December is generally a stressful time for articling students. On top of putting together a skit for the firm’s holiday party (yes, it’s true) and racing to wrap up files, many students are also nervously awaiting their Ontario bar exam results.
The barrister and solicitor exams take place three times a year in Ontario with most students writing the exams in June. Those who don’t pass the June sitting normally rewrite in November with the results usually coming out right before Christmas. We’ve all heard the common sayings: “the Ontario bar is a walk in the park,” or “I didn’t even do the last 20 questions and was fine.” My all-time favourite is “everyone passes.” The truth is not everyone passes. I know that because I was one of those who didn’t.
It has taken me a very long time to come to this point where I can write so frankly about the trauma of finding out that I failed the solicitor exam. After a hectic three years at McGill University, I rolled right into studying for the Ontario bar after my last final. When I found out in late July that I had failed, my spirit was crushed. None of my friends who wrote with me had failed. No one in my articling group did either. I felt alone, dejected, and utterly stupid. How did I manage to fail an exam that “everyone passes?”
The truth is many students fail the Ontario bar, and it is not because they are stupid or did not study. It is simply because the Ontario bar is an enigma — completely unknowable. Having now passed the “extremely hard” New York state bar, I can say this with certainty because I have a point of comparison.
So, how different were the two bar exams? Let me count the ways.
First of all, since the New York bar is closed book, it was clear what subjects had to be memorized, the kinds of questions you would get, and which areas would be heavily tested. On the other hand, the Ontario bar is open book so there were no sample exams to study, no indication of which topics to focus on, and no guidance on how to process the 1,500-plus pages of material. Unlike the phantom Ontario bar where you are given a few unrepresentative sample questions, past New York bar exams are posted right on the Board of Law Examiners’ web site along with sample answers and statistics. Finally, if you had any minutiae of interest in learning the law — the profession for which you are about to enter — you could actually actively engage with the New York bar materials. Ontario’s materials? Well, need I really say more?
You may think that perhaps I did not study very hard for the Ontario bar the first time around. I’m unafraid to admit that I studied my ass off. Unlike most of my friends who didn’t even get through the materials once, I read the materials twice. I made notes and charts and spent time putting together an index. While many of my peers pride themselves on being rewarded for no effort, I always believed that hard work would pay off. This was simply not the case with the Ontario bar. In that respect, the New York bar was the easier of the two: if you studied hard, you would pass.
Speaking to several people after failing the solicitor exam, I realized that no one had any concrete advice for me on how to ensure I passed the second time around. I spoke to someone who failed years ago. I spoke to a lawyer who the Law Society of Upper Canada provided as a contact. I even spoke to all my close friends who passed to see if they had some insight. No one had anything to say other than general words of encouragement. Once again, I languished with the materials — this time only on weekends when I could find time after a long work week. Needless to say, I did not even get through the materials once.
As I went into the exam, friends’ voices saying “don’t worry it’s a crap shoot” and “when in doubt choose C” swirled around in my head. By the late afternoon, I was reduced almost to tears because I could not figure out what the questions were asking me. I thought I failed again. I was so distraught that when I got home my roommate had to peel me off the floor and force-feed me chocolate almonds. Thus, when a friend wrote the exam this November and said she was “almost in tears,” I fully sympathized. Previously, if someone had told me that my exam grade would be based on how fast I could flip a page, I would have laughed in their face. Now, I am not so sure it’s a laughing matter.
Perhaps I have failed to understand the meaning of the Ontario bar; perhaps I am completely wrong about it. Perhaps there is a way to study that I am simply not privy to. No matter what the reason, I passed my rewrite and for all those suffering out there, you will too.
Wela Quan completed her articles at Stikeman Elliott LLP and received her two law degrees from McGill University. A proud Albertan, she currently lives in New York City. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.