Finally, two and a half years after I initially moved to Canada, I can say I have officially completed the NCA Legal Exams! The long process of adjusting to our new home included realizing that my career would inevitably be put on the back burner. Realising that I was in for several more exams was extremely daunting! In hindsight, the process, while completely annoying, was relatively easy. I breakdown my exam schedule, tips and lessons learnt below to help future applicants throughout the NCA process:
What is the NCA?
The National Committee on Accreditation (NCA) of the Federation of Law Societies of Canada assesses the legal education and professional experience of individuals who obtained their credentials outside of Canada or in a Canadian civil law program. This assessment is done before an individual may apply for admission to a law society in a Canadian common law jurisdiction, and is based on the academic and professional profile of each applicant.
Note: The NCA does not assess the legal education and experience of people who want to practice civil law in Canada, or who want to become members of the Barreau du Québec or the Chambre des notaires du Québec. They each have their own evaluation process.
Why Complete the NCA Legal Exams?
If you are an internationally trained lawyer considering immigrating to Canada, you might want to ‘convert’ your law degree in order for you to practice law once you have arrived in Canada. If that’s the case, you might also want to read up on my Immigration Guide. You will need to see if you meet the requirements in order to qualify for the assessment. You can do a self-assessment online here. It asks where you completed your law degree (in which country) and whether it was through a distanced (online) education program.
You can apply from anywhere in the world – citizenship, nationality and where you live do not matter in the assessment process, which means you can start the ‘conversion’ process alongside your immigration application, before you arrive in Canada.
Note: You can, of course, also ‘convert’ your law degree (meet the requirements to practice law in Canada) by enrolling at a law school, but this is comes at a significantly higher cost (see my breakdown of costs below).
My Legal Background Before Moving to Canada?
Just for context, I was a recent LLB Graduate from the University of Cape Town, in South Africa, with an Undergrad in Psychology and Sociology B. Soc. Sci. South Africa has a mixed legal system – a hybrid of Roman Dutch civilian law, English common law, customary law and religious personal law.
I had not yet completed any portion of my articles in my home country, nor had I attempted the Bar exam. Therefore, I was a new graduate and didn’t have any work experience to attempt to reduce my articling period or exam load. That said, many internationally-trained lawyers with extensive professional experience will get the same number of exams assessed as I did.
I’m currently not practising as a lawyer in Canada, but I have completed my NCA accreditation and received my NCA certificate.
What is the Process? How Long Does it Take?
There is a five step process involved in each NCA assessment, as illustrated:
- 1) You submit your application with required documentation and payment;
- 2) The NCA reviews and assesses your credentials;
- 3) The NCA notifies you of assignments or deficiencies;
- 4) You complete your assigned requirements / NCA Law Exams; and
- 5) The NCA issues a Certificate of Qualification to you and the requested Provincial Law Society(ies)
- 6) Apply for a student-at-law status with the Provincial Law Society in which you intend to work.
- 7) Complete the articling process, which involves finding a lawyer to article with for a one year period.
- 8) Students-at-law must complete the CPLED program which is a six-month bar admission course which can be completed at the same time as your articles. CPLED is run by the Legal Education Society of Alberta (LESA) and all documentation can be found on their website.
- 9) The Law Society Member Enrolment Process, following completion of articling and CPLED, you can apply to become a member of the Law Society.
STEP 1: Submit Your Application to the NCA Canada
First step is submitting your application through your online portal here. In your application, you will add your personal details as well as your education details. You are also required to pay an amount by credit card to submit your online application ($350.00 CDN, plus taxes). The NCA will not process your application until these fees have been paid and received. Once submitted, I had to arrange for my South African University (UCT), to send my official transcript directly to the Federation of Law Societies of Canada in order for them to confirm my Education merits. If you’re unsure whether the NCA has received your official transcript from your University, you can log into the NCA portal at any time to see which documents they have received.
STEP 2: Receive Assessment Results
Once a file is assessed by the NCA, you may be asked to complete one or more exams and/or complete specific law school courses within a prescribed time frame. Usually, NCA assessments will focus on the core common law subjects in which applicants must demonstrate competence, including five Canadian subjects which are mandatory for all applicants. They are:
- Canadian Administrative Law (mandatory)
- Canadian Constitutional Law (mandatory)
- Canadian Criminal Law (mandatory)
- Foundations of Canadian Law (mandatory)
- Canadian Professional Responsibility (mandatory)
- Business Organisations (Formerly, Corporate Law)
I, unfortunately, had to complete all 9 of the above exams. I did not, however, have to complete: Family Law; Civil Procedure; Evidence; Taxation; Commercial Law or Trusts.
Note: You are given 5 years to complete all your required exams, as per your assessment. That means, I had until 2020 to complete all 9 of my exams.
STEP 3: Complete the NCA Law Exams
The NCA exams are all self-study:
The NCA supplies the syllabus and suggests materials, but each applicant has to study all the materials and buy all study materials on their own. Based on the syllabus, I would read relevant case law and notes, but decided against buying textbooks as the exams were pricey enough as it was (See the costs outlined below). I focused on reading and understanding the case law, and using some of the “canned notes” and answer frameworks available online.
- TIP: ALWAYS check that you have the latest syllabus. They change regularly! See here.
- TIP: Search for “canned law notes” or “answer frameworks” on Google to find additional notes.
The exams are open-book:
That means you can bring in all the study materials you want! Obviously, it helps to bring in materials that you know and have organized into some working order that is relatively easy to find during the exam and that does not waste time. I chose to retype ALL of my notes into a manner that suited me best in an exam. Particularly helpful were the past exams, and sample answers I came up with. Electronic devices are obviously not permitted.
- TIP: Colour code and flag ALL your notes. Be aware of where each topic/case is in your bundle of study materials.
- TIP: Come up with your OWN answer frameworks including recent case law; relevant ratios; and construct it in IRAC (that is, Issue; Rule; Analysis; Conclusion).
Should I attempt a few exams at a time?
Yes, in my opinion, attempt more than one each session. NCA allows you to attempt as many or as few exams in each exam session as you wish. Generally, most applicants attempt 2-4 NCA Law exams per session with varying degrees of success. You must however complete all the subjects assigned within the time frame indicated in your Assessment Result Report. Based on that, I decided to divide my exams into 3 sessions with 3 exams each.
How should I choose which exams to schedule and when?
Choosing what exams to take when will also be somewhat determined by the schedule here. For myself, I would not have been able to do all 9 at once, even if I had wanted to as not all 9 were available in once exam slot. The exams are held in January; April; August and October each year.
- TIP: Plan your schedule/exam load according to the exam schedule so you don’t waste time/months that you cannot write.
- TIP: Organise exams together when possible if the subjects compliment each other: Foundations and Constitutional, for example.
My exam load:
When I started the process, I wasn’t working at all, so I had loads of time to study. I decided during my first round of exams in April, to do Foundations; Constitutional and Professional Responsibility. Spending a good 3 – 4 weeks studying, I found these exams incredibly easy and had wished I had chosen to complete more.
- TIP: Foundations; Constitutional and especially Professional Responsibility are good exams to start with!
- TIP: I’ll be writing a follow up blog post on all my tips specific for each of the NCA Law exams I wrote!
That said, I was much busier the second round in August, and instead of completing the 4 exams I signed up for, I ended up cancelling them all. I missed October’s deadline to sign up for the exams, and ended up having to wait until January to write the next 3 exams. I wrote my final 3 exams were completed in April 2017. The last two rounds of NCA Law exams I wrote with a full time job, and travelling often.
So, my Final NCA Exam Schedule looked like this:
- Feb 2017: Received Assessment back from NCA.
- April 2017: Wrote & passed Foundations; Constitutional and Professional Responsibility.
- August 2017: Applied for Admin; Criminal; Business Org and Torts — but ended up cancelling them all.
- October 2017: Missed deadline to apply.
- January 2018: Wrote & passed Admin; Business Org and Torts.
- April 2018: Wrote & passed Criminal; Property Law and Contract Law.
My exam results took about 10 – 13 weeks to be released after the exams — just in time for the next round of exams. Most of the time, I received an email notification of the release of exam results but if I hadn’t, the NCA Facebook groups were usually quite quick to point out the release of results.
The Total Cost of the NCA Conversion Process: $ 3854
These costs are obviously only a guideline and dependent on your own timeline and how many exams you are required to complete. You can also see a guideline of costs on the NCA website here.
- Application Fee: ± $ 410
- NCA Law Exams Fees: 9 x $ 357 (incl. tax) = $3213
- Cancellation Admin Fee: 4 x $ 57,75 = $ 231
- NOTE: I did not purchase any textbooks or notes from anyone.
STEP 4: Request Certificate of Qualification
Upon successful completion of these requirements, the NCA issues a Certificate of Qualification. Most law societies in Canada require the NCA’s Certificate of Qualification to access their bar admissions process, so I’m just waiting on that for the next step!
Below are some additional questions I’ve received:
How tough and long was the NCA process?
I did not really find the process tough at all. It can be as long or short as you want it to be. If you want to complete the exams in one round of exams, then maybe it would only take you a few months, although not many people advise this. It took me a year because I ended up missing two rounds of exams due to travel and family emergencies. Realistically, I could have completed it a lot sooner. I found 3 exams each round was completely doable, but honestly, I could have done more each round. The only thing that stopped me was that I was nervous I would waste money by failing if I took on too many at a time. Since there was no real rush and I was trying to save money by not purchasing text books and notes, I went with 3 exams at a time because it felt like a safe beat.
How tough are the NCA exam compared to UCT law school exams? Are we talking Admin / Property law hard, or more like Civil Procedure / Criminal law easy?
I felt the exams were easier because a) they’re open book; and b) I know better than I did in first year Law School so I knew how to study and write practical answers. Admin is still relatively ‘hard’ in terms that it’s basically all the same work / same type of long cases that you need to use in long form answers so it’s a lot to study / read. Property Law was easier than UCT (I felt).
How did you go out seeking employment once completed?
I can’t answer this, because I haven’t yet. Working in a completely different career right now because I need the flexibility to travel more. 14 days leave after a year is not going to cut it. But most people have to just start applying to law firms. Google firms in the areas you want to live in and then start applying. There are often job offers online or application times/dates for each of the law firms listed on their website — I think it’s similar to SA Law Firms.
Why did you opt for Alberta?
It happened to be the easiest for us to get into initially, bearing in mind, we moved for Craig’s career as a physician. We’re staying now because it is cheaper, Craig gets paid more here and because we have settled in. BUT if we did move, I would have to rewrite the BAR exam for a different province if I wanted to practice as a lawyer in any other province. I would also have to get NCA to resend my qualification certificate to the provincial Law Society.
Did you consider British Columbia, specifically Vancouver?
We considered moving there eventually but decided that we would prefer saving money than spending it in Vancouver. We can make more money / spend less living in Alberta and STILL travel to Vancouver 3 times a year so it didn’t make sense to move. Vancouver is stunning though, and feels a lot more familiar than Alberta. If we had a choice, money not being a factor, Vancouver would be more of an option.
In your blog, you mentioned the exam subjects you were required to write. Should I expect the same? I graduated from UCT around 2016, so I assume a similar time period.
More than likely! The only reason it would change is if they felt standards were different or if you didn’t reach a high enough mark. The last 3 exams are compulsory because of our Civil Law influence. In Canada, it’s purely common law.
What is the best studying material for the above exams?
I didn’t buy any textbooks because I was fed up of the costs associated with it all. I would rather purchase notes or spend time actually reading the cases. So, that’s what I did. I made my own notes, so I knew where everything was, and read pretty much every single case plus journal articles etc. Past exams are really helpful too! Answering Frameworks are really important to prepare as those were extremely helpful in the exams. Most often, some form of past questions would come up again.
What did your study schedule look like? Any tips?
Like I said I write 3 exams each round. I studied for 2 – 3 months, but to be fair, only really buckled down to study hard 3 – 4 weeks before the exams. I wrote 2 exam rounds with a part-full time job, while travelling and blogging so it is manageable. Make good notes so that you can find things during the exams.
Do you think it’s best to get certified before moving over, I assume so?
Yes! Just because, if you aren’t in my position, where I didn’t have to ensure I brought in an income too, you’ll have a lot more to stress about. It makes sense to convert beforehand and then move straight into a job.
What is the biggest difference between Canadian law and South African law?
I didn’t notice much of a difference at all. It felt like all the same work, just with different case names.
What was the biggest obstacle when moving?
Adjusting to the move with things like culture shock, being away from family and friends, but in terms of law? The frustration of having to do exams again and the costs of it. It all adds up.
I am considering doing a research LLM at UBC or McGill, what are your thoughts? Seems best for integration, meeting a bunch of people, build a local education profile, etc.
It’s a really good idea! Just bear in mind, if you’re on a work / study visa, you’ll pay international fees! If you have PR (Permanent Residency), you wouldn’t have to pay international fees.
How did you manage to get UCT to directly mail hard copies of your UCT transcripts to the NCA?
This was relatively easy for me. As far as I remember there was an online process or a form to be faxed for this that I just completed with all the addresses I wanted my transcript to mailed to. I think this was the link.
Career seemingly back on track,
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