Review: BarPrepPal’s Ontario Bar Exam Practice Tests

An old post on LawStudents.ca sums up the situation for students preparing to write the bar exams in Ontario: The original poster asks: Has anyone has tried the practice exams available online? If so, what was the experience like, and was it beneficial?

Just like the student who wrote the post, after I graduated I found there was a lack of information about the preparation tools available for Ontario test-takers. I used online practice exams to boost my confidence for the March bar exams. A few weeks later I found out that I passed. Afterwards, I reached out to the test prep companies and asked if I could review their practice test websites. This article is the second in a sponsored series that reviews each practice exam site’s price, questions, usability, features, and feedback.

BarPrepPal’s Bar Exam Practice Tests for Ontario

In one sentence: BarPrepPal‘s bar exam practice tests are the best way to get a complete simulated exam-day experience. Their combined barrister’s and solicitor’s set includes seven hours of barrister’s questions and seven hours of solicitor’s questions, just like the real test. The main drawbacks are (a) the practice exams aren’t accessible right away (you have to wait until May 10, 2015), and (b) you have to email the company to wipe your answers and start fresh, which slightly lowers its “replay value.”

BarPrepPal‘s highlights far outweigh its limits for three reasons: (1) value: it has a colossal number of questions (70+ more than any competitor) for a similar price to its competitors, (2) unlimited review: the exams can be graded and ungraded an unlimited number of times (without worry), and (3) detail: the grading breakdown is granular—for example, it shows you how many real estate questions you answered correctly plus the number of professional responsibility questions within that section you got right.

The BarPrepPal online exams were the ones I referred back to time and time again. The combined unlimited test submissions and massive question bank made it a useful tool to refer back to, despite not being able to wipe out my previous answers. In particular, I liked the emphasis they put on professional responsibility. Ethics was the one section I did not want to struggle with on test day, and BarPrepPal made it easy to pick out those questions.

BarPrepPal's bar exam practice test screen
This is what a BarPrepPal practice exam looks like. The dark navigation bar on the left can be minimized by clicking the icon at the top left.

BarPrepPal‘s online tests aren’t without their flaws, however. The main ones I found are: (1) there’s no question flag feature that identifies questions to return to, (2) you can’t remove the answers you’ve already made—once you select an answer, it sticks (unless you email BarPrepPal to wipe all your answers), and (3) answer explanations are not provided, meaning that you have to look up why the answer is wrong if you don’t understand.

Even though BarPrepPal isn’t perfect, I’d absolutely use it again to study for the Ontario Bar Exams. I wanted an online test I could use to simulate a real seven-hour test day. It was exhausting, but helped prepare me for the physical challenge. Another brand new feature is BarPrepPal’s new in-person course for the June Ontario bar exam sittings. As far as I know, it’s a first-ever for the company. It might be worth checking out if you’re missing class and don’t want to study alone.

For anyone who scans the review and thinks “tl;dr,” here’s a quick-reference chart on BarPrepPal’s features:

Feature Summary Chart

Name BarPrepPal
Website barpreppal.com
Price (CDN tax included)
–        Single practice test $113.00
–        Both practice tests $203.40
–        Discount for buying both? 10%, or 50% with premium in-class course option
–        Individual sections only? Yes, $30 to $60 each
–        Price per Q (barrister) $0.51 (or $0.46 if buying both)
–        Price per Q (solicitor) $0.51 (or $0.46 if buying both)
In-Class Course Available? Yes
Online Course Available? No
Free sample available? Yes
What if you still fail? Free access
Questions
–        Number (barrister) 220
–        Number (solicitor) 220
–        Number per section 30 to 90
–        Multiple Q’s on same case? Yes
–        Additional Q’s available? Yes
Attempts Allowed Unlimited
Available immediately? No (opens May 10, 2015)
Timer
–        Time provided Unlimited
–        Starts When test opens
–        Pauses Must exit test
–        Auto-pause Yes
–        Counts down or up? Down
Features
–        Auto-save Yes
–        Question flag No
–        Unanswered Q’s highlighted Yes
–        Usable offline Yes
–        Returns to last Q answered No
–        Quick keys No
Feedback
–        By section Yes
–        Answers provided No additional explanation provided
–        Filter by section Yes
–        Filter by correct/incorrect Yes, by colour
–        Time per Q provided Yes
Navigation
–        Drop down Q list Yes
–        By section No

Detailed Review

Price

BarPrepPal has more exam set options than most websites out there: it offers a standalone barrister or solicitor test for $113.00 after tax, both for $203.40, or individual practice question sets for $30 to $60. The smaller sets are a nice diagnostic for limited areas you want to focus on. Personally, I opted for the full barrister and solicitor set to simulate the real exam. I didn’t have time to try the additional practice sets, but I could see them coming in handy for areas I was less familiar with like real estate and criminal. BarPrepPal’s individual test prices may seem steep, but the combined barrister and solicitor set offers the best per-question value of any competitors out there.

Access

One downer about BarPrepPal is that its exam question sets don’t open up right away. The scheduled date on its website predicts the questions will be available May 10, 2015. The reason is that BarPrepPal boasts brand-new questions—something I don’t think many companies offer.

The delay still leaves plenty of time to prepare for the June barrister sitting. However, by that time most June test-takers will be knee-deep in their first pass through the materials. It’s not a perfect time to do an initial diagnostic to see what you already know before reading anything. For that reason, BarPrepPal falls behind some competitors in this area—it’s really designed as a final review tool to solidify knowledge after you’ve indexed it.

Number of attempts allowed

BarPrepPal’s unlimited attempts means that you can use the tool in incremental steps, or as a lengthy one-time mock exam. You can also check individual answers on the go if a question has you stumped by quickly submitting and un-marking your test. I liked this kind of live feedback. While using competitors’ tools I found it annoying to carefully plan out my “submit date” because they offered only one.

The knock that I have against BarPrepPal’s unlimited attempts is that there is no “reset” option to wipe away old answers. I tried clicking back through answers to see if there was a way to remove them, but to no avail. That means that guessing on a question means it will forever count as “answered.” This makes the navigation a little tricky, as I’ll discuss next.

Flagging questions to answer later

Every multiple-choice test strategy I’ve ever read says that it’s better to guess and return to a question later than to skip it entirely. Accordingly, I like to mark questions to return to later after taking a guess. In the paper bar exam, I did a complete run-through of each test without looking anything up. I circled and dog-eared the pages that had questions I wanted to look up later. On BarPrepPal’s virtual exams, I couldn’t easily do that.

That’s because only the unanswered questions are highlighted in the BarPrepPal question menu. Sure it’s easy to navigate to previous questions you skipped. However, I found it irritating that I couldn’t guess at a question and then “flag it” to return later. Clicking any answer makes it the same colour as every other completed question. As a band-aid solution I kept pen and paper beside my laptop. Every time I guessed at a question, I wrote down the question number. Not a huge deal, but annoying nonetheless.

Timer and pause feature

BarPrepPal’s timer counts down from an actual simulated test time, just like the real bar exam. It does not have a manual pause feature. That is also just like the real test. To stop the timer you have to exit the test. The lack of a pause feature adds a real-deal element to the test, but it wasn’t a huge loss. If you’re like me, you’ll likely use parts of the test for a slow “look up every question” run-through and other parts for a live “see how fast I can do this” practice. That meant I used my own timer for small parts of the exam instead of the BarPrepPal one.

Questions

Perhaps BarPrepPal’s greatest strength is its question-sets: there’s a lot of them. The site offers brand new questions every year. The options to select smaller specialized packages are a bonus, too. You will not run out of practice sets if you go with BarPrepPal. I also liked the high number of “stacked” case-based questions nested in their exams. The long fact patterns followed by multiple related questions were great practice for the real tests.

Feedback

Of the competitors I used to write the March 2015 bar exams, BarPrepPal had one of the most comprehensive feedback dashboards out there. If you use the timer properly and finish a whole exam, it even records the time spent per question. (However if you’re like me and do small parts of the exam multiple days in a row, the time per question score may not be as accurate. That’s because it includes the questions you didn’t even attempt in the estimated time per question.)

From the feedback screen you can choose which areas to “step through” to see how you did. BarPrepPal earns a gold star here for breaking out the professional responsibility scores from each section. Above all else, I spent a lot of time on ethics because I thought that the law society would be harsh on low ethics scores. Seeing my ethics scores above 80% bolstered my confidence.

One thing missing from the BarPrepPal feedback is an explanation section. It’s unnecessary for the purpose of the test, but sometimes it’s nice to know why something is correct–especially when BarPrepPal’s answer is “more correct” than another seemingly valid answer. At least one other competitor provides a concise explanation for why the other answers are wrong. BarPrepPal doesn’t, but it didn’t bother me enough to stop using it.

Mobile

A bonus feature for anyone studying on their commutes (or on park benches) is that BarPrepPal is mobile-friendly. I was surprised to find that it fit perfectly on my iPhone 5S screen. Sure, the text was small, but I didn’t find I needed to scroll left or right. Honestly I didn’t use the mobile functionality when I was actually studying–but if studying on your phone is your thing, go for it.

Conclusion

I would absolutely purchase BarPrepPal’s barrister and solicitor set again. I thought it offered great value—I just wish I had cracked it open sooner. There are so many questions that I didn’t have time to finish them all before the actual bar exams. Their sets offer great value and the unlimited attempts make it worth coming back to. Sure, it has some weak points like later access, no flag feature, and no explanations, but I think it was still well worth the price-tag.

Thanks for checking out my review. If you have questions, study tips, or any different opinions on test prep, please tell the world in a comment below!

Please note that this is a sponsored post. Sponsored posts are still in my own words and written based on my personal experiences. I use sponsored posts to help pay for the costs of running this website. If you have any questions about what that means, please contact me here.

 

Advice for Students Entering Law School in 2015

Recently I read through an engaging thread on LinkedIn that asks: “What’s one piece of advice you’d give yourself upon entering law school this year?”

I was impressed by how many Queen’s alumni reached out with candid and honest advice. Many commenters focus on tried and true advice for law school success: Students who listen, prepare for class, and work hard will often be rewarded with good grades. Demonstrating mastery with good grades in law school has and always will be impressive.


I think that students entering the class of 2019 should also question whether good grades should be their goal. If I could, I’d ask my 1L self to challenge the timeless advice for success in law school. What the law needs now are big thinkers, dreamers, and risk takers.
What the law needs now are big thinkers, dreamers and risk takers
  
Being an expert at grinding the grist of daily readings and lecture will not help us move forward or create new ways of delivering legal services. Specifically, the legal services that most Canadians need but can’t afford.

After leaving the hallways of law school, I recognize the many ways we’re reinforcing the myth that lawyers can do it all on our own. Law school rewards students, for example, who contribute modestly, dedicate themselves to individual study, and perform better than the competition.

When applied to client service, that model creates capable practitioners who’ve learned to treat every problem as unique. That time-intensive method promotes high quality, but comes at a high cost. 

Why are we focused on graduating students with skills that helped 20th century lawyers succeed, when skills like systems-thinking, project management, and IT leadership will help 21st century lawyers succeed?

Instead of teaching students to challenge, question, and evolve methods we’re sending the message that evolution isn’t necessary. Our last major innovation was inspired by Socrates: asking students questions in class rather than lecturing. We’re not even measuring our learning outcomes: are we getting better at preparing students for practice, or worse? 

I say this all in hindsight. I entered law school after the 2008 financial crisis and hoped that things would go back to the way they were. Like many students, I liked how timeless law seemed. I naively thought law was a sure and steady path to success. 

After seeing so many capable classmates graduate and struggle to find employment, my perspective has changed. Hardworking people who will make great lawyers can’t find work, because the old ways are no longer affordable. I see now that the only way to success is to stray from that well-worn path, to explore other avenues, and to embrace change. 

I wish all the students accepting offers at law school this year the best of success. Please comment or reach out through my contact form if you have questions or want to talk about law school.

Tech Review: Emond’s Ontario Bar Exam Practice Tests

Updated March 10, 2016 to reflect improvements to Emond’s online practice tests

This past March I wrote the Ontario bar exams. To prepare, I read the materials provided by the Law Society of Upper Canada (LSUC), updated indexes provided by friends, and tested my performance using online practice exam software. After writing (and passing) both bar exams, I wanted to review the various practice exam tests available online.

This article is the first in a sponsored series that reviews each practice exam site’s price, questions, usability, features, and feedback. I hope it helps other students decide what resources match their needs when preparing for the 2015-2016 bar exams in Ontario.

Emond Bar Exam Preparation Software Summary

Overall, I’d recommend purchasing Emond‘s practice tests for a pre-study and/or post-study experiment to see how well you know the material.

Emond’s key strengths are that: (1) answer explanations are provided even if you get them right, (2) the entire test can be taken offline, (3) access is available immediately, and (4) it’s one of the lowest prices on a per-test basis.

I found the questions were good practice for the actual test. Sometimes I studied in coffee shops with spotty internet connections, so it’s nice that Emond’s test still works if you lose internet temporarily.  The fact that the questions are available immediately is a big advantage. It means you can use the tests to identify weak areas before you start studying. If you’re self-studying like I did, that helps you focus your limited review time on weak areas, then take the test again near the end to make sure you’re on track for test day.

Emond recently upped the numbers of questions it offers in its practice sets, so its per-question value increased to be among the best online. It also added a “flag question” feature to return to questions you’d like to spend more time on.

Emond bar exam practice test screenshot
This is what the Emond practice test web app looks like.

 

The only real weakness of Emond’s online practice tests is that the number of questions is lower than some competitor products. Otherwise, the Emond platform is one of the strongest out there.

Despite this minor shortcoming, I’d very much recommend the Emond exam set as a solid diagnostic tool that you can start using immediately. Since Emond actually provides answers for its questions, it is an overall better learning tool than other mock exams with no answers provided. With the time most students have available outside index-updating, it’s also unlikely that you’ll have much time for additional questions or full seven-hour mock exams. Emond is also attractive if you’re looking for an in-person or online preparation course to complement online practice exams. They have also made an index database available to students upon request, for those running short on time.

For a complete summary, I made this summarized chart of Emond’s 2015 practice test features (updated as of March 2016):

Feature Summary Chart

Name Emond
Website emondexamprep.ca
Price (CDN tax included)
–        Single practice test $90.40
–        Both practice tests $180.80
–        Discount for buying both? 0, or included for free with some course options
–        Individual sections? Not available
–        Price per Q (barrister) $0.65
–        Price per Q (solicitor) $0.65
In-Class Course Available? Yes
Online Course Available? Yes
Free sample available? Yes
What if you still fail? Free access
Questions
–        Number (barrister) 140
–        Number (solicitor) 140
–        Number per section About 35
–        Multiple Q’s on same case? Yes
–        Additional Q’s available? No
Attempts Allowed 4
Available immediately? Yes
Timer
–        Time provided Unlimited
–        Starts First click
–        Pauses By button click or automatically when browser closes
–        Auto-pause Yes
–        Counts down or up? Up from 0
Features
–        Auto-save Yes
–        Question flag Yes
–        Unanswered Q’s highlighted Yes
–        Usable offline Yes
–        Returns to last Q answered Yes
–        Quick keys No
Feedback
–        By section Yes
–        Answers provided Always
–        Filter by section Yes
–        Filter by correct/incorrect Yes
–        Time per Q provided No
Navigation
–        Drop down Q list Yes
–        By section No

Detailed Review

Price

Emond’s practice exam sets are priced similar to their competitors: Emond’s exams are $90.40 after tax each (for just the barrister or just the solicitor exam). Other competitors offer online practice sets for anywhere from $96.00 to $113.00 after tax each. When purchasing both tests, the competitors’ prices drop to $90.40 to $93.25 per test. This year Emond increased the number of practice questions offered on its solicitor exam to 140, reducing its price to $0.65 per question. So, if you’re only looking for a single test and about three hours of questions, Emond has the best price. If you’re purchasing both tests and prefer more than three hours of questions, then Emond’s competitors similar deals.

Access

The best part of the Emond exams is that they’re available for purchase immediately. Other competitors limit access to their exams until a couple weeks before the test. Personally I liked being able to take a diagnostic test early on to see what areas I should spend the most time on. In this regard, Emond is superior to other online tests out there.

The Emond test (including its timer) also works while disconnected from the Internet. This means you can load up the test and then complete it offline if WiFi is unavailable.

Number of attempts allowed

The practice exams from Emond allow four complete attempts. Each test can be paused and resumed at later times. However, to see feedback you need to submit an attempt. When I was using the test as a diagnostic, I’d submit partial exams to test my timing for certain sections. Unlimited attempts would be nice, but I don’t think I used all four re-submits. Other competitors have unlimited submissions, while others only allow a single marked test to be submitted. I found Emond’s four submissions were enough.

Timer and pause feature

Emond’s timer counts “up” from zero once you click on the first answer. That makes it easy on the go to record how many minutes you’ve spent on the questions you’ve answered.

The downside is that Emond’s “upward” timer is unlike the actual timer on test day. The barrister and solicitor exams have a giant timer on the wall that counts down from three hours and thirty minutes. Does this really matter? It didn’t for me. It’s easy enough to run your own countdown timer on a standard cell phone alarm app.

Questions

The Emond online practice exam has 140 barrister questions and 140 solicitor questions. There are about 35 questions per section. Emond’s questions are good; they seemed representative of the real exam.  140 questions on each test, when you take 90 seconds to answer each one, takes seven hours. This is exactly the number of questions required to simulate a full 7-hour test day, if you choose to approach it that way.

Flagging questions to return to later

While writing a mock bar exam, you may want to simulate the real experience by flagging questions to return to. The Emond test highlights unanswered questions in the drop-down list to make them easy to return to. Just this year, the Emond platform also added a flag question feature which allows you to return to previous difficult questions. This simulates the live test accurately, where you will be able to mark questions or “dog ear” pages in order to return to them later. I am glad Emond added this feature and wish it had been available when I was studying for the test.

Feedback

Another area that Emond’s test shines is feedback. Answer explanations are provided whether you get the questions right or wrong. That’s ideal because if you’re doing the exam for the first time, you may be guessing at some questions to finish on time. I found that some competitors’ tests didn’t provide correct answers for the questions I guessed at. That meant that unless I looked them up, I didn’t really know why it was right. Emond’s answers are all provided with a detailed explanation; I liked using the answer explanations as a review. Although looking up the answers in your index is good practice, it was nice being able to see the answer right there.

Emond’s feedback can also be filtered by correct/incorrect, or by section for a targeted review section. That’s a nice bonus that saves a little time scrolling. Previous test attempts are all listed on your main login page so you can see improvement. Not every test practice site out there provides that historical data.

Mobile

For the purposes of this review I tried using Emond’s online test software on my iPhone 5S using Safari and it displayed fine. Although it doesn’t have a specifically mobile-friendly version, I found the online test was still doable when I held my phone sideways (landscape). When I was actually studying for the test I didn’t bother doing practice exams on my phone, so this wasn’t something I really thought about.

Conclusion

Overall I liked using Emond’s practice exam software and I’d recommend it. It’s a good diagnostic that can help identify weak areas and to focus your efforts. Knowing that I was scoring 70-85% on most practice exam questions gave me a confidence boost before writing the real exams. Although Emond’s software doesn’t come with loads of questions, it does offer a great survey of expected test areas. The best part is that it’s available immediately, which can either help you relax with a great score or get super motivated by a terrible score early on.

Note: Since writing this review, Emond has made several improvements to their online testing software. They have added questions, a flag question feature, and continually seek feedback on how they can improve. Overall Emond’s practice exams are an even better product than when I prepared for my exams. I highly recommend.

Thanks for reading. If you have questions, study tips, or any different opinions on test prep, please share them in a comment below!

Please note that this is a sponsored post. Sponsored posts are still in my own words and written based on my personal experiences. I use sponsored posts to help pay for the costs of running this website. If you have any questions about what that means, please contact me here.

I Failed in Law School and You Can Too

Originally published on Canadian Lawyer 4Students online

Nobody is perfect. If you came to law school believing that you were, chances are that the first year gave you doubts. Every year law school classrooms get filled with brilliant, hardworking and competitive young professionals. Being just one in the heap can be a difficult adjustment, especially for those who came from places where they were considered exceptional. It certainly was for me. I failed at more things in law school than any place I had before. Those failures helped me learn that missing the target is alright. I failed in law school and you can too.

PaperCamera2012-09-28-21-55-58

For most of us, failure is felt quickly and often in law school. Anyone familiar with the grading system knows that actual “F’s” are uncommon, but ask any law student and the feeling is rampant. We often mentally assign ourselves “F’s” for failing to meet our own expectations. Whether it’s about grades, body image, career, extra-curriculars, or relationships, law students tend to have high expectations live up to.

Law students’ monumental expectations start much earlier than 1L. They likely coincide with being asked to beat out thousands of applicants to be allowed to attend. Maybe our first acceptance package goes to our heads—we expect to be able to keep up the “top ten to twenty percent” pace indefinitely. The tragedy is that once we join the top ten to twenty percent, our success is redefined as the top ten percent of that group. Comparing ourselves to others is a losing game; it can only end in disappointment.

Before I graduated, I fell into the “other law students” comparison trap many times. Early on I spent most of my energy trying to be like the “others” out there. If you spoke to me about who I was measuring myself against, I would describe the group of law students who had it all: great relationships, lots of friends, supreme fitness, straight A’s, buckets of energy, and made law review. Whenever I dropped the ball in one (or all) of those areas, which I did frequently, I felt like I was way behind.

The problem was that that group does not really exist. If I had actually stopped and broken it down, it was actually an amalgamation of all the people in my class. I had magically combined many uniquely talented individuals into one person. In reality, nobody has it all figured out.

Job number one for law students should be to drop unfair comparisons. They are a distraction. Eventually I learned to measure myself against my own standard. For example, I had to learn the hard way that a heavy class schedule and multiple volunteer commitments did not leave enough time for a solid relationship. I started noticing how much I needed to sleep, study, relax, and see my family to feel successful. I also started noticing that I learned better outside class and away from the library. Perhaps most importantly, I learned that relationships take steady work to stay strong.

I only started improving in law school after I started focusing on my own priorities. Avoiding social comparison during law school helped me focus on what really mattered for my success. Refusing to compare myself to others still takes constant work. These days I still set goals and push myself, but my goals are grounded in reality.

Learning to measure ourselves by our own standard is the first step to overcoming a feeling that we are failures. Experiencing actual failure still feels terrible. It sounds cliché, failing a few times in law school helped me create some of my best successes.

My first law school failure was an actual “F” on a midterm. I attended class. I studied for the test. I read everything. Other people passed. I had no excuses. Even if it was not life-changing, it was a big deal. The first big deal in a legal career with many bigger deals ahead.

The real tragedy was what I did next: I avoided getting feedback. Instead, I ignored it and focused on the classes I thought I had a chance to improve in. At the time, that helped me avoid feeling like a failure. Later that year I came up against the same professor’s exam. I struggled and felt awful. Facing my failure earlier may have made that second test much easier. More importantly it would have helped me grow into a better law student.

Getting used to the idea that we can fail is important. In law school tests are temporary. In law practice the consequences can last a lifetime. Turning away from failure means we risk making the same mistakes later on. Failure intolerance makes us hesitate when we face challenging goals—the possibility that we could make a mistake is paralyzing. Procrastination is comforting because it prevents us from ever trying our very best, so we avoid true failure. Instead, if we make failure acceptable, we become free to do our very best and learn from mistakes as they happen.

It took me a long time, but I eventually built up the courage to acknowledge my failures head-on. That became critical during my legal job search. I was rejected from more than a hundred jobs and positions in law school before I secured a job at a great firm. The rejections were often impersonal. However, I also had rejections that felt devastatingly personal—after spending months networking and getting to know the recruiters and interviewers. My worst week started with multiple rounds of interviews, handshakes and dinners at several first-class law firms, and ended with the emptiness of zero job offers.

The last thing I wanted to hear was how I personally lost such great opportunities. The failure was deeply painful. I actually tried my very best and did not measure up. On the advice of a career coach, I eventually got the courage to follow up with a well-known recruiter I respected very much. I asked how I could improve. She candidly shared several key weaknesses that had proven fatal. It was difficult to listen to, but it helped me mature immeasurably. It is easy to walk away from failure with the belief that we bore no responsibility for the outcome. Instead I walked away with the very uncomfortable feeling that it was mostly my fault.

The upside was that owning my failure helped identify what I could control. Motivation to do better next time was still possible. The universe was not against me, nor was it 100% my fault. There were just some things I needed to improve before I could get where I wanted to be.

After picking myself up and getting back on the job hunt, I eventually landed a job at an excellent firm. A few rejections helped me improve enough to make a match. Learning to seek out and incorporate feedback helped me make my last semester in law school my best ever. I wanted to write this because I thought I spent most of law school trying to succeed. In reality, I spent all of law school learning how to fail. And you can too.

What is it Like to Write a Bar Exam in Ontario?

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.

Law Society of Upper Canada Barrister Exam Sign
Signs point the way to the bar exam entrance

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.

Security

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.

The Aftermath

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!