a great work ethic, enthusiasm, and passion for the law, firms will take notice no matter where one has obtained their training.
  • RE: Lost in translation

    OT
    I'm not sure what you consider a "top firm", but a quick look at the webpage of any major law firm in this country suggests either you don't know many people or that you've misjudged this trend.
  • RE: Lost in translation

    Nachshon
    The NCA exams are way too expensive, lack due procedure and fairness and can be considered discriminating.
    I am already in the process of demanding answers from the NCA. If anyone have interest in this important issue - send me an email. n.goltz@gmail.com
  • RE: Lost in translation

    Emily
    As someone involved in recruiting at a major law firm, I can confirm that we receive numerous applications from foreign-trained applicants. Law firms realize that many Canadians who choose to study law overseas are doing so because they could not get into any Canadian law school. Further, none of these law schools have a realistic sense of how hard it will be for you to get a job in the Canadian legal market of your choice even after the NCA process is completed. In some markets at least, as fewer firms go through the separate process of hiring articling students, obtaining a second year summer student position becomes more and more important for those who hope to work at major firms. Foreign trained lawyers are at a disadvantage in terms of being prepared for interview week and the ease by which they can be physically present to participate. I would strongly advise anyone interested in practising in Canada to study law here, going on exchange if you're interested.
  • RE: Lost in translation

    E
    I disagree. I'm not sure which law firm you are working with, but I know many law students who studied overseas that have obtained articiling positions at some of the best firms in the country. It depends on how motivated you are, not the place of legal training.

    However, some students do study abroad because of their LSAT scores. But there is no proof that the LSAT is an accurate measure of a persons ability to succeed in law school. I know plenty of people who didnt score as high as they would have liked and still went on to get top marks in Law school. Standardized tests are not and will never be an accurate representation of a students abilities, Emily.
  • L
    Exactly! Because of recruiters like you, Emily, foreign lawyers struggle. While being no less talented and capable of doing the job as canadian law school graduates.
  • RE: Lost in translation

    Nachshon
    Dear Emily, maybe the important question is who is a better lawyer and not where did he studied?
  • RE: Lost in translation

    OT
    For those considering studying law abroad because they can't get into a Canadian school of their choice. Consider an already overcrowded job market for new lawyers and the difficulty that Canadian-trained students have in securing articling positions. There are perfectly logical supply and demand reasons for the high competition for admission to Canadian schools that should not be overlooked. Too many lawyers in this country and the last thing we need is more foreign-trained Canadian nationals flooding the market.
  • RE: Lost in translation

    AB SO
    Agreed. Go abroad if you genuinely want the international experience, not because you couldn't get in. I personally didn't even look into law school in Canada - I WANTED to go abroad. The provincial bars may not be crowded in the sense that they are potentially unlimited, but articling positions offered by law firms are limited. So yes, it's overcrowded.

    So many votes downward, and yet the comment was "those considering ... BECAUSE they can't get into a Canadian school". Go abroad for the experience, not necessity.
  • RE: Lost in translation

    AL
    I don't know where you get your statistics from. But the Canadian bars are still relatively small and it's not overcrowded as you alleged. If you are worry that some foreign-trained lawyers might be taking your clientele, perhaps you should examine the way you practice. With that said, it's draconian and irresponsible for you to demonize foreign-trained lawyers. Obviously, NCA exists for a reason and if we comply with all their regulations, there is nothing you can do to stop foreign-trained lawyers from "flooding" the market. My advice to you: sink or swim.
  • RE: Lost in translation

    Rajendra
    Most of the NCA students come from the Asian countries. There is no mention of those students. They are recent immigrants and it takes them years to complete the NCA as most are matured with families. When I completed NCA not only the fees per exam was $535 plus there was no Program like Internationally Trained Lawyers Program.

    Most of the NCA students from such countries do not get Articling and if they do, its pro bono. They end up as sole practitioner and most of them struggle.
  • AV
    This is a great article. I'm currently a 2nd year law student in England. Its defiantly an experience of a life time (expensive one too), however, as noted in the article there are challenges and those interested should defiantly exercise all the options, keep in mind it may be easier to get into a law school abroad but it doesn't mean it will be an easier process to practice. I decided to pursue my passion based on the extremely difficult process in Canada and my age. I intend on practicing in Canada eventually. At the end of the day determination, hard-work, a few sacrifices and a strong drive can get you doors opening in many places- Canada and around the World.
  • ooclindabal
    This article was soo helpful. I have been contemplating doing my law studies overseas and this article has very clearly highlighted to me what that mission would entail! I appreciate the time you've put into helping out future law students who may study aborad. Thanks a lot man!
  • Anonymous
    Thinking about studying law abroad myself, and this article answers a lot of my questions! Thank you

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