It’s time to axe the bar exam // Editor’s Note

Law books
The exam can be an unfair barrier for people with mental illness. And our profession would be better off without it

By Melissa Kluger

On Tuesday December 4th, 2018


I can remember a few things about the bar exam: the cavernous Metro Toronto Convention Centre packed with desks as far as the eye could see, the relief of seeing a few familiar faces among the throngs of test takers and that the open-book test was mainly about the speed at which I could look things up. But I don’t remember much else. I certainly can’t recall the content of the test. At this point, I’d even be at a loss to tell you the topics the exam covered.

So what’s the point of the bar exam? I think it’s supposed to prevent people who aren’t particularly bright from entering the profession. That’s not true, though. What it really does is identify which would-be lawyers are bad at taking tests.

And one group struggles disproportionately with high-stakes exams: those with a mental illness. They are just as likely as anyone to be super bright, but some of them find tests to be a real challenge. The pressure to perform might cloud their thinking or cause them to freeze. I know a soon-to-be-lawyer who suffers from anxiety and, as I type this note, she’s rewriting her bar exam. I hope she passes. But if she doesn’t, it won’t be because she doesn’t know her shit or would make a bad lawyer. It’ll be because her condition interfered with her ability to write the test. This is deeply unfair.

I’m not categorically opposed to professional entrance exams. For instance, if the Law Society could design a test that could weed out everyone who will go on to sexually harass their colleagues or steal money from their clients, I’d be on board. But no such test exists. So why have one at all?

I thought about this as we put the finishing touches on this issue of Precedent. In our cover story, “The untold history of the legal profession,” we delve into the sexist, racist and anti-Semitic underpinnings on which our profession has been built. This history makes it clear that the gatekeepers of our profession have, time and time again, put up barriers that keep marginalized groups out — or, at the very least, make it incredibly hard for them to get in.

But we shouldn’t look at our past and take comfort in how much better things are today. In fact, our history shows that we continue to make the same mistakes. The bar exam is a prime example. It is an arbitrary test that effectively serves to exclude those suffering from mental illness from the profession. As the gatekeepers of our time, it’s on us to shake up history. Let’s start by ditching the exam.

Melissa Kluger signature

Melissa Kluger
Publisher & Editor

In hot pursuit

Precedent-Summer-2018We are now accepting nominations for our annual Precedent Setter Awards. We’re on the lookout for Toronto lawyers in their first 10 years of practice who are passionate about their work and dedicated to the community. Please put forward lawyers who fit this description and deserve a moment in the spotlight.

Visit for more information. Nominations close January 25, 2019. We’ll feature all of the winners in our summer issue.


More from the Winter issue:

Ruth-Goba-icon Insider-SeeMenRun_icon OurDarkPast-Spot1-icon SecretLife-ElliotSpears-icon

This story is from our Winter 2018 Issue.

Photo from iStock