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How to academically succeed in Ontario law schools

Monday, August 30, 2021 @ 2:59 PM | By Margot Mary Davis

Margot Mary Davis %>
Margot Mary Davis
The results are in. You log into your portal to see your grades and a feeling of disbelief washes over you. Your highest mark is a 73 per cent? Your lowest undergraduate mark was a 76 per cent? How can this be? You go on Facebook and see people discussing their grades. A 90 per cent in a course? What?

The above scenario is common scenario for many first-year law students. Grading in law school is highly different from most undergraduate programs. Students, particularly ones without family in law or from unrelated undergraduate programs, might not know how to properly study for Ontario law school exams or prepare law school-style essays. Too often, knowledge on how to prepare for exams is not widely available, not in print format, and is word of mouth.

Something needs to be done to change the current scenario. That is where this guide comes into play. This guide is probably the first ever Ontario specific resource to help people succeed in Ontario law schools. Below, I break down how to approach law school exams and write high quality essays.

Ignore undergraduate study methods

Memorizing obscure facts may have helped you succeed in a history course but it will not help you in law school. That is the hard truth. To succeed in law school, you will have to adapt your study methods (more on that below). That said, you should have a general grasp of what a case or legislation says. To sum it up, while you do not need to know the exact damages someone got in a case, you should know the general proposition of the case and why that proposition exists.

Do not rely exclusively on CANS

Condensed annotated notes (CANS) are helpful but you should not rely on them exclusively. There might be new case law or statute law that renders them dated. This is particularly true of certain areas of law like environmental law or real estate law. Use CANS in addition to your own notes. Be aware that some individuals might knowingly give you CANS with erroneous information. Remember you are your best and only advocate.

Open book is not your friend

Since most students came from undergraduate programs with closed-book exams, open-book exams might seem like a break. This is not true! Similar to my above comments, you should still know general concepts and rulings of cases. You should not be reading a case during the exam.

Argue both sides on exams, essays

Probably the most important tip is that you have to argue both sides on exams and essays. It can not be stressed enough. While you can ultimately decide which side should win, you need to mention and describe, in detail, cases and statute law the plaintiff and defence would argue.

Write out plaintiff would mention X, defendant would argue Y in response and do this, until you reach a conclusion. While there is a degree of opinion in law, sometimes there will be only one right response for a question.

For essays, you should think of what counter-arguments exist to your thesis. In your essay, you should explicitly address these counter-arguments and why will they are reasonable, they are ultimately flawed.

For example, if you are arguing that something should be decriminalized, or that there should less regulations on something, you should acknowledge jurisdictions where the same thing has been decriminalized or is less regulated and there have been negative effects. Note why negative effects would not occur in your scenario. Does the jurisdiction keep statistics that might exaggerate such effects? What would you do to avoid repeats of less successful stories? Your essay needs to answer these questions

Conversely if you are arguing for more regulations on something or harsher punishments for an offence, you should note where more regulations have not always worked. Explain, why that would not be the case in your scenario. Is there something about that jurisdiction that is significantly different than Ontario?

Additionally, it does not need to be an either-or scenario. You could write in favour of a new policy, or new treaty but note some potential flaws. For example, you could argue “Proposed Treaty X would generally help ensure that investor-state dispute resolutions are transparent. It contains A, B, C which are usually associated with increased transparency. However, there are some ambiguous provisions, D, E, F, that might render it less effective and they should be changed.”

Address all issues in hypotheticals

While there might be one major tort or offence in a hypothetical, there are usually several additional smaller ones. Explicitly write out each potential tort “E.g. Intentional infliction of mental suffering” and note what the opposing sides would argue. Not writing down a tort could mean losing out on some marks.

Read through questions in detail

Set aside 15-20 minutes in exams for reading through all the questions at the beginning. This includes multiple choice questions!

There might be some specific details about a question that make it unique and affect your answer. For example, in an employment law exam, check to see if the industry is federally regulated, like banking, or provincially regulated. In family law exams, see if the couple is in a common law relationship or legally married. Look out for ages in a question or the year that a hypothetical “occurs” in. In a real estate exam, is the land in the Registry or Land Titles System?

For multiple choice questions, look for words like always or never. They usually indicate that an answer is false. When going over the answers, check to see if the answer is “complete.” A partially true answer is not true.

Study actively not passively

Just reading through cases and legislation is not enough. Summarizing cases is not enough either. Rather, you must be actively engaging with the concepts.

Studying for a real estate exam? Note the difference between types of tenancy, like joint tenants and tenants in common.

If studying for contracts, write down reasons why it might be acceptable to break a contract, like frustration, and note cases where frustration existed. You should also write why frustration existed in a particular scenario.

Preparing for your tort exam? Write out a particular tort, the elements that are needed for that tort to exist and potential defences to the tort, like consent. You could also do this for particular crimes.

Additionally, note exceptions to laws. For example, legal non-conforming rights are an exception to zoning laws.

Examples are below.

Intentional torts

  • Types
  • Battery, false imprisonment, etc.
  • A specific tort (mandatory elements and relevant case(s))
  • Defences to intentional torts
  • Consent (elements and relevant cases). (Caveats (withdrawing consent))
  • Self-defence (elements and relevant cases)
  • Legal authority (elements and relevant cases)


  • Carrying a concealed weapon
  • Relevant legislation: Criminal Code 90(1)
  • Exceptions: Authorized under the Firearms Act to carry it concealed

Get your essay topics approved

You do not want your essay topic to be too broad or too narrow. This will impact your grade. Therefore, always get a topic approved prior to writing your essay.

Play to your strengths

Everyone has their strengths and weaknesses. In second and third year, choose courses that play to your strengths. Strong public speaker? You should sign up for the class with the presentation. Good memory? Take the course where it is closed book.

Practise, practise, practise

You will probably take some course where you need to do calculations or solve something formula-like. Practise these formulas beforehand. Practise calculating equalization. Do several Planning Act questions before the real estate exam.

Cite obscure information

Found an obscure regulation in your law textbook that the professor has not mentioned? If you are going to include it on an exam, note the page that you found it on. Your professor might not have seen it.

Margot Mary Davis is a 2018 Ontario call to the bar. She is interested in policy issues surrounding law like combating counterfeit goods and developing sui generis policies for orphan drugs. She is also a published author.

Illustration by Chris Yates/Law360

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