When South Korea’s first-ever female Supreme Court justice retired from the bench in August, she was surprised to learn how much she could earn in her first year if she practices law.
“I heard that I could make up to 10 billion won ($9.2 million) in my first year as a lawyer, which is nearly 1 billion won a month,” said Kim Young-ran, 55, who now heads the government’s Anti-Corruption and Civil Rights Commission.
Kim did not disclose whether she actually had received such an offer, but the sheer amount is enough to make many Koreans lift their eyebrows. It’s more than 10 times the monthly pay that she received as a Supreme Court justice.
Although her present government job is a Cabinet-level post, it fetches less than what she received as a Supreme Court justice.
Kim’s case shows how top law firms and well-off clients prefer hiring former high-ranking judges and prosecutors to get a favorable court ruling in a society where intimacy with influential figures often gives an edge in business and legal affairs.
Such a deep-rooted practice of social networking in Korea, called “jeon-gwan-ye-u,” means tacit preferences for attorneys who practice law after retiring from the bench.
In hopes of getting a favorable ruling or mitigated sentences in appeals cases, former judges and prosecutors accept many cases in their first year as lawyers, defending clients in cases with higher fees, especially in criminal cases in which they face arrests or jail sentences. (Yonhap News)
According to a recent survey, 27 attorneys who retired from the bench said they have had jail sentences shortened or suspended in 65.7 percent of appeals cases they handled last year. The corresponding rate for ordinary mitigated terms was 36.8 percent.
Prosecutors and judges deny “special treatment” for them, insisting that the high salaries given to them by big law firms are based on the logic of supply and demand, taking their long experience into consideration.
“Do you really think that retired officials who have nearly 30 years of experience in the legal field should receive the same amount of salary as that of novice lawyers who have just graduated from the judicial training institute?” asked a senior prosecutor in Seoul, requesting anonymity due to the sensitivity of the issue.
“That is against the principle of the market economy.”
Some point out that the practice of “jeon-gwan-ye-u” has been built up on the nation’s judicial appointment system in which judges and prosecutors are hired at a young age.
In South Korea, those who pass the bar exam must complete a mandatory two-year course at the Judicial Training Research Institute before joining the bench or bar. Top trainees are appointed judges and prosecutors, and many of them retire in their 40s and 50s to practice law.
Chung Jong-sup, dean of Seoul National University’s law school, said the nation’s judicial system, which does not have a jury system, allows more discretionary power to trial judges.
“The current justice system creates enormous additional costs in the society due to the lack of specific sentencing guidelines for criminal cases,” Chung said. “The government should develop more detailed guidelines so defendants would less anticipate that they would get a favorable ruling using networks of their attorneys.”
Since President Lee Myung-bak began a “fair society” campaign last year, a consensus has grown among the general public that such privileges given to former officials are not fair.
One of the targets was Chung Tong-ki, a former senior prosecutor who was nominated as the chief of the Board of Audit and Inspection. After coming under fire for his salary of 650 million won in a six-month period from the nation’s largest law firm, he was forced to step down in January.
In March, 16 ruling and opposition lawmakers submitted a bill prohibiting former senior judges and prosecutors from defending cases in courts for one year in areas where they last served in public posts. The bill calls for punishment for violators.
“We submitted the bill banning jeon-gwan-ye-u practice in an effort to improve credibility in legal proceedings and guarantee fair investigations and trials,” said one of the bill’s sponsors, Rep. Hong Joon-pyo of the Grand National Party.
The Korean Bar Association vows to cooperate with the lawmakers.
“The limitation is a painful sacrifice for legal professionals, but such a measure is inevitable to create a fair legal market,” the KBA said in a statement.
Support for the proposed legislation is growing.
“It is an anachronistic idea that clients think they get special treatment or escape arrest if they hire lawyers who formerly served in high posts,” said Kim Yong-won, a prosecutor-turned-attorney who authored a book titled “Can Judges,
Prosecutors Go to Heaven?”
“It’s time to break the absurd practice.”