How Do I Become a Lawyer?
In a nutshell, to become a lawyer you must graduate law school, complete a kind of year-long apprenticeship called articles, and be called to the bar to practice as a lawyer.
Getting into law school
There are two things you need to get into law school: some post-secondary schooling and the LSAT.
Academically, you normally need an undergraduate university degree in something. It doesn't matter what the focus of your undergrad was, or whether it was a B.Comm. a B.Sc. or a B.A., you just have to have a degree. Some universities will also accept into law school students with a minimum of two years of an undergraduate program; however, this will depend on the university you're applying to, how many applicants they have and, of course, your marks.
LSAT stands for Law School Admission Test. All North American law schools require that you write this test before you apply for admission. The LSAT is run by a private testing company, not by any particular school, and tests are offered on a quarterly basis in cities across the continent. If I recall correctly, the same exact test is written by thousands of people across Canada and the US on the same weekend. Your score is not a percentage, it's a weighted score. In other words, the result you get is a statement of how you ranked compared to the thousands of other people who wrote the test. If you ranked in the 50th percentile, for example, you did as well as half the people that wrote the test. If you ranked in the 80th percentile, you did better than 80% of the people that wrote the test.
At this point you're probably wondering what the LSAT is. Put simply, the LSAT tests your vocabulary, language skills, and inductive and deductive reasoning. There are fill-in-the-blank questions, questions testing your understanding of a brief essay, and logical reasoning tests. There's also an unscored essay section.
At least one company that I'm aware of sells study guides and actual past LSAT exams that you can test yourself on; you can find these sorts of study guides at places like Chapters and your local university book store.
The LSAT, your grades and law school admissions
Do your undergraduate marks count? Yes. Some universities look at a combination of your marks and your life experience; others look at just your marks and don't give a damn about whatever else you've been up to in your life. The sort of marks you'll need depends very much on the university you're applying to. Some have a lot of demand and, as a result, their mark expectations are higher; others have less demand to get into law school and have lesser grade expectations. In general, you should have an undergraduate average of no less than, say, 75% before you even think of applying to law school.
Of course, your LSAT ranking is important too. Some universities look at your undergraduate grades and your LSAT score independently, and factor in your life experience. Some, like UBC, apply the numbers strictly and look only at a mathematical combination of the two.
Law school in Canada is three years long. At the end of it, if you've graduated, you get an LL.B., a "Bachelor of Laws," or a J.D., a "Juris Doctor" or doctor of laws. First year is generally the toughest, since that's when you realize that law school is entirely unlike any other schooling you've ever had and the curriculum is standardized, with little room for personal choice.
Law schools are generally fairly uptight about how they process their students. In your undergrad you probably asked for or knew someone who asked for academic exemptions and leaves of absence and things like that. In law school you are expected to be career-focused and have your mental and personal house in order before you start, and, as a result, this sort of academic leeway is rarely and parsimoniously dispensed.
Is law school fun? No. Is it as hard as you've heard? No, not at all. Once you've figured out how law school works, it'll be smooth sailing for you, as long as you know how to apply yourself and have halfway decent work habits. Remember, the study of a thing is a lot different than the practice of a thing.
One last point about law school. Give your first year a good go. Try your best but don't be devastated by the difference between your undergrad marks and your law school marks. Do your best to apply what you learned in first year to your studies in second year. Your second year marks are critical, for the reasons that follow. In general, you can relax a bit in your third year.
Articling is the second-last hurdle you have to pass before you become a lawyer. Articles are a kind of year-long apprenticeship, just the way masons, fabric dyers and carpenters apprenticed to master crafters in the middle ages. The point of articles is to give you a hands-on introduction to the practice of law under the tutelage of a senior lawyer, your principal. As an articled student, you are insured by your principal and are permitted to practise law in a certain limited capacity. You are also subject to certain restrictions and requirements of the provincial law society and its rules of conduct and practice.
The law school doesn't hand out articles, however. You have to find them yourself. Articling is a job; an articled student is an employee of his or her principal, and you've got to apply for the position.
The vast majority of law students apply for articles at the end of their second year of law school, after the marks have been released. The articles will start almost immediately after third year ends, so people usually spend the summer after second year scrounging for employment. As a result, your second year marks are critical to your ability to obtain articles. For the same reason, your third year marks are a lot less important, since you have, hopefully, already found articles.
No matter what, you must have articled before you can become a lawyer. As a result, it is critical that you find an articling position if you want to practise law.
PLTC: The bar admission course
All provincial law societies require law school graduates to complete both their articles and a bar admission course before allowing you to practise law. In British Columbia, the bar admission course is a three-month course called PLTC, the Professional Legal Training Course, and it's completed during the year in which you article. Sometimes your principal will pay for the cost of the course; some articles don't provide for this and you'll have to pay the course tuition yourself.
PLTC is an academic introduction to the basics of actually practising law in the real world, from client interview techniques to professional ethics to common trust account errors. PLTC is not fun; it is boring, tedious and unpleasant. Nevertheless it is a critical course that you must complete with near-perfection if you want to work as a lawyer. When I did PLTC, you had to have a minimum combined exam and exercise score of 11 out of 12 points, or 91.66%, to pass.
Admission to the bar
When you've completed PLTC and your articles are almost complete, your principal will have to furnish the law society with a sworn declaration stating that you are ready and competent to practise as a lawyer. You must ensure the law society gets your principal's declaration or you will not be called to the bar, which is a term for the formal ceremony admitting you as a lawyer. PLTC will forward your marks to the law society for you.
Here's what you need to do to become a lawyer in the order you need to do it:
- complete all or most of one undergraduate university degree,
- write the LSAT,
- send your undergraduate transcripts plus your LSAT test scores to the law schools you'd like to go to,
- complete first year law school without having a breakdown or dropping out,
- once you've finished second year, look for and obtain your articles,
- complete third year without doing too much damage to your liver,
- start your articles and, at some point during that year, complete PLTC,
- apply for admission to the bar with your articling report (PLTC will forward your grades to the law society on its own), and
- be called and sworn in to the bar; the law society will provide you with a schedule of call ceremonies.
Good luck! Give me a call if you'd like.
|The above was last reviewed for legal accuracy by Thomas Wallwork, September 27, 2014.|
|JP Boyd on Family Law © John-Paul Boyd and Courthouse Libraries BC is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 2.5 Canada Licence.|