The NCA student experience

The NCA student experience
Each year, hundreds of foreign-trained lawyers seek to enter the Canadian legal profession, bringing years of education and experience.

According to statistics compiled by the National Committee on Accreditation, the number of applicants has increased three-fold from 1999 to 2009. As a Canadian graduate of the University of Manchester, along with at least 13 other Canadians in my class, I can attest to these facts. However, for lawyers trained in a foreign jurisdiction, entry into the Canadian legal market is rigorous and lengthy.

The increasing number of Canadians graduating from foreign law schools is far from surprising. Entrance into a Canadian law school is extremely competitive; on average, thousands apply for a few hundred seats. For some, the LSAT exam is a struggle and many have expressed concern it does not do justice to their academic abilities. For these reasons, many students are going abroad to obtain their law degrees.

Studying abroad is the opportunity of a lifetime and gives students an edge through the development of a multi-jurisdictional perspective on the law. There is also the possibility of completing your LLB in an accelerated two-year program at various universities in the United Kingdom.

However, students seeking to go to law school abroad need be aware of the challenges they will face upon their return to Canada. Obtaining a law degree overseas is costly; not only because of international tuition fees, but also because of the time and costs involved in the accreditation process once you come back.

Qualification is evaluated by the NCA on behalf of the Federation of Law Societies of Canada. The application requires law school and undergraduate transcripts and a $450 fee. Once received, applications are reviewed on a case-by-case basis, based on a student’s legal credentials and experience.

Upon review of an application, the NCA will recommend either that the applicant write a number of challenge exams or that he or she take further courses at a Canadian law school. In my experience, it took about 10 weeks for my application to be evaluated. Once you complete the proposed recommendations, you are granted a certificate of qualification. Students may then seek admission to a provincial law society and, like Canadian-trained students, must complete articles and pass the bar exam.

If the NCA decides that challenge exams are required, the applicant must write at least four core exams: (i) foundations of Canadian law, (ii) constitutional law, (iii) administrative law, and (iv) criminal law. It is highly likely that additional exams may also be required. Each exam currently costs $400 plus the cost of textbooks. Thus, at a minimum, an applicant should expect to spend over $2,000. They are also self-study without any instructor support.

Upon my return to Canada, I was required to complete only five exams. This seemed like a low number compared to my peers, who had to write six or seven exams. It took me a full year to complete the NCA process since graduating from law school in June 2011.

My advice is to strive to achieve grades in the top percentile of your class and be actively involved with the legal clinic at your university,legal clubs, and societies. When speaking to other students at the exam sessions, some were required to write up to 10 exams. The common denominator for most of those students was that they earned their degrees in a non-common law jurisdiction. Thus, even with excellent credentials and substantial experience, it can take several years for some to be admitted to the bar in Canada.

The exams can be quite challenging, which is supported by an alarmingly high failure rate. According to the 1999-2009 NCA statistics, only 1,708 out of 4,515 applicants — approximately 38 per cent — received certificates of qualification. In response to this low rate, some Canadian universities offer preparation courses to assist NCA students. For example, the University of Toronto offers a 10-month Internationally Trained Lawyers Comprehensive Program at a cost of $6,500.

The low success rate can be attributed to students underestimating the amount of time that should be spent on the self-study preparations. In my own experience, each course required about 150 hours in order to study the material, make notes, and review. Juggling a full-time job, I gave myself four to five weeks to study for each course and registered for only two or three courses at each session. I allotted time at the higher end of the spectrum for the courses with more content (administrative law, constitutional law, criminal law). Because I had no additional commitments, setting aside four or five hours every night enabled me to get the work done on schedule.

When determining how to divide the exams between different sessions, I would recommend that you write foundations in the same session as the constitutional and administrative exams. You will find overlap in the material and find it easy to cross-reference the various textbooks.

However, if you want to complete the NCA process quickly, it is possible to write six or seven exams in one session. I know classmates who have taken this route and been successful. If you have the time available and devote enough hours each day to mastering the material, it is definitely possible. For me, however, this route was not practical.

Results take 10 to 12 weeks to come in after completing the exams. The downside is that if you need to rewrite any exams, the deadline for applying for the next session will have well passed and you will have to wait several months for the following session. I recently completed my exam requirements in May and can tell you that the anxious wait for my results has felt like forever!

Studying law is challenging no matter where you obtain your education. If you are contemplating where to pursue your legal education, it is a matter of determining whether the academic and cultural benefits of an international experience outweigh the subsequent costs and strenuous process of entering the profession in Canada.

I commend you for embarking on this exciting and rewarding journey of studying law and wish you the best of luck.

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