By Na Jeong-ju
The first batch of law school graduates will hit the market early next year following three years of intensive study since the country introduced the U.S.-style law school system here in 2008.
Yet both students and their law schools are facing a harsh reality — the local market is too small to accommodate all the graduates and many of them won’t get the jobs they want.
According to the Justice Ministry, some 2,000 students will graduate law schools in 2012 to be entitled to take the state bar exam. About 1,500 of them can pass and the successful applicants will get their lawyer’s license only after they finish six months of training at law firms, courts, prosecution offices or other state-run judicial institutions.
“The country will have 1,500 new lawyers next year, but they will be driven into cutthroat competition,” said Prof. Kim Hae-ryong of the Law School of Hankuk University of Foreign Studies. “The infrastructure is still too weak to accommodate such a large number of new lawyers in such a short period of time. The situation will be aggravated because the market will get a fresh supply of law school graduates every year.”
Kim’s pessimistic view is generally shared by students and incumbent lawyers as well.
“For the past three years, I’ve paid a huge amount of tuition to study law and realize my dream of becoming a lawyer. But I feel like I’m being driven into a jungle of fierce and unlimited competition,” a Yonsei University student said, asking not to be named.
The government is now receiving a flurry of complaints about the alleged lack of measures to expand the legal market and create new jobs for lawyers. Officials argue a painful transition period is unavoidable before the new market-driven recruitment system is stabilized fully.
However, multiple sources suggest that the government has done a poor job in communicating with law schools and the private sector to ensure a “soft landing” of the system.
One of its imminent tasks is to set up good training programs for those who want to practice law.
“The state bar exam for law school graduates is only six months away, but the government has not yet prepared for training programs for successful applicants,” said a student of the Korea University Law School.
“We are deeply concerned about that because we must have at least six months of hands-on experience at judicial institutions or in the private sector to obtain a lawyer’s license.”
Industry sources say big Seoul-based law firms, such as Lee & Ko and BKL, plan to recruit less than 150 lawyers next year.
Courts will offer research positions to some 200 successful applicants under the so-called Law Clerk system. The prosecution also plans to create positions of junior researchers to give some 200 people opportunities to practice law.
A few hundred other successful applicants will be trained at other judicial institutions until they become lawyers.
The rest of the 1,500 people who pass the bar exam next year should find smaller law firms to receive training, according to the Justice Ministry.
Even before the law school system was adopted, it was widely expected that it would be difficult for the local market to fully accommodate graduates from law schools. Thus, the National Assembly passed a bill to allow the government to cover the full cost for such training programs.
But it still remains controversial.
Many critics have questioned whether it is appropriate for the government to pay the training expenses for those who want to become lawyers.
“What’s certain is that the government should be most blamed for all the confusion and disputes surrounding the law school system,” a law professor in Busan said, on condition of anonymity. “And the victims of its mishandling will be the students.”