During law school I didn’t really think about writing the Ontario bar exams. There always seemed to be a more urgent exam or paper on the horizon. Eventually, the last year of law school came and went. Soon after the bar exams became the most important event on my calendar, I realized I had no idea what to expect. I wrote this article because there isn’t too much information online about the actual experience. If you also find yourself wondering, “What is it like to write a bar exam in Ontario?” then read on.
The latest sitting of an Ontario bar exam in Toronto was this past Tuesday, March 24th, 2015. For anyone unfamiliar with Ontario’s lawyer licensing process, there are two exams every domestic law school graduate needs to pass to become a lawyer here: the barrister’s and solicitor’s exam.
The Barrister and Solicitor Exams
The distinction between “barrister” and “solicitor” material is a tradition from Ontario’s English legal heritage. In England, barristers traditionally had exclusive rights to make oral argument in court. They were the original “trial lawyers” we know today as litigators and criminal lawyers. Solicitors were responsible for paper-based legal work like real estate conveyancing, corporate structuring and transactions. Modern Ontario lawyers are all licensed to do both, although most practitioners tend to specialize in one area.
Ontario’s barrister competencies include civil litigation, criminal law, administrative and family law; while the solicitor competencies survey business law, real property and estates. Both exams include scattered questions on professional responsibility and ethics.
Each test is seven hours long, broken up into two 3.5 hour blocks. Each 3.5 hour block goes by quickly, but both are physically and mentally demanding. One block is in the morning and the other in the afternoon, separated by a one-hour lunch break. The barrister exam sitting usually comes two weeks before the solicitor exam sitting.
After registering for the exams, Ontario law students pay for the required study materials. The barristers materials for the 2014-2015 exams total 843 pages while the solicitors are a hefty 1,086. Anything in the materials is testable, but the exams are open book. While the actual exams are open book, the questions are timed to provide one minute and forty-five seconds per answer. Since that’s generally not enough time to look up every answer, law students do need to know the basics.
Arriving on Test Day
If you’re writing the bar exam in Toronto like I did, chances are you’ll be attending the Toronto Congress Centre near Pearson Airport. (For a full list of Ontario bar exam dates, times and locations, click here.) The Congress Centre is actually a sprawling campus with multiple buildings. Navigating it isn’t difficult–there are staff and signs posted along the entranceway directing drivers where to go. My exam was in the North building, which faces a massive parking lot. There should be no parking shortages on test day, but keep in mind that a late arrival may mean a long walk to the front doors. Parking is free. Nice.
All test-takers are supposed to arrive, get registered, pass security screening and be seated by 8:30 a.m. in advance of the 9:00 a.m. start. Registration opens at 7:00 a.m. The total entry process took 15 minutes for me, although it could have taken much longer. The March exam sitting is reputed to have only 500-600 test-takers. The June sitting is much more popular, with closer to 1,600. With that many attendees, I’d expect the process to take more than 15 minutes.
Everybody entering the Ontario bar exams has at least two things: a freezer bag containing any items allowed inside the exam and a pile of indexes and materials they can use to look up answers in the exam. No bags are allowed inside the testing area, so many people used disposable paper gift bags to carry their materials. Since no coats, hooded sweaters, or bags of any kind are allowed inside the testing area, those articles need to be checked. I left my coat in my car because I didn’t want to be bothered with coat check. It was cash only, which I imagine was a hassle.
When you walk into the first room, the registration desks are separated alphabetically in a massive airplane-hanger sized building. It’s a convention centre, so picture the auto show with zero displays. The only things set up are signs and desks with law society personnel. Most lines are marked out with red concession ropes, but the law society folks wearing green smocks direct the traffic. After you present your bar exam ID card and your registration is confirmed, you get tagged with a brightly-coloured wristband identifying your seat number, and then you proceed to the security line.
Although I’d like to describe what the security process was like at the bar exam, I’m not allowed. After communicating with Law Society personnel on the matter, they made it clear that I can’t share any details about the security protocols in place. All I can say is that the LSUC explains online what items are prohibited and allowed inside the testing area. The rule list is posted here.
One comment I will add (based on the public rules) is about the paper cost to the exam. Test writers can bring in any paper assistance materials they want into the exam, but can’t bring any paper out. While it may save the Law Society the expense of writing new questions in the event a test is copied, the “no paper” rule creates a lot of waste. I estimate I printed roughly 2,200 pages to have on hand during the exams. Assuming there were 500-600 people writing the March bar exam in Toronto, roughly 600,000 double-sided sheets of paper were consumed that day.
An electronic test (like the GMAT and MCAT) would make all that paper unnecessary. Surely it wouldn’t be any more expensive to the law society than printing those 600-1,500 tests every three months and renting out the Toronto Congress Centre, would it?
The Actual Test
After you make it to your desk, you thump down your material stack and sit down. Depending on how early you checked in, you might have a long wait until the test starts up.
Most students take the first few minutes to set up their test shrine: the semi-circle spread of books, paper, water bottles, snacks and tissues surrounding their seat. If you’re curious, yes there will be enough surface area for all your stuff. Each test-writer gets a Costco-style fold-out table to his or herself (if 72″ x 30″isn’t enough room for your stuff, well… wow).
The tables are set up in square clusters with two law society personnel assigned to each one. These folks will be wearing blue smocks. They are there to help you—their role is to make sure you don’t do anything dumb that disqualifies your test (e.g. fill in your Scantron test sheet with the wrong ID number). Both teams I had were super friendly, so be nice to them.
Looking up, you’ll see three huge timers displayed across the front wall of the air plane hanger-sized testing area. I brought a plain-faced watch into the test, but didn’t need it. The chairs are comfortable, but tilted a little too far back for a test-writing session. They’re the padded chairs you might lay out at a banquet-style conference.
If you checked in on time, you should have between 8:30 a.m. and 8:45 a.m. to go to the testing-area washroom and try to calm down after all the entrance procedures. Around 8:45 a.m. someone at the front of the room on a stage starts talking about the test and the rules. Ideally you haven’t already popped in your earplugs. Even if you did, the microphone is so loud you can probably still hear what’s being said.
Not long after, the tests are handed out. The stage tells you what to do. When to open the package, what to write, when to write it, and when to turn it over. Listen up and don’t do anything dumb. If you’re like me, you might not have written a paper exam since you graduated from your undergraduate program. It’ll come back to you.
The test is Scantron-based, so beyond getting the right answer, there’s also a small (but very important) technical element to making sure your Scantron sheet doesn’t get spoiled. The law society indicated that they do not check the actual paper test, so it sounded like if you filled out the Scantron sheet wrong, you were in deep trouble.
Once the stage says “you may begin,” then a paper thunderstorm erupts. It quickly quiets down, but the accumulated noise of 600 people shuffling and flipping paper is difficult to ignore. I highly recommend earplugs even if you never used them in law school. Besides the paper, when people move their chairs it sounds like little trumpets blasting off in different corners of the room. Coughing fits and sneezes occasionally break out. During the first half I barely noticed. Half-way through the afternoon sitting, my attention span and willpower were waning and it was hard not to.
The Physical Element
To prepare for the test I mostly focused on the mental element: the test content, the prep material, organization and timing. What caught me off-guard was the physical nature of the test. Most of my exams in law school were limited to three hours. I never had more than one law exam in the same day. Before a three-hour exam, you might be able to get away with an all-nighter, no breakfast, or no water—bad habits might not catch up with you until a day later. When you’re writing a test all day, those things matter.
Sitting for seven hours in one day with attention locked was surprisingly taxing. By mid-afternoon, I found myself re-reading questions I would have blown through in the morning. Looking things up in my index, I had to murmur to myself, “L M N O… P” when flipping through. Tiredness made my thoughts sluggish. For that reason alone I recommend having sugar, fat, protein and water on hand to give you a burst when you need it. Depending on how you react to caffeine when you’re tired, coffee might be a great or terrible idea.
Sleep also makes a huge difference. Before the first test, I got a great sleep. Somehow I slept through the entire night, and I’m glad I did. Before the solicitor’s exam I didn’t—for some reason I woke up at 4:00 a.m. and had trouble falling back asleep. I felt noticeably more crappy during the second afternoon. At times my mind started wandering and my focus was more easily broken by the people around me. So, know yourself and what your body needs to stay tuned all day. It will make the experience more humane.
Test day was physically demanding. What really caught up with me was the intensity leading up to it. Both were more exhausting than I realized.
Like most optimistic scholars, I expected to take the morning off after the first test and be back at the books that afternoon. I was wrong. The seven-hour test knocked me down. The four days before that test I was writing a 2-3 hours of practice questions nearly every day (and reviewing the answers for hours after). Delaying rest and recovery meant I had to do it after test day.
After the barrister’s exam my attention span was shot for two full days. For me, burnout meant I could only look at a page for two or three paragraphs before I found myself looking out the window. That is obviously not where you want to be when you still have material to cover.
To prevent burnout, I highly recommend taking regular breaks and being kind to yourself. Working through burnout is inefficient and demoralizing (e.g., “Sigh… I only read four pages in the last 45 minutes… I’ll never finish at this rate.”) Know yourself so you know the difference between procrastination and real burnout.
No matter what, you’ll still make it through. If you have questions about the bar exam, comment after this post and I’ll answer them if I can. Thanks for reading and good luck!