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Debate grows over fate of Korea’s traditional bar exam

South Korea’s late President Roh Moo-hyun is the epitome of the nation’s rags-to-riches story: a poor farmer’s son with a high school diploma who rose to the presidency after racking up a reputation as a prominent human rights lawyer.

Without passing the bar exam -- known as “sasi” in Korean -- in 1975, he wouldn’t have been able to begin the legal career that transformed his life.

So it was ironic that Roh pushed to abolish sasi, the nationwide test open to anyone regardless of educational background. His move was said to be aimed at rooting out academic elitism by spreading out the pool of would-be litigators, as sasi passers tended to come from top echelons of schools, creating a cartel of their own.

During Roh’s presidency in 2007, the National Assembly passed legislation that allowed universities to establish law schools, and to replace sasi with a U.S.-style bar exam for which only law school graduates could apply. Accordingly, sasi will officially be phased out after 2017. The first enrollment of law schools began in 2009 and there are now some 25 law schools nationwide.

Sasi, a mixture of words sabeob (judicial) and siheom (exam) in Korean, dates back to 1947. Called with different names throughout the decades, it involved three steps -- a written multiple-choice test, an essay and eventually an interview. Those who passed all three stages were enrolled into the Judicial Research and Training Institute for two years. Upon graduating from the institute, they moved onto becoming prosecutors or lawyers.

The entire process, especially in preparing for sasi, was notoriously grueling and lengthy, with candidates spending years dedicated to the exam with a 3 percent acceptance rate.

Now, with some 15 months left until the official expiry of sasi, public debate has refused to subside over whether the abolishment will serve its original purpose, or rather create a different type of hierarchy.

Sasi proponents, including the Korean Bar Association claim that the exam is a constitutionally-protected system that grants people equal opportunities to become a legal professional. They argue that expensive law schools will further limit opportunities, while at the same time bombard the market with an excessive number of lawyers. They cite some 3,354 licensed lawyers who are out of work as of July this year.

“As long as you get admitted to law schools, you can expect about 75 percent of the graduates to pass the exam, which is even higher than the drivers’ license exam. I think it is absurd,” said Na Seung-chul, a lawyer and advocate of sasi. The law stipulates that the ratio of those who pass the exam to those who enter law schools should not be below 75 percent.

He also noted that sasi’s low 3 percent acceptance rate is quite normal when compared to other state-run exams such as for the civil service. The rate was 1.7 percent in 2015 for the Seoul City civil servants exam. 
Advocacy group protests over the repeal of Sa shi, Korean traditional bar exam. Yonhap
Advocacy group protests over the repeal of Sa shi, Korean traditional bar exam. Yonhap

In their argument, the sasi takers have filed a petition with the Constitutional Court and proposed a “happy medium” by offering multiple gateways to become a lawyer by either passing the bar exam after graduating law school or simply passing sasi.

“Under current law, those without a college degree cannot apply for law schools to become lawyers. It means they are banned from becoming prosecutors and judges because it requires a lawyer’s license. … Abolishing sasi therefore is an outright violation of freedom to choose jobs and assume public posts,” said Kwon Min-sik, a representative of the advocacy group.

Some lawmakers have also come to the fore to uphold sasi, including ruling Saenuri Party Rep. Oh Seung-hwan, who won this year’s by-election under the slogan of protecting the system.

He and four other lawmakers from the ruling and opposition parties have proposed similar bills, which are still pending at the Assembly.

Those in support of abolishing sasi, on the other hand, claim that the bar exam was an outdated system that undercut the government’s efforts to overhaul the nation’s lawyer recruiting system. They argue that sasi supporters are trying to hold onto their vested interests.

Instead, the law school proponents contend that the new legislation paves the way for quality legal services by tapping into diverse academic experience of law school graduates, whose undergraduate background is more diverse than traditional sasi test-takers who usually only study law during their undergraduate years.

“Law schools allow us to foster legal minds through a comprehensive education process, instead of a one-time test,” said Oh Soo-geun, president of Ewha Law School and the head of Korean Association of Law School.

The new system also puts an end to time-consuming preparation and low acceptance rate as law school admission assesses the applicants’ overall academic ability, such as GPA or language skills, and is more likely to foster lawyers tailored for practical cases such as in medical and engineer fields, Oh said.

Dismissing the rags-to-riches story that sasi had once promised as a myth, he asserted that the burden has become unrealistic for students to bear in preparing for the test, financially and time-wise.

“Considering the odds of passing the test are incredibly low, the test is no longer a viable option for those have-nots who seek to purse a legal career.”

He said it was noteworthy that economics and liberal arts professors welcome the decision to repeal sasi the most.

“Since the law school’s bar exam is more of a license exam that entails a robust curriculum, we expect more students to focus on their own majors during undergraduate years and to think hard about whether they are fit to be a lawyer in the future.”

The debate is expected to persist, further stoked recently by a series of allegations involving senior lawmakers, who reportedly pulled strings to secure jobs at prestigious law firms for their children, who happened to be law school graduates.

Sasi advocates immediately referred to the cases as an indication that law schools will fall far short of curbing elitism and class society.

Public opinion also remains largely split, with a recent survey conducted by Realmeter showing 61.3 percent of 500 respondents saying sasi should be retained.

Another survey conducted by the Seoul Shinmum on 16 lawmakers belonging to the Assembly’s Legislation and Judiciary Committee showed that nine of them reserved their position on the calls to keep sasi. Four said they supported the move, while three opposed it.

The remaining parliamentary session this year is considered critical for the final fate of sasi, as six bills related to maintaining the system are likely to be automatically discarded if not voted on within the year, as the political parties are set to be largely preoccupied next year with the upcoming general election.

By Yeo Jun-suk (