Canadian Accreditation Exams Going Virtual

How Candidates and Law Grads Are Navigating the New Normal

By Anton Haswell, Director of Legal Studies at Toronto School of Management (TSoM)

April 7 2022 - March 2020 will live in infamy as the month and year where everything changed. Schools closed, businesses shut down, air travel came to a halt, and life as we knew it changed. For many, including those looking to get their foreign legal credentials assessed and accredited in Canada, COVID-19 presented some very unique challenges.

The National Committee on Accreditation (NCA) is a branch of the Federation of Law Societies in Canada with its head office located in Ottawa, Ontario. The NCA are the proverbial gatekeepers, assessing foreign law degrees and the professional experiences of candidates who wish to practice law in Canada, and administering a minimum of five challenge exams based on those assessments.

Prior to March 2020, these challenge exams were written by hand and were very much in-person. If a lawyer from Newcastle in the UK, for instance, wanted to complete their NCA challenge exams, they would need to travel to a test centre in London to do so. COVID-19 and the prudent lockdowns that immediately followed made writing in-person accreditation exams next to impossible. The NCA were presented with a major problem: How do we allow for foreign trained lawyers to complete their challenge exams if all domestic and international test centres are locked down?

"It became clear that the only option we had was that we were going to have to offer the exams remotely. So, my Deputy Director and I got into a mode of talking to CPLED, the law societies in Ontario and BC, let’s talk to some other professions - and in the space of 6 weeks, we moved from a completely in-person, pen and paper exam to remotely proctored online exams. A process that would normally take 18 months to 2 years, and we had to do it in about 6 weeks" - Deborah Wolfe. Executive Director, National Committee on Accreditation.

The NCA secured the services of ‘Paradigm’ and ‘Monitor EDU’ for online delivery and proctoring of its challenge exams. The first set of online NCA exams took place in August of 2020, to some varying success.

With tech glitches and administrative delays being frustratingly common for NCA candidates, the transition to online delivery had its fair share of bumps and bruises at the start. Candidates in August were given the opportunity to retake the next session for free in October 2020. With NCA exams hovering around the $350 CAD mark each at the time, the concession by the NCA was welcomed if not necessary.

However, candidates, had frustrations outside of the virtual exam hall. Beyond the matter of writing the challenge exams, candidates experienced delays in communication and correspondence from the NCA.

As with many advancements in technology, from dial-up internet to AI driven cars, things seldom go smoothly at the start. From the rocky beginnings of online exam delivery to now, the NCA has managed to maneuver its way through the challenges that COVID-19 presented to get to a point where they are comfortable with offering their challenge exams online exclusively.

The pandemic has forced many global institutions and accreditation bodies online. With that, students and candidates are tasked with adapting to the new normal. Instead of sitting in a physical classroom of their peers, most students and accreditation candidates are flying solo, sitting in virtual classrooms with texting through WhatsApp and meeting via Skype instead of the local coffee shop the new normal. NCA candidates have found ways to capitalize on the new adoption of tech by forming tutoring and preparation groups with people around the world. While physical lockdowns have stunted everyday norms, the acceptance and general encouragement of virtual meetings and connecting has presented unique opportunities for legal accreditation candidates in Canada to network and lay the ground work for an eventual career. Candidates can now connect with employers and colleagues easily online, increasing their employability prospects and growing their network of peers.

Flexibility and convenience are some of the unintended benefits of a global shut down. Professionals around the world are comfortable with meeting clients over Zoom and lawyers are now having to attend court virtually in some jurisdictions. Things are no different when it comes to candidates needing to write their NCA accreditation exams. That same person from Newcastle mentioned above can now write their NCA Administrative Law exam from the comforts of their own home, now 10 meters away from their own coffee machine instead of traveling to London to write their exam by hand.

Lamenting the growing pains that the National Committee on Accreditation went through in their transition to online exam delivery and virtual work would be easy. What’s important, here, is that the short-term pain of communication delays and glitches in exam delivery at the start, translated to a long-term gain in greater flexibility and control of when, how and where candidates write their accreditation exams - just make sure to check that your modem is plugged in!