Written by special contributor
So, you’re thinking about becoming a lawyer. But wait — did you know you could become a sports lawyer? An environmental lawyer? Or how about an immigration, human rights, labour, entertainment, media, or technology lawyer? There’s a law specialization for almost every passion.
There are five basic steps to become a lawyer in Canada
- Complete at least three years of an undergraduate degree.
- Write the Law School Admission Test (LSAT).
- Apply to law school in Canada and complete a law degree.
- Article with a law firm or complete the Law Practice Program.
- Pass the bar admission exams for the area where you plan to practice.
In this article, we’ll spell out the steps you’ll need to take to become a practicing lawyer. We’ll pass on some advice and mentorship from two practicing lawyers, both Waterloo alumni who have taken paths less travelled on the way to a law degree.
And we’ll also share words of wisdom from Eden Mekonen (she/her), a further education advisor with Waterloo’s Centre for Career Development (CCD). At the CCD, students and alumni can book unlimited hour-long consultations or same-day drop-in appointments for all kinds of student-centred support. You can use that time to discuss law schools and talk about applications, says Eden, “but there’s so much more that we talk about in those appointments.” Eden and her CCD colleagues can help you think about your values, strengths, and life experiences, navigate barriers and challenges, and find a good fit in a law program, all the way through to helping you ensure you have all your application paperwork in order.
Meet our alumni
- Christina Cameletti (she/her) is an award-winning real estate lawyer in Guelph. She graduated from St. Jerome’s University with a degree in Medieval Studies and a specialization in history. “I decided at 25 that I wanted to become a lawyer,” says Christina. “I’d been working at a job for three years tracking labour market trends for youth and started to think about my own skills and opportunities. During undergrad I saw what prelaw students were doing and thought ‘that’s not for me!’ But law school ended up being what I needed at that later point in my life. Everyone’s journey is a little different.”
- Jason Hynes (he/him) is a partner at Bereskin & Hynes and Waterloo grad in Mechanical Engineering. “I was one of the rare engineers who liked to read and write,” he jokes. “When we did group projects, I’d end up compiling the reports — and I actually quite enjoyed that.” A co-op placement in manufacturing with RIM helped him realize he didn’t want to be an engineer. A conversation with in-house lawyers led to a placement in the legal department, where he worked on RIM’s famous NTP patent law case in the early 2000s. “I did glamorous things like photocopying and picking up coffee. But I was a fly on the wall for all these conversations and I got to see how things operate.”
There’s real depth and breadth in the kind of work you can do as a lawyer. You can become a researcher, you can be in counsel, you can work for the government. You can be in court all day, or you can be in an office working one-on-one with clients most of the time. There’s room for a lot of different personalities in law.
You’ll need at least 90 hours — three years — of an undergraduate degree to apply to law school in Canada. However, completing a four-year degree gives you an advantage on applications.
If you already know that law is for you, Waterloo’s Legal Studies degree is a great way to get a head start on your understanding of the legal system. If you’re passionate about human rights and interested in studying abroad, consider Waterloo’s double degree in human rights and law with the University of Essex. Political science, sociology, English, philosophy, and communication studies are well-established launching pads for a career in law. These humanities majors offer lots of opportunities to hone your writing, communication, and critical thinking skills.
But any major can lead to a law degree. “Law is special in that any degree can work,” says Eden. “I like to spend time with students chatting through the skills they’ve gained in their program that can be transferable.” When choosing a major, Eden advises, “Ask yourself, what will bring you joy? I understand the need to be a competitive applicant, but you’ll do better if you’re enjoying the courses you’re taking!”
From my Medieval Studies degree, I had an excellent foundation in critical thinking, research, and writing skills. That really helped in law school, which is heavy on reading, writing, and going through a lot of information and synthesizing it quickly.
There are many paths to a career in law. Pick a program you’re interested in. If that’s engineering, science, arts, music — all of those are great. If you pick something you like doing, the chances are higher that you’re going to be better at it.
Practice these skills to prepare for a career in law
- Communication skills. Above all, to be a good lawyer, excellent communication skills are key. Lawyers need to speak with concision and confidence. They need to listen thoughtfully, whether to clients or in the courtroom. And they need to write clearly and persuasively.
- Research skills. Law involves lots of research. Lawyers know how to source credible material to back up their arguments. (Listening is a research skill, too.)
- Critical thinking and analysis. This means using good judgement when evaluating sources, and using evidence to build logical, compelling arguments.
- Compassion and people skills. Lawyers frequently work in teams. And no matter what field of law you’re in, you’ll likely have clients who are dealing with difficult emotions.
Compassion and empathy are so important. Often, you’re dealing with clients in very stressful or life-changing circumstances.
I’m interested in people who have failed at something and learned from their mistakes. What we want are well rounded people.
When you’re ready to take the leap into law school, you’ll write the LSAT — the Law School Admission Test. This online test is designed to evaluate the analytical, reasoning, and reading comprehension skills you’ve developed over the course of your undergraduate degree. You can sign up for prep courses or take practice tests. And the CCD can guide and support you in developing a personalized prep strategy. “We don’t just say, ‘This is what we’ve seen most students do and this is how most students are successful,’” says Eden, “because success to each student is different, and how each student learns is different too.”
If you’re planning to practice law in Canada, you’ll want to attend a Canadian law school. Here’s a list of law schools in Canada.
Most schools will offer specializations such as business law, constitutional law, health law, or international law. A few offer niche specializations such as conflict resolution, aboriginal law, and innovation and entrepreneurship.
For me, it was really important to find a program that had a co-op or internship program so I could get practical experience. I wanted a school interested in holistic candidates that would consider my work experience and my life experience.
Different schools also have different priorities for admissions — some are all about academic performance, while others put weight on experience. “Choose a school that will see you and value you for who you are,” says Eden.
After your law degree, you’ll need to find an articling placement — that’s a period of nine months to a year of working for one or more law firms, government agencies, or non-profits in a kind of apprenticeship.
At this stage, you will decide where in Canada you'd like to start practicing law — because the provincial and territorial law societies that license lawyers all have different requirements for the articling process. For example, the Law Society of Newfoundland and Labrador requires students to take a seven-week Bar Admission Course as part of their 52-week articling period. And in Ontario, you can instead opt to take the eight-month Law Practice Program at Toronto Metropolitan University (in English) or the University of Ottawa (in French), which includes four months of articling.
Your law school career counseling office can help with finding a placement. Provincial law societies also have databases of articling placements. Candidates can split their articling period among different placements to get a feel for different kinds of working environments as well as different law specializations: there are opportunities at large firms, smaller practices, government agencies, and NGOs.
Provincial law societies administer the bar exam for their region. In some jurisdictions, the exam is part of a required course rolled into the articling period — such as the PREP course from the Canadian Centre for Professional Legal Education — while in others, it’s a self-study exam.
It can sound like a long journey. But Eden advises: “Take your time. Law school isn’t something you have to do right away. Talk to people in the field — lawyers, judges, risk management advisors, mediators, policymakers, etc. This will give you an idea of the different possibilities law has to offer. Also, come see your CCD advisors! We want to help you to be the best person you can be by supporting and guiding you.”
The best part now in my career is thinking about the chess game, the strategy — when a client calls and says, 'this is what my chess board looks like, what do I do now', and I can say 'aha, I’ve seen this before, we can move this piece there and this piece there.' I’m at a stage where I get to play in a really big sandbox, and that’s fun.
I love when I get to call people and tell them that a deal’s closed and they have a new house. It’s a complicated legal structure that we help clients navigate. I often think of lawyers as helping people cross a bridge. I find it very satisfying to be able to help people with these important transitions in their lives.
Want to know more about what it's like to be a lawyer?
A decade into his career, Dan Micak (BA '06) manages a team of lawyers at Lightspeed, a global software company listed on the Toronto and New York Stock Exchanges. Hear what kind of advice he has for aspiring lawyers and those studying the humanities.