How to Become a Lawyer in Canada
By Joseph Fearon,
June 03, 2015

As Canadians become more focused on postsecondary education, more people want to become lawyers or attend law school. This article is for them.

The application requirements vary between schools. Generally speaking, the key determinants are undergraduate marks and LSAT marks.

Applicants need to have finished at least two years of an undergraduate degree. Most law students will have already completed an undergraduate degree with an average above 80 percent. Some schools look at most of your grades while others only look at your most recent two years. Specific entrance statistics for each school can be found here.

Applicants need to write the LSAT, a standardized, multiple choice test designed to evaluate logical and verbal reasoning and reading comprehension. The test also involves intense time pressures that will challenge your time management and quick thinking skills.

LSAT test takers compete against people from around the world applying to law schools in Canada, the United States, and other countries. Test takers receive a score out of 180 and a percentile score. The percentile score represents the percentage of people who scored less than you. Each school varies, but a score of around 80 percent is generally considered competitive.

The key to the LSAT is preparation, especially writing practice tests. Various companies offer LSAT preparation courses; they may be helpful but are not necessary. You can save some money through buying cheap, used LSAT books and practicing on your own.

Law schools generally have special access tracks for people who have lower LSAT and undergraduate marks but also have life experiences that should be taken into account as a part of their application. If this describes you, do not feel self-conscious. A number of people admitted special access during my year ended up being top-tier students. Your life experiences may also make you a better lawyer.

If you’re young, don’t feel rushed to apply to law school. Working as a lawyer means taking on a lot of responsibility. You will often be helping people with difficult problems through some of the most difficult times of their lives; a little maturity goes a long way.

You do not need to go to a school in the province that you want to start your career. It is relatively common and easy for students to switch provinces for work. Be cautious of attending law school outside of the country because it can be more difficult to qualify to practice in Canada and to secure an articling position.

Many schools have distinct selling points. Windsor offers a dual Canadian and American law degree. The University of Victoria has a greater focus on hands-on learning, offering students the opportunity to work at a poverty law centre for a semester and a co-op program where students have three work placements. Some schools have a more prestigious reputation. Some schools are cheaper than others, with tuition costs varying by as much as $20,000 per year. Research what school matches your interests.

Law school applications are increasingly competitive every year. Apply to several schools in case you are not admitted to your top choice.

Law school can be demanding. The workload is high and you are surrounded by type-A stress pots all too willing to whip your stress into a frenzy. Try not to get caught up in the whirlwind and manage your expectations. Most law schools bell-curve grades, meaning few people in each class receive A's.

Do yourself a favor and meet with one of your professors early on to learn how to write a law school exam; it is an art all unto itself. Law school exams are not only about what answers you give but how give them. Learn the formula.

After graduating law school, you must complete your articles and write the bar exam if you wish to practice law. Articling is an apprenticeship where you work under an experienced lawyer for a year, similar to residency for doctors.

Students can clerk after law school. Law clerks work closely with judges, helping them with research, writing decisions and other duties. There are few positions and it is an extremely competitive process. Clerking is a prestigious position and gives students a close look at trial work and how judges make decisions.

I spoke with David Namkung, a legal recruiter and partner with The Counsel Network, about what law students should consider when looking for articling positions or junior lawyer positions.

A lot of people are willing to travel to go to the law school of their choice but are not willing to be flexible with where they work. That is backwards, says Namkung. If there is a better quality of work in Prince George than Vancouver, taking that job will have a greater impact on your career development than where you went to law school or what grades you achieved. Law school grades are initially important when applying for articling or lawyer positions but are less relevant at around five years into your career.

Students should consider whether they would like to work at large firms, smaller firms or the government. Government lawyers generally earn less salary but they also have better work/life balance, often have interesting work and earn a pension. Government positions are generally competitive for these reasons.

Namkung says that larger firms are the most natural starting point to get training as a young lawyer. Larger firms are able to offer experience in numerous areas of law, allowing you to get broad experience before deciding what kind of law you want to practise.

The prestige of having worked at a national or international firm sticks with you, making it easier to move to another firm later on in your career. Depending on your interests, you may have trouble finding your dream law job straight out of law school. Smaller firms often do not hire articling students. Some areas of law have fewer jobs but high law student interest, like aboriginal law and environmental law. Building your resume can make it easier to transfer to these areas later in your career.

Smaller firms generally offer more hands-on experience for articling students and junior lawyers, says Namkung. If you want to be a trial lawyer, then you are more likely to get your own files and get into court early in your career at a small firm. Building good experience early can be a competitive advantage. Many smaller firms will also have better work/life balance in comparison to the large, national or international firms.

Think about what kind of clients you want to serve. If there are certain kinds of businesses or people you would not feel ethically comfortable representing (criminal defence and representing large, multi-national corporations is not for everyone, for example), take that into account. If you want to have human beings rather than businesses as clients, consider areas of the law like personal injury, wills and estates, family law and criminal defence at smaller firms. Your clients at large national and international firms are more likely to be businesses than individuals.

Consider how you like to spend your time. Do you want to spend most of your day in an office considering problems or do you want to be in front of people for most of your day? Work at larger firms generally means dealing with fewer sophisticated, institutional clients and spending a lot of time in your office. Smaller firms are more conducive to working outside of your office, either meeting clients or attending court.

If lawyer jobs are not for you, then you can always transition to other fields, like non-profit work or business. The skills you learn in law school and in your first few years of practice will transfer to a host of other jobs.

Law work can be intellectually stimulating and rewarding. But it can also be stressful, which is probably why lawyers have unusually high rates of mental illness, divorce, substance abuse and suicide. If you want to be a good lawyer, learn to protect your health. Your family and clients will thank you.

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This article should not be relied upon as legal advice - the comments may not be applicable to you and may not be up to date. If you have any questions, you should contact a lawyer.