Guest Post by Jessica Vriend, internationally-trained lawyer and Ontario licensing candidate
My decision to apply to law school was made in the final year of my political science degree in 2010 when my fiancé at the time, a U.K. citizen, received a job opportunity in Northern Ireland. Equally career-minded and weighing our options for the future, I applied to law school at Queen’s University Belfast, which is a member of the Russell Group of top universities in the United Kingdom and has been teaching law since 1845. When I received my offer of admission, I felt reassured that even though I was leaving Canada, I would still be attending an excellent law school in preparation for a legal career or related profession – all without sacrificing my personal commitments.
Ultimately, the relationship did not work out, but based on my experience, studying law abroad is a once in a lifetime opportunity, no matter one’s reasons for doing so. It enables students to accomplish travel goals at a time in their lives when they are less likely to be burdened by family or other responsibilities, alongside the admirable pursuit of their legal studies.
In addition to the standard three-year LL.B., certain jurisdictions such as the U.K., for example, also provide the opportunity to complete an intensive two-year law degree, which is the option I chose. Moreover, entrance to a U.K. law school does not require the LSAT, which many students struggle with and are concerned holds no true bearing on their potential for law school.
Living and studying abroad, students gain a multijurisdictional perspective on the law and form international relationships with fellow students, law faculty members, and other professionals. This should be seen as lending students a competitive edge in a world where the influence of national – and perhaps even local- politics and policies can be felt far beyond state borders. Far from a shortcoming, one’s decision to attend law school overseas should be seen as demonstrating a commitment to legal study, as well as adaptability.
As positively as I view my experience, however, I would be doing a disservice not to discuss the challenges faced by foreign law grads upon their return to Canada. Getting through law school and the licensing process that follows is a marathon for all students, but one that comes with extra hurdles for foreign-educated students.
Upon returning home, foreign-educated students will face a difficult and lengthy accreditation process in seeking entry to the Canadian legal profession.
The National Committee on Accreditation (NCA) is the body responsible on behalf of the Federation of Law Societies of Upper Canada for evaluating the legal education and professional experience of foreign-trained lawyers and law school graduates. Along with an application, students must submit official copies of their undergraduate and law school transcripts and a $450 application fee, plus applicable taxes. Once received, applications are evaluated on an individual basis and the assessment process takes 6-8 weeks.
The purpose of the assessment process is to determine whether a student has knowledge and understanding of Canadian law equivalent to that of a Canadian law school graduate. Upon evaluation, NCA students are typically assigned NCA challenge exams or asked to complete the assigned subjects at a recognized Canadian law school or a combination of the two. Upon completing their requirements, a student will be granted a Certificate of Qualification from the NCA. This enables them to seek admission to a provincial law society and, like all Canadian law graduates, write the bar exams and complete a ten-month articling term in order to receive their license to practice law.
Personally, I was required by the NCA to write seven Canadian law subjects, comprised of five mandatory subjects (Foundations of Canadian Law, Professional Responsibility, Constitutional Law, Criminal Law, and Administrative Law), as well as two core subjects (Evidence and Business Associations). In my experience and those of my classmates, seven subjects is a typical amount for those who completed a two-year U.K. law degree, whereas four-to-five subjects is typical for those who obtained a three-year U.K. law degree. However, more rigorous requirements can be imposed on those who earned their degrees in civil law settings.
Students need to be aware that the NCA also has a tendency to alter its policies. For example, during my time in the NCA process, the NCA altered its stance with respect to those who completed their law degrees via distance or online learning, requiring one of my fellow NCA candidates to attend Canadian law school for two years while completing their NCA requirements.
I was lucky in that I was given my choice as to how to complete my NCA requirements. Working in Quebec at the time, a civil law jurisdiction, I knew that I would have to leave if I wanted to eventually practice with my law degree. With several requirements to fulfill and in pursuit of new connections in Ontario, I decided to attend Osgoode Hall Law School’s LLM Canadian Common Law program in order to complete my NCA requirements in a supportive environment and in pursuit of postgraduate legal study. I also wanted to build relationships with other internationally-educated students.
Excluding the summer semester, I took two NCA approved courses per semester. The courses were comprised of lectures, in-class work and discussions, essay assignments, and a three-hour exam. However, some of my classmates chose to take a third subject each semester or to write an NCA challenge exam in addition to their course load, and they were largely successful. For the NCA challenge exams, the results take 10-12 weeks to come in after completing the exams. The disadvantage to this is that if you happen to fail a challenge exam, you will find out too late to register for the next sitting and will need to wait a few months to be able to do a re-write.
Academically speaking, the biggest adjustment I faced in completing my NCA requirements was re-adjusting to student life after almost a year and a half of full-time employment following law school. I was discouraged to find that my essay writing skills were rusty and it took time and some help from a tutor to regain my confidence in this respect. Same as any law student, I also had to carefully schedule time for my readings, note taking, and exam review. In choosing which subjects to take together, I found that it helped to study for Foundations of Canadian Law and Constitutional Law at the same time since the material overlaps, and the same can be said for Administrative Law.
All together it took me 16 months to complete my NCA requirements and I received my NCA Certificate of Qualification in late May of this year, about four weeks after submitting my final transcripts to the NCA. This was too late to be eligible to write the June sitting of the Bar exams, which is when Canadian law graduates usually do so, so I am currently scheduled to write them in November. As many NCA students can attest, a frustrating aspect of the NCA process for both students and prospective employers is that the timeline for completion is unique to each student and rarely aligns with the standard finish date for Canadian law graduates going on to write the bar and begin articling positions.
Going through with the NCA process is also costly. In addition to the international tuition fees that an NCA student will have already spent on their law degree and the money spent on the NCA application, the NCA challenge exams are $340 CDN plus applicable taxes per exam and they are entirely self-study, which requires a lot of discipline and can lead to feelings of isolation unless you find the support of others going through the process (Quick tip: There is a public Facebook group, NCA Students, where you can chat with other NCA candidates, organize studying, exchange notes, and purchase second-hand textbooks). It goes without saying that the cost of Canadian law school tuition is even more prohibitive and requires additional financial planning.
The quality of the education I received in the U.K. was excellent and I do not regret going. If you are considering a legal education overseas, however, it is important to weigh the benefits of an international experience against the subsequent costs and rigorous process of entering the Canadian legal profession. Completing the NCA requirements is only one part of the journey. There are the bar exams and the issue of securing an articling position to consider as well, the latter posing its own unique challenges for foreign educated students.
Stay tuned for Part 2 of Jessica’s guest post about her journey through the licensing process as an internationally-trained lawyer!