How to Become a Lawyer in Canada

An LL.M is not a requirement but it’s certainly an asset

There are myriad reasons why foreign trained lawyers would want to practice law in Canada: the country has a growing legal service sector with ample job opportunity and a relatively stable economy.

One of the main routes to becoming a lawyer in Canada is doing a J.D. course in the country, but overseas lawyers can choose to pursue an LL.M. in Canadian common law. The core courses are specifically designed to meet the requirements of the Federation of Law Societies of Canada’s National Committee on Accreditation (NCA).  

The NCA assesses the legal education and professional experience of lawyers from outside of Canada, and provides accreditation to practice law in the jurisdiction.  

So an LL.M. is not necessary to become a lawyer in Canada, but it is helpful. “Some NCA candidates do need to do some Canadian law school education, and an LL.M. can be a great way to do that. This is particularly the case for those from civil law jurisdictions or those who received a distance education law degree,” says Meghan Thomas, director of International and Professional Graduate Programs at Osgoode Hall Law School in Toronto.

Her institution offers an online NCA exam preparation course, which is available for LL.M. candidates. “Doing an LL.M. gives you time to adjust to a new jurisdiction. Some LL.M. programs provide academic and career support, which is very helpful to launching yourself in Canada,” says Thomas.

LL.M. students can receive exam resources, writing and language support, as well as help with the NCA accreditation. “A key advantage to doing an LL.M. program is the professional network and community you build,” says Michael Tam, a program lawyer for Professional Graduate and International Programs at Osoode.

“The friendships made with peers in the classroom will take you into your career and beyond. The NCA process and starting somewhere new can be isolating, but it doesn’t have to be.”

He says that admission to LL.M. programs can be competitive, however. The cost can also be high, so prospective students will want to ensure they are getting value for their tuition dollars. “My advice to those seeking a pathway to becoming a lawyer in Canada is: don’t discount the challenge of studying in a new jurisdiction, and ensure your program will support you in those challenges,” says Tam.

There are plenty of reasons to want to practice law in Canada, a huge country with lots of places to choose from to establish yourself. Tam says: “The federal/provincial jurisdiction divide is interesting to many people from outside Canada, as is the common law, civil law, and Indigenous law combination in the country. We also have lots of cross border legal work in Canada, and the skills of people from outside Canada can be valuable.”   

Taking a bar exam in Canada after an LL.M.

Some LL.M. programs might not permit students to sit for the bar exam, according to Andrea Bjorklund, associate dean of graduate studies at the Faculty of Law at McGill University in Montreal.

“In some places it is likely that a student will have to take specific courses to qualify to sit for the bar examination,” she says. “Becoming a member of the bar is, of course, necessary for a student to work as an attorney. The Law Society of Upper Canada (which excludes Quebec) has certain requirements, as does the Barreau du Québec (Bar of Quebec).”

At the Allard School of Law, part of the University of British Columbia in Vancouver, the LL.M. Common Law program is aimed at foreign lawyers looking to gain NCA accreditation. “For those looking to practice law in Canada, the National Committee on Accreditation recognizes our courses for meeting the Canadian common law subject areas,” says Alan Grove, graduate professional programs coordinator. That is a major draw for foreign applicants that want to work in Canada once they finish their studies.

“One unique thing about working as a lawyer in Canada that not many foreign applicants may realize, is that each individual province or territory has its own licensing society,” adds Grove. That means if you graduate in one province you will only be licensed to practice in that single territory. However, there are reciprocity agreements that let lawyers work cases in other parts of the country. So an LL.M. in Canada can enable career mobility.

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