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Two bars, one summer

Some tips on writing the Ontario and New York bar exams
|Written By Yuki Shirato
Two bars, one summer

After graduating from the University of Toronto Faculty of Law this past summer, I wrote two sets of bar exams — Ontario and New York — as did about a dozen other Canadian JD graduates.

Unfortunately for us, however, useful information about what is actually required to pass two exams is not widely available. I was fortunate to receive tremendous help from friends who had been through the same process last year.

Therefore, I would like to disprove some myths, share my experiences, and provide tips for students who are deciding to follow a similar path.

Firstly, you can certainly pass both exams if you’re an average student like me. All you need to have is a basic understanding of the fundamental areas of the common law (i.e. first-year subjects). Even if your first language is not English, you shouldn’t be intimidated. I had never spoken a word of English until I was 12 and finished my undergraduate degree in Japan.

Secondly, you don’t need any prior knowledge of New York law. Until this past summer, I had no idea what a filial proceeding or Totten trusts were. You can learn everything quickly and efficiently in just two months.

Thirdly, yes it requires effort, but you still can — and should — have a life. In my opinion, studying for two bar exams is less demanding and rigorous than the work required during the 1L exam period.

There is not much advantage to getting a head start while in school (except for submission of applications for both exams). It doesn’t hurt to take evidence, real estate, wills, trusts, and family law because these subjects are frequently tested on both exams. If you have already chosen all of your courses, however, don’t panic. I didn’t take wills and trusts. Some people took only one or two of these and passed both exams with ease.

Having unravelled some of the common misunderstandings (hopefully), I would like to list five practical tips.

1. Start in early May

I understand the Ontario exams are held on the first and third Tuesdays of June (barrister and solicitor) and the N.Y. exams are on the last Tuesday and Wednesday of July (New York and multi-state).

My suggested timeline is that you get bar study materials for Ontario in early May, spend three weeks reading them and creating indices, then switch to power through the N.Y. bar and study for eight weeks. You may also want to spend a day or two on the Ontario bar materials before each exam, especially for the solicitor’s exam.

I recommend eight weeks for the N.Y. bar because it covers many subjects and most Canadian law students don’t know U.S. law. New York exams require essay writing and knowledge of both New York law and the multi-state portion.

2. Allocate time wisely

To be on the safe side, I suggest you spend eight hours a day, six days a week on average, for 11 weeks. Some prefer to study 10 hours a day, five days a week; others love cramming 12 hours a day for an intensive five weeks. The point is you have to reserve a certain number of hours for studying.

It’s likely you will find yourself presented with the opportunity to join an index group. If so, you want to belong to a larger group (i.e. 12 to 15 people) so your responsibility is comparatively smaller. It is time-consuming to create, update, and format indices. I personally found them useful and was glad I joined a big group.

3. Take a bar-prep course for the N.Y. bar (or know what is taught)

The reality is many test-takers sign up for a N.Y. bar-prep course. Every prep course will cost at least a few thousand dollars and you may want to avoid incurring such cost. If you decide not to take a course, it’s important you know the general structure, timeline, and covered subjects in these courses. You can also buy study materials online.

I took BARBRI and followed its schedule. I tried to submit as many assignments as possible, but I achieved about half of what was supposed to be done. Don’t worry if you take BARBRI and can’t keep up with its excruciating timeline. Many people ended up with a 60- to 70-per-cent completion rate, including myself (yes, they keep track of your progress) and still mastered most of the materials and passed the bar exam.

For the Ontario bar, I don’t know anyone who took a bar-prep course; reading the materials is the most important preparation.

4. Have a life

Most people admit bar study is a slog. You need to dedicate a lot of your time and energy to it for several months. This is a sufficient length of time for anyone to go through an emotional roller-coaster. Many of us feel we are behind; some get sick worrying about getting sick; some get depressed after receiving horrible marks on practice exams; some can’t sleep because of too much studying or too little studying on a given day, wasting more time tossing in bed, culminating in a vicious cycle. This is normal.

To get over this, you need to maintain a life outside of your study bubble.

Everyone is different so do what makes you happy or relaxed. For me it was cooking, watching silly TV shows and movies, and working out. You need to have short breaks daily. Take advantage of these breaks so you can become stress-free and re-energized after half an hour. I also found most people spare at least one day a week for non-study activities. Finally, maintaining relationships with your loved ones is extremely beneficial for a healthy and focused mind.

5. Don’t feel miserable

I guarantee you will miss lots of parties and trips with your friends. After the Ontario solicitor’s exam, almost everyone from your law school will begin partying every night and go abroad before articling starts. In contrast, you will spend a sunny summer day sitting in a library watching a four-hour video clip on New York penal law. Then by the time you are done with the N.Y. bar exams and ready for celebratory drinks, your friends will either have started or are just about to start articling.

It comes down to priorities. Be mindful of what you want to achieve in the short- and long-term of your professional career. Being familiar with New York law may be helpful for a Canadian lawyer to engage in cross-border deals. Alternatively, you may be determined to practise in one jurisdiction for a foreseeable future and not feel it necessary to write two bar exams during the same summer.

If you still have questions, please contact me anytime. I wish you the best of luck!

Yuki Shirato is a recent graduate of the University of Toronto Faculty of Law who now works at a law firm in New York City. He can be reached at yuki.shirato@alum.utoronto.ca.

  • Bar exams

    Neil Foran
    Loved your article. I was a lawyer in Australia for 5 years now preping to sit BC bar exams. Scarred as hell. Soo much information to learn... Feel like I need a tutor or a course... Any ideas? Thanks in advance :)

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