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Moving On: The Journey of an American Lawyer to Becoming a Canadian Barrister-Solicitor

Areas of Practice

An American Lawyer’s Journey to Canadian Barrister-Solicitor

I am on a quick break from my dual duties of vigilantly representing my clients, and dutifully grading student papers.  First, to all of my fellow brethren in Canada, I hope everyone is having a contemplative and special Remembrance Day.  Now, onto the purpose of this blog post.

Recently, my spouse approached me, asserting that I really should post a comment about the process that I underwent in becoming licensed for legal practice in Canada.  What was it like to have successfully practiced throughout the United States for eighteen (18) years, only to have to literally start from scratch in Canada?

The process was not an easy one — I do not believe that it was designed to be easy.  Despite the similar nature of practice and law between the U.S. and Canada — one premised upon the common law — the process for becoming qualified in Canada was not designed with a U.S. expatriate attorney in mind.  Rather, it was intended to apply with some uniformity, regardless of whether the lawyer hails from Orlando, Florida, or from Karachi, Pakistan, or from Accra, Ghana.  With that perspective, was it a bit unnerving to — after some many years of practicing — to have to leap through those proverbial ‘hoops.’  Absolutely.

Again, you try to keep things in perspective.  One of my favourite quotes comes from the German philosopher, Friedrich Nietzsche.  Indeed, one of the few things I get from studying Nietzsche — with his rather sordid history and his use as an inspiration for a sordid, corrupt national identity — was his quote that (and I am paraphrasing) “if it doesn’t kill you, it can only make you stronger.”  This is one of the two credos to which I have abided by since my college days — the other being the Latin phrase “Cape locum et fac vestigium,” take a stand and make a mark.

Over the course of four-plus decades of existence, you come to fully understand the nature of personal and professional challenges.  Hopefully, people learn to ‘rise to the occasion,’ and to take whatever steps necessary to overcome, achieve, and turn possible liabilities into decided assets.  My challenges in becoming a barrister-solicitor seem mild compared to other life challenges.  Let me explain the process that is required for “internationally-trained lawyers” from other, common law nations, to transition into practice in Canada.

First, the internationally-trained lawyer (“ITL”) needs to apply to the National Committee on Accreditation (“NCA”), based in Ottawa.  The NCA is an organization that is universally accepted by the provincial bar societies for providing the initial, subject-matter testing to ITLs.  Passage of these long-essay exams allows for the ITL to sit for a provincial bar examination — in my case, the Nova Scotia Bar Exam.  The NCA can assign an applying ITL as few as four (known as the “Core 4”), or as many as over a dozen, separate subject-matter exams.  In my case, the NCA assigned me five exams — the Core 4 exams of Administrative Law; Criminal Law; Constitutional Law; and Foundations of Canadian Law, alongside the fifth exam, Corporate Law.

The normal practice is to take anywhere from 1-3 exams during any of the quarterly sittings for the exams.  Obviously, I was in a bit of hurry to resume my practice career.  So, I took all five (5) exams over a four-day period.  Aside from the temporary damage these exams caused to my writing hand — assuming a ‘claw-like’ appearance by the end of the fourth day — my intensive study habits paid off.  Of course, I had to wait approximately 3.5 months before I discovered that I had passed each of the five exams.

From there, I applied for admission to the Nova Scotia Barristers’ Society, and commenced studying for its exam.  Now, this study experience proved altogether different, aside from my also working a full-time teaching position in a local paralegal studies program.  The thrust of the Nova Scotia Bar Exam is several subjects — spanning the entire range of law, including many of the subjects tested at the NCA level.  Further, while the NCA exam’s reputation was to ‘vomit’ every bit of knowledge onto paper, the Nova Scotia Bar Exam is very much a situational exercise, whereby the test taker does not use bludgeon the exam questions, but instead applies a stiletto-like, honed approach to its hypothetical scenarios.

Fortunately, the final two weeks of my bar exam studies were capped by my meeting with a couple of colleagues/friends, one being another ITL, and the other a new articling lawyer (but with a tremendous amount of sense, perspective and life experience).  The group experience was very much a deja vu, returning me to times from first-year in law school, 1993.  It worked — the three of us crammed, together, reviewing all available study materials, debating one another and providing extraordinary insight that built on each individual’s own knowledge and learning methods.  Bottom line:  I passed, and felt that I did so with relative ease.

So, here I am — an American attorney, with the same experiences, ambitions and work ethic — practicing as a Nova Scotia Barrister/Solicitor.  It really is a different ‘scene’ up here in the Great White North.  The practice of law is more sensible, and certainly, seemingly far less cutthroat to what I experienced in both Washington, DC, and Orlando, Florida.

Was it a good move on my part?  I believe so.  I cannot second-guess my decision to abandon my successful practice in Florida; indeed, this move will likely bring a better of personal and professional fulfillment than any I hoped to experience in Florida. Perhaps, the extraordinarily gifted Broadway lyricist, Stephen Sondheim, said it best in his “Sunday in the Park with George.”

Stop worrying where you’re going—move on.
If you can know where you’re going, you’ve gone.
Just keep moving on.

Moving on ….  😉


8 Comments on This Post
  1. Saba

    Wow.. seems like a fascinating journey.
    How does being a lawyer in Canada feel like? 🙂

  2. Thanks, Saba. It is alright. Again, the idea is to keep things in perspective. Be steady, and recognize that each success is always greeted with additional challenges. Whenever I won a trial, I did not emote. I was satisfied with the victory, but realized that there were other clients with challenges ahead. The last thing that a client needs is a lawyer who allows his/her ego to overcome them. Ego in a lawyer is a good thing — yet, it needs to remain measured, and not allowed to lapse into hubris — blind pride.

  3. Sydney


    I know this is quite late in regards to how long ago you posted this article. Just a question on how you got around articling in Canada. I am a recently qualified attorney looking to become a Canadian Barrister/solicitor. I will be sitting five exams for the NCAs in november but have been told I will also have to do a 10 month articling period after that.

    Is there a way you got around that?

    Many thanks.

    • admin

      Sydney, thank you for the kind words. Unfortunately, the articling period is dependent upon the Bar Society being petitioned. As I already had approximately 18-19 years experience at the time of my application, Nova Scotia Barristers’ Society waived the articling period. Obviously, I was relieved that they did so, as it is already onerous enough to try to professionally transfer credentials up into Atlantic Canada. Good luck on the NCAs. Derek

  4. KAY

    Hi. Your account which I have just read, four years after it was written, has a fresh feel to it fro me. I am now in the shoes which you found yourself in back then, having recently relocated to Canada and having to let go o fa flourishing legal practice to starting from practically sub-scratch – after 22 years of being called to the Bar as Barrister & Solicitor of the Supreme Court of Nigeria!

    You are very much correct to say that the process was not designed to be easy. I am pretty much at the infancy stage of the process and eagerly anticipate the day when this would all be history and I can pen an article such as yours. I hope I would be obliged the privilege of corresponding with you in order to learn from your experience. If so, kindly advise what medium best suits you for that purpose. Thank you in advance.

    • admin

      Kay, sorry for the belated response. The updating of my website created issues with me being able to access and respond in timely fashion. Please feel free to keep up with me via my email address: dbb@burnsidelaw.net.

      Best wishes,


  5. I agree with you. In my particular case, my length of practice time prior to arrival in Canada certainly contributed to a quicker path forward. That being said, the requirements for even myself proved rigorous. I literally threw myself into the two, separate sets of exams, and got through the process in a year. I know others whom have taken 2-3 years to complete my requirements, alone. Individuals with less overall practice time could also see a required 12-18 month period of articling for a law firm before finally achieving full licensure. And, as you noted, the process of moving from Canada to the U.S. can also involve similar transition periods and requirements. Thanks for your comment!


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