3 Myths and 3 Tips for the Ontario Bar Exams
I’ll never forget the feeling I felt when I signed on to my Law Society portal and found out that I failed both the Ontario Barrister and Solicitor exams. I went completely numb. This must have been a mistake! How could I fail not one, but both of the Ontario bar exams?
If you’re going through the process of studying for the exams right now, you’re probably hearing the same things I heard when I was studying: “Everybody passes!”, “I didn’t even study and I passed the exams”, “Only morons fail the exams”, etc. Do your best to tune that out.
As someone who both failed and passed the Ontario bar exams, I am hoping to use my experience to dispel some of the myths surrounding the exams and offer some tips that helped me pass. So, without further ado, here are three myths and three tips for the Ontario bar exams:
Myth #1 – Nobody fails
First off, the myth that barely anyone fails is simply not true. Many people speculate on the passing rates for the exams, but since the LSO keeps these confidential, nobody really has a sense of what is needed to pass. You also shouldn’t rely on anecdotal evidence because the people who passed want to talk about how they passed, unlike the people who failed who do not want to talk about how they failed. What I will say is that when I rewrote both exams, I was surprised to see a lot of people I knew also rewriting the exams.
Myth #2 – People only fail because they’re dumb or don’t take the exams seriously
I have always fared well academically and have never had problems with exams throughout undergrad and law school. I also studied my butt off for the Ontario bar exams, diligently reading through all of the materials and making sure that my indices were easily navigable. The problem is, the Barrister and Solicitor exams are unlike any exam you’ve ever seen before. The exams don’t test your ability to retrieve an answer from memory, but rather, your ability to quickly locate the answer in the materials. This is why you may hear of people who barely studied and yet still pass the exams. These people don’t necessarily have more legal knowledge than those who spend hundreds of hours studying – they just have better strategies for writing the exams.
Myth #3 – People who fail will never make great lawyers
Last time I checked, there is no evidence correlating success on the bar exams with career success. This is perhaps the case with the American bar exams, as these exams are closed-booked and require exam-takers to rely much more heavily on their legal knowledge. The Ontario Barrister and Solicitor exams, on the other hand, require only a basic understanding of the law. Exam-takers merely need to identify the subject or a key term in a question in order to find the correct answer in their materials. Also, keep in mind that exam-takers are being tested on the entirety of the materials, which stretches across many different subjects and areas of law. When most lawyers begin practicing, they focus on a specific area of law!
Tip #1 – Choose between an index or a detailed table of contents
Indices don’t work for everyone. When I first wrote the Ontario bar exams, I wasted a ton of time frantically flipping through my index and looking up key terms that didn’t exist. On both the Barrister and Solicitor, I ran short of time and had to randomly bubble in 20 questions. Fast forward to my second attempts – I was able to cruise through each exam and I even had extra time to circle back to answers that I was unsure about. The difference? I relied solely on my detailed table of contents that was provided in the materials.
The point is, you need to figure out which method works better for YOU before exam day. Once you finish studying your materials, I suggest taking a practice exam and trying out both methods. You may discover that you work much more efficiently relying on one over the other.
If you decide to use an index, make sure to organize all of your materials in a way that makes sense for you and allows you to reference key terms quickly. Many people separate their indices by section and place alphabetized tabs throughout. If you decide to use your detailed table of contents, consider making annotations in the margins in order to help you quickly identify key principles in important sub-chapters.
You may also find that you are most comfortable using a combination of both methods. Again, figure out what works best for you!
Tip #2 – Practice!
First time takers of the Ontario bar exams are often surprised by the difficulty of the questions and are unprepared for the tight time constraints of the exams. In order to feel confident on exam day, you should familiarize yourself with the structure of the exams and the types of questions you’ll see. In my view, there is no better way of doing this than by taking practice exams.
Most importantly, by taking practice exams, you’ll become more efficient at navigating through your materials. This skill is critical to success on the Ontario Barrister and Solicitor.
I would recommend taking as many practice exams as you can prior to the exams. There are a few great options available online, but I believe that the practice exams offered through Ontario Bar Prep are the best representation of the actual exams. Both the Barrister and Solicitor are full length exams and feature a timer that counts down from 3.5 hours for each half, mimicking the format of the actual exams. I also found the level of difficulty of the questions similar to questions on the actual exams.
Yes – it is still important to read and grasp the materials, but as you inch closer to exam day, a day spent working through a practice exam is more valuable than a day spent re-reading the materials.
Tip #3 – Read your materials strategically
Many questions on the Ontario Barrister and Solicitor exams have very specific answers that, for most people, are nearly impossible to recall from memory. Instead, you’ll need to find the answers somewhere in your 1000 pages of materials. Think of it as a not-so-fun scavenger hunt.
While most questions on their face will appear difficult, often a basic understanding of the content of each question is enough to locate the correct answer. This is because you merely need to identify either a key term in the question (if you’re using an index) or the underlying subject matter (if you’re using your detailed table of contents).
So, when you’re reading through your materials, don’t get bogged down in the minutiae. Read with the purpose of gaining a general understanding of each chapter. A popular strategy is to jot down a one or two point summary in the margins after you finish reading each sub-chapter. This will not only allow you to better grasp the material, but will make it easier for you to sift through the materials on exam day.
Keep in mind that some of the material content is very dry and technical. Don’t spend too much time getting lost in the more convoluted chapters. In my experience, the best way to absorb these subjects is to simply chat with other exam-takers on them. This is where a study group comes in handy!
Bonus Tip – Move on from questions you can’t seem to crack
We all know that lawyers and law students hate being wrong, but inevitably, you’re going to come across a question on your exam that will stump you. As much as it may pain you to do so, guess and move on! Put a marking next to the question and return to if you have time at the end of exam.
Remember – each question is worth the same amount, regardless of difficulty. In the time that you’re wasting aimlessly scrambling through your materials to answer one question, you could be answering three easier questions. If you have a hard time determining whether you’re spending too long on certain questions, set a hard time limit for yourself!
I hope this post was helpful. Best of luck on your exams!