What Undergraduate to Study to Become a Lawyer in Canada

A 2018 survey suggests the average law student in Canada has $71,444 of student debt. It is important for high school students who want to be a lawyer to ask some hard questions sooner rather than later. Most importantly: 

  • Do I really want to be a lawyer? 
  • What undergraduate program should I apply for before law school? 
  • How can I reduce my debt?

Many high school students aspiring to become lawyers are incredibly high-energy, passionate and organized people. Yet, they often lack resources to understand what their career pathway might look like until their upper years of university.

As someone who seriously considered applying to a Canadian law school and ultimately decided to take a different path, I received plenty of information about becoming a lawyer from my undergraduate professors (many of whom were practicing lawyers). I want to share what I wish I knew before I ever stepped foot in university to help you make informed decisions. 

What You Need to Know About Becoming a Lawyer in Canada

According to the most recent Canada Labour Force Survey, lawyers earn a median of $55.77 per hour, and higher earners make a median of nearly $100 per hour. Although this sounds like a comfortable income range, it becomes a lot less comfortable when facing down significant debt and potentially limited job opportunities. 

I will never forget the day Prof. Barry Wright gave a lecture about becoming a lawyer in his Introduction to Canadian Law course. He asked how many people wanted to become lawyers, and many of us raised our hands. Then, he shared some tough pills to swallow. He said there were significantly more lawyers passing a bar exam in Canada (thus becoming practitioners of law) than there were jobs. 

That was four years ago. Today, a government market projection suggests there will be a surplus of nearly 10,000 lawyers, judges and Quebec notaries when compared to legal profession job openings from 2022-2031. 

Competition is high. Not everyone has the same financial freedom to accrue law school debt without guarantee of a stable career. According to the 2018 survey from earlier, 61 per cent of students in law schools entered with no debt. For students who have accrued, or expect to accrue, some level of debt during their undergraduate degree, this statistic is a bit intimidating. It highlights the extra hurdles that low socioeconomic status students have when becoming a lawyer.

These numbers should not scare you off. Sound career planning means looking at an industry’s market, and making a plan for navigating it. Sure, you might be competing with students whose parents can pay for law school in full, but you will also be among peers from medium and low-income households who found ways to minimize their debt.

GrantMe helps students from all backgrounds graduate debt-free all the time, and we even shared a comprehensive guide anyone can read. Aside from our funding strategy, you can also make choices to reduce the overall cost of your undergraduate education, such as picking the right program.

When considering a career in law, you should also be aware of what is taught at law schools. Although each Juris Doctor program is unique, and many focus on critical thinking and justice issues, the main point of going to law school is to learn “black letter law.”  

This means you will be focusing on memorizing clearly established law as it is for a good chunk of your law school career. You will be learning about case law, and how to technically analyze legal doctrine.

If you are more interested in philosophical questions such as the origins of law being a legitimate authority, you may find law school’s curriculum tedious. Although there are joint Juris Doctor and Masters of Law programs, it is important to understand that being successful in law school (and as a lawyer) generally requires an appetite for pouring over technical details. 

Many lawyers never even step foot in a courtroom, and instead focus on handling documents for clients. Ultimately, if you are in it for the glamour you see in TV courtroom dramas,  you might find yourself disappointed. 

The good news is that since you are planning early, you can make a plan that keeps your options open.

How to Pick the Right Major Before Law School

Everyone knows the first step in becoming a lawyer is to complete another undergraduate degree first. Although there are some exceptions, most law schools in Canada have this as a requirement. 

Most law schools require an undergraduate average of 80 per cent or higher, but some competitive law schools such as the Schulich School of Law don’t even bother with a minimum average because they accept so few students each year. They know they are getting the best of the best.

The point is, you want to make sure you get as high grades as possible. Canadian Lawyer, an industry magazine, notes that humanities, political science or economics undergraduate degrees will make law school easier. If you study English, philosophy or engineering, you may take longer to adjust to law school. However, the only way you get to adjust to law school is if you get in, so I recommend picking a program you know you will perform well in. 

If you end up taking the LSAT, which most Canadian law schools require, you will already have to learn a whole new set of skills on the way to getting into law school. The LSAT evaluates logic and critical thinking, and not necessarily your ability to apply legal knowledge. If you are confident you can pivot to studying for the LSAT while finishing your first degree, adjusting to the new curriculum in law school will likely be a manageable challenge no matter your first degree. 

Studying a passion may be one way to ensure you get top grades in your program and can access competitive funding support when you enter law school. However, I encourage you to remember to keep your options open, especially because many aspiring lawyers do change their mind throughout university. 

If you study in an undergraduate program with the word “administration” in it, you already have an edge in getting jobs in the legal field outside of lawyering. From estates planning to non-profit legal activism, all law offices need legal assistants to keep things running smoothly. Selecting a program that involves some administrative knowledge also offers versatility, as these skills are needed in every industry. 

Hypothetically, let’s say Greg wanted to be an environmental lawyer because he was concerned about how pollution impacts people’s health. He graduated from The University of Ottawa with a degree in Public Administration, and realized somewhere along the way he no longer wants to practice law. 

After becoming a legal assistant at a firm that specializes in regulatory compliance, he has many options to continue his career. He could pivot to designing regulations with the government, or even work to become a project manager for a non-profit organization that supports individuals with acquired disabilities or illnesses from working with certain chemicals. 

Ultimately, you need to prioritize picking a program you are confident you will be successful in, while also balancing marketable skills that will help you if you decide to pursue an alternative career. If you decide you don’t want to become a lawyer but want to stay in the field, there are many relatively affordable diplomas and certificates to help you retrain as a paralegal. 

Select an Undergraduate Program That Minimizes Your Student Debt

Your financial situation and current location are other important factors when picking your major. 

Another hypothetical: let’s say Nina lives in Saskatoon, Saskatchewan. Relocating to Ottawa to get a Public Administration degree might be a poor financial decision for her. Since Nina wants to attend York University’s prestigious Osgood School of Law, she will be responsible for more than $24,000 in tuition fees each year. 

To prepare, she can save money on her first degree by pursuing a local program. 

In Saskatoon, she can study  economics, accounting, history or even modern languages at the University of Saskatchewan. By staying home, she keeps her cost of living low as she studies. For her, this means she does not have to work as a student and can focus on keeping her grades above 90 per cent, while seeking experiences related to her interest in criminal law. This will give her a competitive edge when she’s applying for law school and scholarships. 

Law schools do vary significantly in price. Quebec law schools that help students become proficient in Quebec’s civil code are unique and often cost less than their common law counterparts. With the exception of the Université de Moncton, which is held entirely in French, the least expensive common law school in the country is held at the University of Victoria. There, tuition totals $10,790 per year before student fees even come into play.

Although there are many law school specific funding opportunities available, law school is still a significant investment. So long as you get the grades you need, and seek experiences that will help you write your law school applications, you are on the right track—even if you opt for an undergraduate degree at a school that you originally did not want to attend. 

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