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 …. 😉