The Cruel Ritual of the Ontario Bar Exam

Every June, lawyers-to-be in the province of Ontario make the pilgrimage to one of a few cities to undergo the ritualistic exercise of writing the bar exam. For many, the bar exam—otherwise known as the lawyer licensing exam—represents a large part of the process to become a lawyer in the province of Ontario. Students migrate into convention halls with their little Ziploc baggies of highlighters and granola bars, and carry in large bags their heavily indexed binders of material. But the Law Society of Ontario’s (LSO) bar exam is not an exercise in actually demonstrating competence. Instead, the regulator has imposed a search-and-destroy style exam on students, in which the charges must find the right answer buried in their indexed binders. If the goal of the bar exam process is to ensure that students have a minimal level of competence in the profession, it is hard to see how the bar exam achieves that goal.

More to the point, it appears that the only good justification for a bar exam of this sort is to teach students how to take a timed examination under strict conditions. But what purpose does this justification have in terms of competency for a lawyer? Indeed, other that imposing needless anxiety and pressure on already debt-burdened students, how does this ritual do anything for competency? Maybe it could be justified as a tradition that all lawyers should have to bear—but this seems like a thin reed on which to charge students for the pleasure of it.

Instead of taking the bar exam as a given, perhaps Ontario should start from first principles. What is the goal of the licensing process? Starting from the highest level of abstraction, the Law Society Act states that a goal of the LSO is to ensure that “all persons who practise law in Ontario or provide legal services in Ontario meet standards of learning, professional competence and professional conduct that are appropriate for the legal services they provide.” In its “Options for Lawyer Licensing: A Consultation Paper,” the LSO noted the following:

Lawyer candidates are required to demonstrate proficiency in respect of competencies that reflect the minimum requirements of both barristers and solicitors entering the profession in the seven areas of law that are most frequently practised. The current barrister and solicitor examinations provide a means of testing candidates’ abilities in core knowledge, application and critical thinking competencies, irrespective of their educational background.

With this connection to the competency requirement in mind, the LSO also defended its licensing process, citing only one article from American scholars:

The LSO’s licensing examinations are internationally-recognized as high-quality, psychometrically-defensible professional qualification assessments.

That relatively unsupported assertion aside, the LSO to its credit recognized in its consultation paper that the licensing process needed some amendment. In fact, the LSO outlined four options for the licensing process. Two of those options would add a “skills-based” examination to the existing bar exams. Indeed, the option ultimately chosen by the LSO would involve ”[c]onsideration of some form of skills testing in the licensing process.” But there did not appear to be a serious appraisal of whether the bar exam—from a common-sense, regulatory perspective—really advances the goals of competency. In other words, while some form of skills-testing is probably tied closer to a regulatory goal of ensuring competency, I fail to see how the mode of the existing licensing examinations does anything to even basically ensure that competency.

The Ontario mode is not the only one that could be followed. In Manitoba, for example, the focus of the process is almost entirely skills-based rather than examination-based. Instead, through the CPLED program, students are exposed to different tests in oral advocacy, writing, and other areas that are more directly related to lawyer competency. One can at least make the regulatory business case for this mode of testing as connected to testing lawyer competency.

I cannot say the same for Ontario’s whack-a-mole-style licensing examinations. While the LSO tries to suggest that its licensing exam is acclaimed internationally (simply on the basis of one US article), I truly would like to know, at the level of regulatory policy, the justification for a bar exam of Ontario’s sort. From where I am standing, it appears as nothing more than a cruel joke to already-burdened students.

Author: Mark Mancini

I am a graduate of the University of New Brunswick Faculty of Law (JD) and the University of Chicago Law School (LLM). I am the National Director of the Runnymede Society, a national law student organization dedicated to debate on issues relating to the Rule of Law, constitutionalism, and individual liberty. I clerked at the Federal Court for Justice Ann Marie McDonald. I have interests in administrative law broadly, with specific interests in substantive review of administrative interpretations of law. I am also interested in law and economics. Any views expressed on Double Aspect are mine, and do not represent the views of the Runnymede Society.

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