The Ontario Bar Exams, Part I: The Basics
If you’re reading this post, it’s probably because you’re trying to find out as much as you can about this enigmatic process called the Ontario bar exams. Whether you’re about to write it, or have already written it, or are re-writing it, I wish you well. I will do my best to make this post as helpful as possible to you.
NOTE: As per the LSUC rules, this post will NOT contain any information about specific exam questions seen on previous exams, or divulge details that are not allowed by the examination. Read this post at your own discretion!
What is the bar exam?
To put it simply, the Ontario bar exams are similar to what you have seen in movies and television shows – it’s a gruelling process that requires a lot of hard work, preparation and sacrifice in order to be ready for them. Although the method of testing is different in Ontario, make no mistake – the process requires a planned method, and will require reading a lot.
The Ontario bar exam is actually two open book exams: the Barrister examination, and the Solicitor examination. These exams are administered by the Law Society of Upper Canada (the governing body of the legal profession in Ontario) three times per year: March, June and November. You may choose to write both examinations in the same month, which means you’ll write the Barrister examination (usually on a Tuesday), to be followed by the Solicitor examination two weeks after the Barrister. The exams are based on self-study materials sent to you by the LSUC when you sign up for the exam. The materials are roughly 1,500 pages in total.
The Barrister exam tests you in five different subject matters: Professional Responsibility, Civil Litigation, Criminal Law, Family Law, and Public Law (which has a significant component of Administrative Law). The Solicitor exam tests you in four subject matters: Professional Responsibility (the same principles that you study for the Barrister exam), Real Estate Law, Estate Planning Law, and Business Law (which is a mix of tax law, corporate law, employment law, and bankruptcy & insolvency).
The format of the exams are entirely multiple choice questions – no more than 240 to be exact. You’re given an examination booklet, and are required to fill your answers on a separate Scantron (“bubble”) sheet.
Each exam is 7 hours long. Yes, you read that right – a 7-hour multiple choice exam for the Barrister, and a separate 7 hour multiple choice exam for the Solicitor. To make things a bit more palatable, the exam is split into two 3.5-hour chunks. Since you have an hour-long lunch break between the morning and afternoon exam session, you cannot revisit your answers from the first 3.5 hour chunk after the lunch break.
This stuff shouldn’t come as a surprise to you. But now let me tell you about what they don’t tell you about this exam.
What are Indices? And Should I use them?
Indices, or an index, is quite simply a long list of key words that are relevant to each subject matter, that will help you navigate the LSUC materials to find the answer you’re looking for. It looks very similar to an index you would find at the end of a textbook.
These indices are usually student-made, so there is no guarantee that they have covered every possible term you might need to find. And even if they do, you may not find them because they are organized in a different way than you would have organized them. For example, if you’re looking for the number of days one has to respond to a statement of claim, your mind might think to turn to the part of the index labelled “deadlines”, but the index author may have placed statement of claim filing deadlines under “statement of claim – deadlines” instead of “deadlines”. These sorts of things should make you cautious about using a friend or colleague’s old index without being intimately familiar with how it’s designed.
Make no mistake: not all indices are the same, and you should be selective with which index you rely on for the exam. Usually, you may find many people taking a previous year’s index and going through it in groups to update the page numbers (so that the index references reflect the current materials’ page numbers). Since this can be a time-consuming process, you may not have time to inspect the index’s keywords to see if they have sufficient coverage of the materials. To answer the question “should I use them”, my advice would be to use with extreme caution!
What do I need to pass the bar exams?
You may have heard numerous theories about what is needed to pass these exams. I assure you that, despite what your closest friends or colleagues have told you, no one is certain. That’s mainly because the bar exam process is intentionally shrouded in mystery by the LSUC in order to protect the validity of the test. Some have hypothesized that there is a “magic number” of correct answers needed to be acquired in order to pass, others have speculated that it is dependent on the average score of your cohort.
However, in my experience, this is not an exam where you should be trying to achieve the bare minimum to pass. Think of the exam as more than just a score you need to acquire: it’s an opportunity to become a better, more knowledgeable lawyer. So in preparing to achieve this laudable goal, you should set your sights on understanding the materials you are studying, even if it is an area of law you have no interest in. If you set your sights on that goal, you may find that the bar exams are a wonderful opportunity to prepare yourself for the exciting world of legal practice. If you can focus on understanding the materials, you’ll also find that you will retain a lot of the major points more naturally, which could translate into a passing score on the exam if you also have a well-established navigational tool to help you with the fine details on the exam!
Real Talk: What To Expect
I think the best way for me to tell you what to expect is by revisiting the many things people say about this exam, and asking whether I found it to be true or not:
1) “Everyone passes”
This is simply not true. The people who say this are only reporting about the people who passed the exam and made some sort of public announcement that they passed. It does not reflect the many students who don’t pass the exam and are afraid of informing their colleagues because of the perceived bias/stigma that comes with failing a supposedly “easy” test. As someone who was in that position myself, I can tell you that I found many colleagues in the same situation, feeling unable to speak up because of the stigma that they worried about.
Make no mistake – brilliant and wildly successful law students have failed this exam. That’s because it’s not a test that measures knowledge of material, but efficiency in locating the answer within the materials and applying said knowledge. You can debate and disagree with whether this is the proper method to measure a lawyer’s competence to practice law, but it’s the Law Society’s model and they’re sticking to it. Wait until you pass the bar to criticize it.
2) “I studied for less than a week”
I highly doubt that whoever says this is speaking the truth. Sure, some people are born brilliant and have an incredible photographic memory, and can remember things simply by looking at the materials once. Yet, I still doubt that this statement has any truth because the exam does not test memory – it tests the ability to locate the answer within the materials, and then applying said answer to the question being asked. Being able to pull off that search and application in less than 2 minutes per question requires more than just memory – it requires an engagement and understanding of the materials. I doubt that the people who say this statement have had any opportunity to engage with the materials in any meaningful way over the course of a week.
Even if you believe people who tell you this, it shouldn’t matter to you. You should prepare for this exam with the aim of achieving a search and application of the answers in the materials in less than 2 minutes. However little or however much time you want prepare for that goal is entirely up to you.
3) “I just studied the index”
This has some truth to it. You see, the materials provided by the Law Society are a mixed bag of useful, textbook-like explanatory materials and thesis-like commentary. If you want to maximize your time, and you are using an index to help you navigate the materials, studying the index will help you hone in on the useful, textbook-like materials that are more likely to be tested on a multiple-choice exam. This method will also help you reduce the 1,500 pages of materials into a slightly more manageable chunk that may even teach you a few useful things about the legal profession!
In my opinion, however, indices are not the optimal tool for navigating the bar materials. I found that the most optimal tool was actually something provided by the LSUC: the detailed table of contents. The reason why is because that table of contents provides a structured, bird’s-eye view of the materials that will help you situate what you’re reading into context. For example, you may sit there and read about sentencing objectives without fully understanding where it fits in the criminal procedure context. However, if you use the detailed table of contents as your navigational tool, you will quickly realize that sentencing objectives are only relevant once the accused has been found guilty at trial. Or if you’re reading about mortgage enforcement options for the mortgagee, and don’t really understand why this is important, a quick glance at the detailed table of contents will show you that this only becomes relevant after a mortgagor has defaulted (i.e. not paid) on mortgage payments. In contrast, a highly detailed index will only allow you to pinpoint the answer without understanding the context.
4) “You have to write the exams before you start articling”
Absolutely not true!! There is no LSUC requirement that you have to write the bar examinations before you start articling. This is one of those myths that percolate especially on Bay Street because articling students want to hustle and impress their articling principals. If you’re one of those folks – good for you! For the rest of us, don’t buy into this myth. Take as much time as you want to prepare for these exams, so that you can prepare properly for it!
5) “You can’t study for it while articling”
Also not true! Articling is a difficult time for students for various reasons. Some articling students work long hours and don’t have time for much else. Other articling students struggle with the area of law that they’re working in. Articling, overall, is a difficult time. But it is possible to study for the exam while working. It’s true that it will require an incredible amount of discipline, sacrifice and hard work, but you can pull it off! In some situations, I would even recommend it, since it may help you find out more about the field you’re articling in, and will enrich your articling experience. So if you’re contemplating studying for the exam while articling, don’t buy into this myth.
Last Word: When Should I Write the Exams?
A large majority of recent graduates write the June examinations, for various reasons. Some want to get the exams out of the way before they start articling in July or August, while others think their odds of passing will be higher when more people are writing the exam. For me, I realized that the most important consideration was the amount of time I had to prepare properly for the exams.
As I said above, there is no legal obligation on you to write it before, during or after articling. The only stipulation LSUC has is that the exam be written and passed within 3 years of the start of the licensing process (which means that, ultimately, you have up to 9 opportunities to write the exams). It might be nice to get it out of the way sooner so that your articling principal can be confident in hiring you back, but it’s not the “end all be all”. But whatever date you decide to sit the exam, make sure that you have enough time to prepare, review and become familiar with the materials and your tools.
I think the more important consideration you should decide is whether to write both exams in one month, or to space them out at different sittings of the exams. For example, you could do the Barrister exam in the June sitting, and the Solicitor exam in the November sitting. I would recommend this approach for two reasons. One, it allows you to focus all of your energy on one exam at a time; otherwise, you’re forced to start studying for the Solicitor exam a few weeks before you’ve finished the Barrister exam. Secondly, it gives you a sense as to whether your method of studying is truly effective or not: if you’ve used one method for the Barrister exam and you ended up failing it, you may want to reconsider that method for the Solicitor exam.
Personally, I did both exams in the same month, and I found the process to be mentally and physically exhausting. Even if you had a long time to study for the exams, squeezing both into one month will exhaust you and stress you. In addition, this method may mean less money to pay upfront, making the financial cost of the exams easier to bear. So if you’re in no rush to pass the exams, take your time and space them out in such a way to allow yourself the opportunity to pass both in due time.
Tune in next week for part II, where I discuss what steps you should take to prepare for the exams. Good luck on your studies!