Written by Virginia Ng
As you grow up, the question of, “What do you want to be when you grow up” turns into “What are you going to do for the rest of your life.” If you’ve always known what you wanted to do, then great, if you didn’t then that’s okay, too. I didn’t think about becoming a lawyer until almost the end of my undergraduate studies. If you ever thought about or are thinking about pursuing a legal career, then I have a few tips to you.
1. Volunteer or get work experience as soon as you can
One of the things I am most grateful for is having gotten to work one summer as an intern and assistant at a small law office before finishing my bachelor’s degree and deciding to study law. You should try to get a feel of what it is like to be in a legal work environment before committing to a legal career path. There are some who have watched television, maybe dreamed of becoming a paralegal or lawyer, and then realized that the job and the environment isn’t what they thought it would be like. I wasn’t someone who initially thought I would become a lawyer when I was younger. I was someone who was still figuring it out. It was during my undergraduate studies of psychology, when I thought about the connection to law and had the opportunity to work with a lawyer, when I decided to go to law school. This work experience is especially important if you are thinking about going to law school or becoming a lawyer, and are concerned about your financial situation, as not only is tuition of law school expensive but there are many other fees in addition that you will have to pay for (more on this below), and so you should know what you will be working towards after your degree beforehand.
2. Have a financial plan or significant savings. Do not carry debt going into law school if possible
The legal profession is an expensive career path, and do not assume that you are going to be able to make up for it all right away once you become a licensed legal professional. Yes, law school is expensive, but so are licensing fees. What’s that? Yes, there are more fees after you graduate. Whether you are becoming a lawyer or a paralegal in Ontario, after you graduate and want to become a lawyer or paralegal, you will have to pay for fees upfront to join the legal professional body, licensing exam fees and more. Law school doesn’t really give you that much time off to have a job, and the expenses you will be paying for will be a lot more than how much you can earn part-time at any minimum wage position. Unfortunately, for us millennials, you probably know that there is already a shortage for university graduates obtaining meaningful career positions after they graduate that pay well, and the legal field is no different. To become a lawyer, after you have your law degree, each province has their own licensing process, you will have to apply to the law society of the province you want. In Ontario, you will have to pay for another application fee to get put into the licensing process, then you will be required to write two bar exams, and complete an experiential training component, either “articling” which is a supervised internship for 10 months or the Law Practice Program. You may have heard some positive stories of students who were well paid working at a large law firm after graduating, but that’s not always the case, and many smaller firms often can’t pay you a significant amount. In fact, you will be lucky to work for the minimum wage at some smaller firms. The Ontario bar exams with the required materials will cost you over $2000, and for your experiential training component, you will have to pay over $3000 (I don’t remember the exact numbers). That’s right, you must PAY to have your work or internship recognized. If you fail a bar exam, you will have to pay to do it again. These exams are also 7 and a half hours each filled with a lot of material, and many people must take some time off work to study. After this, you will have to pay for the bar ceremony, possibly buy/rent barrister robes, and then when you do get licensed, guess what… MORE FEES! Within the first few weeks after getting called to the Bar, congratulations, you will be handed an invoice from the law society asking you to pay for the remainder of the year as a licensed professional, even if you aren’t working. If you are not practising law, you can apply to change your status with the law society to pay less fees, but you are still required to pay something more than a few hundred dollars just to maintain your license, otherwise your license may be administratively suspended for not paying. If you are practising, you will have to pay much more, and in addition, it is mandatory for licensees to have practising insurance coverage. In Ontario, we use LawPro Insurance. A new call has a 50% discount, but surprisingly that’s still over $300/month currently for a new lawyer in their first year. Thus why, I would suggest you plan out a financial plan or figure out how you will survive financially for several years (not a few, not for just when you’re in law school, but after too), and you do not want to be in debt before starting this career path.
3. Maintain and build your support system
If you have great friends, and people you have met through work experience before law school, you will want to maintain their friendships to help get you through any mental struggles you may face throughout your career journey. In law school, don’t be afraid to make friends, not everyone will be amazing, some become too competitive, and you may want to stay away from those, but if you find some great friends in your class or in another class above or below you, then you will have an advantage over those who are just competitive and want to do everything alone. It’s great if you can find people who can share with you notes or would be willing to build notes together with you or provide other tips. The people I attempted to befriend in the beginning did not become my friends I later had. Friends I later had in law school, were people that I eventually became close with and still stay in touch with. When I first started at law school, I lived in a studio apartment, and this girl who lived two doors down from me who was a semester senior to me ended up becoming one of my best law school pals, and that was not something I expected. Although we were in different semesters, we attempted to compete in various legal competitions such as moots, client interview competitions, and negotiations. I later took a few courses with her as I took a few courses out of order, and she later introduced me to my roommate I moved in with 2 semesters later. I was able to form a study group sometimes then. I also got to know someone else who was senior to me, who I would regularly meet in the library who taught me Microsoft Word tricks for formatting my exam notes that I will forever be thankful for.
4. Don’t try to be a “Shark” or super competitive going into law school or college
There is this falsehood with a lot of new law school students who believe that they need to be as competitive as possible, and perhaps even sabotage other students or should not help anyone else. I don’t really blame anyone for having this initial view as many do and it can somewhat feel encouraged by schools that curve class grades. However, in the real practising world, legal professionals often need to work with each other, and rely on asking each other for help, guidance and advice to do better, and so you should start building your relationships early on. You never know when you may need someone. Try to help others when you can.
5. If you’re thinking about going to law school abroad, do your research and plan.
I went to Bond University in Australia, but before applying, I attended an information event for their law programs in Toronto, and some of their webinars where I could ask them questions. You should find out whether the school you are thinking about is planning any information sessions nearby or if there are any international university fairs. At international university fairs, you can get some information, and find out about various law school programs but you should then do further research into any schools you are then seriously considering, and then see if they will host a specific information session for the law program.
There are often also consultant agencies that will help you with informing you of information sessions and sending your applications. I signed up with KOM Consultants, which is based in Hamilton and asked them about universities they communicate with. Another popular agency for helping students interested in studying in Australia is OzTREKK. Both agencies can provide you with an abundance of information if you are interested in studying abroad. You should research into whether the University is recognized by the National Committee of Accreditation (NCA) (the Canadian association that assesses legal education and professional experience outside of Canada) or whether they have had students come back to Canada and what their experiences have been like in the past.
After you have completed your legal education abroad, if you plan to come back to Canada to practice, you will have to be assessed by the NCA. This process can take a lengthy period, so you should also be prepared for an additional time period spent completing the NCA process. The NCA requires a final transcript from your school to be sent directly to them. Towards the end of your studies, you should enquire into any forms you may have to fill to have your transcript sent. You will have to apply to have your education assessed by the NCA, which you can do so on their website: https://nca.legal/process/application/ . Once your transcript has been sent to the NCA and they have assessed your application, then they will tell you if they require you to write any additional exams, or to take any courses at a Canadian law school. When I applied, I think they had up to 12 weeks to assess, and you can’t start signing up to any of the NCA exams until they have properly sent you back your assessment. Once you have completed the NCA requirements, they will send you a notice and ask which law society (province or territory) you are planning to join. They will then send your Certificate of Qualification to that law society and send one copy to you. After this, then you will have to apply to the law society you intend to join, e.g. the Law Society of Ontario, and you will start the process with them and pay for all the fees noted above in my second tip. Oh, also you should be prepared to have to pay for NCA fees as well if you plan on going abroad and coming back to Canada.
If you are interested in staying abroad and practicing in another country, then you should ask about possible VISA options for staying after your studies that other graduates have applied for at your information sessions or to your consultant agency (E.g. KOM consultants or OzTREKK).
Bonus Tip 6: Connect with fellow students and graduates
Lastly, if you plan on embarking on a legal career or know someone who is, you should join the social media community or follow and subscribe to Ginny Law Blogs at www.ginnylawblogs.com, a resource for new lawyers and those seeking a legal career.
I hope you enjoyed this article if you’re a millennial who is thinking about going to law school or are seeking a legal career.
About the Author: Virginia Ng aka “Ginny” is a new millennial lawyer, blogger and creator of Ginny Law Blogs, a blog that not only explores various interesting legal topics but is also a blog that discusses the journey of navigating the legal professional world as a young female lawyer, giving insight, motivation and tips to other upcoming or aspiring legal professionals.