Considering Law School: The Bar And Beyond

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Considering Law School. Keep reading for more insight from a Canadian law school graduate.

In the previous two articles about considering law school – The Application Process and Studying, Summering, Articling And More – Western law school graduate Alina Preston walked us through the application process as well as the life of a law student.

This time, Preston explains the bar exam and next steps for law school graduates.

“If you’re still not deterred, it’s an amazing profession. The type of work you do is at such a high level, the clients you deal with come in such a range, and at the end of the day you’re helping people move forward with their lives.” —Alina Preston, University of Western Ontario law school graduate

Q. How do you prepare for the bar exam?
A. The bar admission exams are written after you finish law school. There are two of them: the solicitors and the barristers. These exams change depending on which province you’re writing them in.

In Ontario, if you write the exams in the first sitting, end of May and June, you are given the material with six weeks to study from the time you receive the material to the time you write the last exam. So, working backwards, you get the materials right after you finish writing your last third-year law school exams. Which sucks. But almost everyone does it that way.

You study – which means you read through the 1600 pages of material, highlighting as you go and hoping that you remember it when you do the multiple choice exams. The Law Society recommends that you read through the material three times, but this is virtually impossible based on how long it takes the average person to read through a given page. Most students are happy if they make it through all the materials once.

They are open book exams, so worst case (in fact, for most cases) you can just flip through the material. To study for it, people also usually split into groups to create or update last year’s “indices,” which are very much what it sounds like. There are key words written down (alphabetically) and a corresponding page number. So if a question is talking about Topic X, you can look up in your index Topic X, find the appropriate page in the materials, and then read the blurb about it.

There are two weeks that separate each exam. Which doesn’t usually leave enough time to start the second batch of materials after you finish writing the first exam, so plan your studying accordingly. Most people treat it like a job: study from 9-5, and then enjoy your evenings. Depending on your study progress, you may have to extend the studying to the weekends.

Q. What is the bar exam like?
A. It is a marathon. If your write the exams in Toronto, which a vast majority of students do – there were about 1,000 of us writing the June exams, all in the same hall – you’ll be surrounded by students from most of the Ontario law schools. You have to go through security, you’re restricted on what you can bring and how you can bring it in, and everything is regulated to the point that you feel like you’re in kindergarten.

The exam instructions begin at 8:45 a.m., which means you will likely arrive around 7:30 a.m., so that you can sign in, go through security and have time to mentally prepare yourself. The exam finishes at 5:30 p.m., which means you will likely get out of there around 6 p.m. So that means you’ve been at the testing centre almost 11 hours.

By the halfway point, your brain starts to go numb and you just want to get out of there. But you have about a minute and a half to do each question, including reading, researching, and answering so your brain doesn’t have time to stop working. The questions are all multiple choice, so the answer is there somewhere, and the answers also give you an indication of what type of answer they’re looking for (something general or specific).

But there is good news. Most students end up passing, and if you don’t, you have nine more tries within the following three years to write the exam(s) again and try to pass.

She fought the Law by John Verive on FlickrQ. Now that you’ve passed the bar exam, what are your options?
A. Once you finish law school and pass the bar exams, you’re still not a lawyer yet. You then have to article for 10 months at a firm and do an online course during this. Some firms require that you finish your bar exams before you start articling, and others are willing to allow you to study and write them during your articling term.

Once your articling is complete, your mentor recommends to the Law Society that you get called to the bar. There are a couple call dates during the year, and once you are called, you are officially a lawyer – finally. So law school, plus studying and writing the bar exams, plus articling totals about four years.

After articling, your firm can then hire you back (or not) as a junior associate. Many of the large Bay Street firms only hire back 50% of their articling students. Consequently, articling is a stressful time.

“If you’re looking to make a lot of money, aim to become a CEO or a VP or go into government. Much better salaries, better hours, better benefits, and sweet severance packages.”

You are the office bitch. You’re the first to arrive in the morning and the last to leave at night. You take on extra work that the rational part of your brain says that you should not. Why? Because you’re not a lawyer yet. Because there’s no guarantee the firm will recommend you get called to the bar to become a lawyer. Because there’s no guarantee you’ll have a job after you finish articling. And because you’re competing against colleagues who are as smart, if not smarter, than you.

So to summarize the process: you stress trying to get into law school.  You stress during your first year of law. Second- and third-year law aren’t too bad and are actually fun. Then you stress about passing the bar exams. Then you stress about articling. You are basically on this rollercoaster of stress, and when you calculate at the end of the day how much you’re getting paid, it’s scarcely better than minimum wage sometimes.

Is this really the profession for you? If you’re still not deterred, it’s an amazing profession. The type of work you do is at such a high level, the clients you deal with come in such a range, and at the end of the day you’re helping people move forward with their lives.

Q. What are some misconceptions about lawyers that are out there?
A. That they get paid a lot. They do, but if you break it down and count all the hours spent in the office combined with all the hours spent on their “crackberries,” it’s not that much in the end. If you’re looking to make a lot of money, aim to become a CEO or a VP or go into government. Much better salaries, better hours, better benefits, and sweet severance packages.

That we’re all slimy grease balls out to steal all your money. We’re not. Or at least most of us aren’t. You’ll meet the odd jerk, but that’s true for any profession and for society at large. Lawyers have to be meticulous, in order that they close off any loopholes and get the maximum benefit for their client. As a result, it takes more time and effort, which is why it costs more.

That we’re all alcoholics. This is mostly true. Alcohol is one of the most accepted forms of socializing and unwinding, so lawyers tend to do it. A lot.

Considering Law School. Click here for more insight from a Canadian law school graduate.

Photo credits:
(1) Lines of law school by Beatrice Murch on Flickr
(2) She fought the Law by John Verive on Flickr
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