QUEBEC PROVIDES A COMPELLING ALTERNATIVE TO THE LAWYER LICENSING PROCESS IN ONTARIO
Traditional lawyer licensing candidates in the province of Ontario go through a long and expensive academic journey to obtain their license to practice law. Nevertheless, Quebec provides a compelling alternative to achieve the same objectives in less time and at a lower cost. Evidently, technical qualifications can be acquired in less than 8 years and with lower debt burdens than those incurred by lawyer licensing candidates in the province Ontario.
In Ontario, lawyer licensing candidates complete a four-year undergraduate degree and write the Law School Admission Test before enrolling in a three-year professional law program. Thus, candidates must forego at least seven years of time and income to obtain the university degrees required to become a lawyer. Upon graduation, candidates write the Barrister and Solicitor exams and then spend 8 to 10 months articling under the supervision of an experienced lawyer.
In Québec, lawyer licensing candidates are only required to complete two years of CEGEP before being admitted to law school. While undergraduate studies cost roughly 300$ per credit in Ontario, CEGEP costs less than 300$ for an entire semester in Quebec. Upon graduating from a three-year law program, candidates enroll in Bar School for four or eight months to study for the Quebec Bar Exam. After passing the Quebec Bar Exam, a candidate will spend 6 months articling under the supervision of an experienced lawyer.
Given that students in Ontario are required to complete an extra year of high school (six years instead of the five years required in Quebec), lawyer licensing candidates in Quebec enter law school at least 3 years before their counterparts in Ontario. Thus, it is technically possible for a candidate in Quebec to graduate from law school, pass the Quebec Bar Exam, complete their articles, and obtain their license to practice law while a candidate in Ontario is still in their first year of law school. As a result, newly licensed lawyers in Quebec are significantly less indebted than their counterparts in Ontario. While it is important to emphasize that education is more affordable in Quebec than elsewhere in Canada, the contrast is still striking.
A 2014 survey conducted by the Law Students’ Society of Ontario found that 64.4 percent of students were forced to rely on private lines of credit because government loans were not enough to pay for tuition fees and living expenses. In 2018, a similar study found that the number had risen to 75.12% of law students surveyed. Conversely, a 2016 study conducted by the Young Bar of Montreal found that 27.4% of law graduates in Quebec were debtless upon graduating. What’s more, the average law graduate in Quebec only held $16, 700 in debt. Most shocking of all: while the average debt load of law graduates in Ontario was an enormous $83, 000, only 1.3% of law graduates in Quebec owed more than $80, 000. Evidently, law students in Quebec graduate at a younger age and begin their legal careers with less debt than their peers in Ontario.
Despite legitimate concerns related to the personal and professional maturity of newly licensed Quebec lawyers, lawyers licensed in Quebec, who graduate from a three-year law program, pass the Quebec Bar Exam, and complete 6 months of articles, possess the same technical qualifications as their peers who have completed a four-year undergraduate degree, scored well on the Law School Admissions Test, graduated from a three-year law program, passed the Barrister and Solicitor exams, and completed their 8 to 10 months of articles in Ontario. They also serve similar clients and solve seemingly indistinguishable legal problems related to both private Quebec civil law matters and public Canadian common law matters.
This begs the question: how does forcing aspiring lawyers in Ontario to complete a four-year undergraduate degree and perform well on a standardized test determine whether they possess the technical qualifications required to become a lawyer or not? Do the judges who sit on the Quebec Court of Appeal, the court of highest instance in that province, and hold one law degree and never wrote a Law School Admission Test not possess the technical qualifications required to succeed as a lawyer? Are Chief Justice Richard Wagner and Puisne Justice Suzanne Coté not fit to sit on the Supreme Court of Canada because they did not complete a four-year undergraduate degree or write a Law School Admission Test prior to being licensed? I think not.
Although the law has important theoretical dimensions, lawyers “practice law” because the law is broad, complex, and subject to new reflections and interpretations daily. Thus, the technical qualifications required to succeed as a lawyer are obtained while practicing law and not while studying it. If “we’ve always done it this way” is the most dangerous phrase in business, then it can’t be that much safer in the field of law. Despite the long and expensive academic journey that candidates in Ontario go through to obtain their license to practice law, Quebec’s lawyer licensing process illustrates that technical qualifications can be acquired in less than 8 years and with lower debt burdens.
Originally published by Law360 on October 24, 2022.