From law student to New York lawyer | The road to U.S. Qualification

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Portia Proctor is an associate at Proskauer Rose LLP in the firm’s litigation practice group. The international lawyer graduated from the University of Toronto Law and went on to pass the New York Bar Exam in 2021 with the help of BARBRI. Portia studied full-time with BARBRI, completing the company’s 8- to 10-week bar review course.

Learn in this interview with BARBRI how she tackled the challenges of preparing for and sitting a U.S. bar exam as a foreign law graduate, and what tools and materials she found especially helpful during her preparation. 

The NY bar exam experience

BARBRI: How would you describe the bar exam?

Portia Proctor: I found the bar exam very difficult. It was definitely a challenge, and probably the hardest exam I’ve ever taken. I would not have been able to pass it if I hadn’t taken the BARBRI Bar Review course. I relied heavily on the course and spent those two months studying many, many hours a day. And honestly feel like I only passed because I followed the course intensely.

After finding some of the practice questions in the BARBRI course to be exactly as those presented on the bar exam — some were word for word. The material was something I had studied with BARBRI, so I felt confident with my answer. So, that was tremendously helpful!

There was one set of questions that threw me off a bit on topics that weren’t necessarily covered in the course. I think those were experimental questions, though, because the exam includes 25 non-graded experimental questions. With the multiple-choice questions, you really have to read the question and all the answers, go through the process of elimination, and then make a decision.

BARBRI: Did you find the New York Bar Exam to be more difficult than your law school exams?

Portia Proctor: I personally found the bar exam a lot more difficult than law school exams. Law school was more holistic in the sense that you’re not memorizing small details. Instead, you understand why a case is important for a particular learned principle and you apply that principle to the set of facts before you.

With the bar exam, I studied 14 subjects and pretty much had to learn them from scratch. Although in Canada we learn Torts, Contracts, all of the main blackletter courses, the actual details are very different from the U.S. legal system. For example, Civil Procedure is completely different because the U.S. has the federal court system as well as state courts. In Canada, we just have the trial level and the appellate level. So, learning about jurisdiction and venue were new concepts.

Most people walk away from law school not remembering the definitions of terms but rather the concepts. For the New York Bar Exam, the details are really what’s important. The BARBRI course was helpful in teaching the details I needed to know to pass the exam.

How did BARBRI help prep for the bar exam and what was the course like

BARBRI: What did you find especially helpful in the BARBRI course?

Portia Proctor: I found the BARBRI Simulated MBE to be very helpful. After completing the simulation, I received a Pass Predictor score report that showed my overall percentile rank so I could see where I stood on the bar exam curve relative to other BARBRI students.

I was able to engage with somebody after the simulated exam to talk about my results, where I could improve, and where I didn’t need to spend more time studying. BARBRI gave me everything that I needed to do well on exam day.

BARBRI: How many hours did you spend prepping for the exam?

Portia Proctor: I would spend 8 to 12 hours every day, including weekends. I did take some days off. But for the most part, I was putting in at least 8 hours every single day. I think it depends on each person, but I would spend a long time on each substantive lecture. Each substantive lecture was about four hours long, but I would pause and write down whatever it was that was important. I really retained the information this way, which helped me be successful with the practice questions afterward.

BARBRI: Did you have any friends that used other BARBRI bar prep courses, like Extended U.S. Bar Prep?

Portia Proctor: Yes, I know of at least one person who took the six-month course. I would recommend the six-month course because I found studying in two months made for a very intense time. There’s so much information. I think even just having a few more weeks would have lowered the intensity and my stress level.

What advice do you have from your experience

BARBRI: Studying for the bar is a more individualized experience. Any advice you can offer law students who are transitioning from that group setting to being an individual studier?

Portia Proctor: So, I took the bar exam during COVID-19, and it was very much a remote world. I hope students who are writing the bar exam, potentially in person, can actually meet with their peers to study and share their journeys. But, overall, it is very much an individualized study regimen.

I liked the BARBRI course because it offered live sessions where you could watch the lecture in real time and ask questions with other students there. This gave me the sense that I wasn’t alone in this process. Also, the professors would provide life advice to motivate and get the students through, which helped put everything into perspective.

BARBRI: Do you have any tips for burnout or how to reset?

Portia Proctor: Having a good support network of people who are also going through bar studies really helps because you can share day-to-day challenges, and they can validate the struggle. Also, take breaks and plan a couple weekends where you just completely don’t touch the studying at all. You’ll feel a lot more refreshed and ready to go again.

Considering globalizing your career? U.S. qualification may be more achievable than you think. With your current credentials, you may be eligible to sit for a U.S. state bar exam. Learn more and view the New York Bar Exam eligibility checklist for Canadians.

Portia Proctor was provided questions from Steven Soto, Legal Advisor BARBRI Global; Dhriti Chakravarty, University of Toronto Law Student; Kim-Lan Dam, McGill University of Law Student; and
Evan Schryver, McGill University of Law Student.

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