The Korea Herald


[Daniel Fiedler] Lawyers as lawyers of no privilege

By Yu Kun-ha

Published : Feb. 28, 2012 - 10:36

    • Link copied

Recently three new lawyers in South Korea accepted positions with the South Korean government. While this by itself is not remarkable, what is remarkable is that these lawyers accepted positions at a lower entry level than any lawyer had previously accepted. These lawyers will enter at grade six on a scale that starts with grade nine and rises to grade one. 

Many lawyers were shocked by this as lawyers have always entered into government service at a minimum of grade five; a grade that practically guaranteed that they would rise to become top government officials during their career.

Also upsetting for current and prospective members of the bar was that these new lawyers would be subordinate to individuals who were not lawyers and who had “merely” passed a state civil service examination.

This latest blow to the prestige of South Korean lawyers comes on the heels of the expansion of the number of lawyers admitted yearly and the approval of both the European Union and the United States Free Trade Agreements which provide for opening up of the South Korean legal service industry.

However, while lawyers in South Korea may be ruing the loss of their status, the average South Korean citizen, resident or businessperson should be celebrating. South Korea’s lawyers are arguably the last of the "yangban" and the demise of their legal monopoly is another step towards South Korea’s solidification of its status as a fully democratized country on a par with its economic status.

This step began over 10 years ago when the South Korean bar exam was expanded to allow 1,000 successful entrants. The process took a major leap forward with the establishment of the post-graduate law school system over three years ago. Thus in April of this year 1,500 of the first graduates from these law schools will be admitted to the practice of law in South Korea.

Comparing this current number of entrants to the mid-1990s when the number of entrants was limited to 300 or looking back to the 1960s and 1970s when the number of successful bar examinees was often in the single digits, or, as in one year, was only one, shows the dramatic increase in the number of lawyers in South Korea.

Despite the large increase in the number of new lawyers the number appointed by the South Korean Supreme Court or Supreme Prosecutor’s Office as a new judge or prosecutor remains in the low hundreds. Before the expansion of the number of lawyers and well before the introduction of the new law schools, an individual who successfully passed the bar exam was guaranteed a position as a judge or prosecutor.

At that time the term ‘bar exam’ was a misnomer -- the exam was closer to the mandarin examinations of the Chinese dynasties than to the bar exam system used in Western democracies.

Thus 20 or 30 years ago passing the Korean bar exam guaranteed one a lifetime of prestige in government service which, for those who did not marry into a chaebol family, was followed by an absurdly lucrative private practice reaping immense monopoly profits from common people by dint of the connections to one’s former colleagues.

Thus the increase in the number of entrants to the bar will force the majority of new lawyers to enter the market directly as lawyers. Since these new lawyers will be unable to compete with older established lawyers with “connections” to the judiciary, they will be forced to expand the range of legal services they offer and will have to cater to the demands of their clients.

The three lawyers who took a lower grade position in the government are just the tip of the iceberg. In another 10 years a majority of lawyers will not have been former judges or prosecutors; they will have spent years specializing in a particular area of law and will have become legal experts by dint of hard work and diligence.

Therefore the graduates of the new law schools who will soon become new lawyers must lower their expectations of what entry to the bar means for their lives. Instead of studying for years for success on one exam they will be learn that they must prove every single day of their careers that they deserve to succeed. Those who fail to perform adequately will find that even admission to the South Korean bar will neither guarantee a lifetime of ease, nor should it.

And the average South Korean citizen and those of us who reside or do business in South Korea will soon be able to hire lawyers who will focus on the needs of their clients, who will work hard every day to meet those needs, and who will be sufficiently specialized and experienced to meet those needs.

By Daniel Fiedler

Daniel Fiedler is a professor of law at Wonkwang University. He also holds an honorary position as the lawyer representative for international marriages in Namwon. -- Ed.