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Legal experts discuss future of law schools

Legal experts from across the country discussed the pros and cons of Korean law schools at a public hearing on the 6-year-old system at the Korea Press Center in Seoul on Friday.

In light of an upcoming drastic change to Korea’s legal certification system ― the abolishment of the national bar exam in 2017 ― pundits discussed whether the law school system was an ideal way to certify practitioners of law. Law school faculty members and practicing lawyers attended the hearing and debates concerning the present system.

Law schools in Korea are graduate programs that specialize in legal education. Before their introduction in 2009, those wishing to pursue a law career had to pass an annual state-run bar exam.

Over the years, the law schools have become embroiled in issues such as high tuition fees and a low turnover of graduates actually going on to pursue law careers, prompting criticism that their curriculums do not sufficiently prepare students for careers as lawyers or judges.

The debate consisted of sections including the prejudices and truth about law schools, the necessity for government funding, whether bar exams should continue, and the possible introduction of lawyer exams for non-law school graduates.

Friday’s event also marked the first time that the country’s schools collectively addressed complaints concerning the system and moves to amend it.

One of the criticisms against the system is that the high tuition fees ― the average annual tuition is about 15 million won ($14,097) ― allow only the rich to practice law. In addition, recent reports showed several dozen cases of offspring of high-ranking judiciary officials being admitted to law schools.

Park Yeong-gyu, a professor at the University of Seoul Law School, refuted the talk about elite connections, saying that a few dozen cases from among over 10,000 graduates is not enough to back up such allegations.

The quality of curriculums was also questioned. Yang Jae-gyu, vice president of the Korean Bar Association, said that as Korean law consists of many special clauses interlinked with one another, much time and effort is required to comprehend the complexity of the system.

“The law school system is about cramming for courses in a short period of time, which is not suitable for Korean lawyers,” Yang said.

Proponents of law schools claimed that they provide vital expertise in the field that cannot be verified via bar exams.
Participants at the public hearing on law schools engage in a debate on Friday at Korea Press Center in Seoul. (Yonhap)
Participants at the public hearing on law schools engage in a debate on Friday at Korea Press Center in Seoul. (Yonhap)

“For example, it would be wrong to allow people who did not go to med school to become doctors just because they passed a test,” said Park of the University of Seoul Law School. “Curriculums at law schools have courses that provide actual experience (related to legal practice) and allowing people to bypass that education process goes against the social trend.”

Another issue addressed by the experts was whether law schools can sufficiently replace the national bar exam, which Yang praised as a “symbol of fair competition and a chance to move up the social ladder.”

Bar exams allowed those who came from poor families and had no college education, like former President Roh Moo-hyun and former Constitutional Court justice Byun Jung-soo, to become lawyers and judges.

However, Kim Chang-rok, a professor from Kyungpook National University Law School, opposed the “fair opportunity theory and called it a myth, pointing out that only 18 out of 16,500 who passed the exam from 1981 to 2010 had been high school dropouts or graduates who had not gone on to university.

Kim suggested that many of the problems could be solved by lowering the threshold for the institutions and allowing more law schools to be built. “If this is done, law schools will no longer be able to monopolize (the talented students) and they will compete with each other to acquire good students and improve education, and will ultimately lower the tuition fees.”

Park Kwang-min, dean of Sungkyunkwan University Law School, touched on the budget problems. The 25 law schools are facing annual deficits of 3.8 billion won, for state-run schools, and 5.9 billion won, for private schools, he said.

Park noted that the government provides a financial subsidy of 220 billion for all law schools, accounting for 8.7 percent of the total operating costs. “Law schools are essential to enhance the global competence of Korea’s judiciary system. The government policy must make measures to enhance them.”

Heads of law schools on Friday also voiced concerns about the faltering quality of education, saying that the pressure of lawyer exams is turning the institutions into de facto cramming schools.

Park said that the ideal solution for this problem would also have to come from the government. According to current requlations, 75 percent of the students accepted at graduate schools each year receive passing grades, and the government should increase the quota.

Professor Park Kyung-Sin of the Korea University Law School agreed that the exam was the biggest problem, but offered a different solution. He said that the lawyer exams should not be based on a curved grading system, but a system where all the applicants who receive a certain score or above should pass.

He added that asking the government to provide financial support and a bigger quota was “not possible.”

“How will people respond to such requests? In the minds of everyday people, bar exams (not law schools) are the policy for the underprivileged,” Park said, implying that the sight of perceived-to-be-rich schools asking for money will not win any public support.

By Yoon Min-sik (minsikyoon@heraldcorp.com)
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