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[Lee Jae-min] After 10 years, legal education reform at its crossroads

It has now become an annual ritual. As the holiday season draws near, students go into emergency mode. Forget the new year celebration. They dread it. Fateful national bar exams take place in early January every year. I say fateful because the four-day annual exam determines the most critical issue for law school graduates after three hard-working years at law school -- whether they will be admitted to practice or not. The eighth exam of its kind is taking place on Jan. 8 to 12, 2019. 3,617 students are applying this time.

The current national bar exams are the brainchild of the legal education reform taken in 2007. The reform then started new law schools with new education in March 2009. After a rough and rocky 10 years, voices have been rising in many circles pointing to problems with the new system. And the critics converge on one point -- the national exam. Here is the issue. Unlike most other national exams for qualification and licensing, the national bar exam has a “cap” on the maximum number of students who can pass every year. So, last year’s pass rate was just 49.35 percent (1,599 out of 3,240 applicants). It will now stabilize in the same range under the current system. In other words, 1 in every 2 students will fail, no matter what.

On top of this, students are supposed to complete their study of legal subjects in three years. This is roughly half the time spent on legal education under the previous system. Knowing the low pass rate of bar exams and limited time in which they can study, students must inevitably spend the three years with one and only one focus in mind -- passing the national exam in January. Over time, it has also become the No. 1 priority for schools. Classes and curriculums gravitate toward preparation for the exam. Someone counted the court cases students have to memorize for the exam -- as many as 10,000.

What follows is not surprising. The system keeps pushing students away from the very objectives the new legal education system had when it was set up 10 years ago – namely, globalization, specialization and diversification. The odd combination of harsh workload, a short time studying and a cut-throat exam has crippled the effort to attain these objectives.

Many globalization programs and exchange students programs are robust on school paper, but are gradually withering in practice. Only few students dare to apply for them. It is like falling out of line, and you will have difficult time catching up afterwards.

Marking the 10-year anniversary, all these issues are now being brought to public debate. In particular, the government (Ministry of Justice) is contemplating whether and how to reform the bar exam. There are many pluses and minuses, but if at all possible, the exam preferably should be a tool that tests the basic qualifications of law school graduates, as opposed to ranking them and accepting only the upper half of candidates. Testing basic qualifications should be enough for a national exam. The market will then determine who is better and who is not.

Our society is changing fast. Economy is evolving at a dizzy speed. These changes require a stable supply of reliable and capable professionals with legal education who can share the thoughts and value of ordinary people with reasonable mind. Exam-oriented education is certainly good for scoring, but would hardly help in this regard. The government should set the minimum requirements for those legal professionals, and then have the exam check the satisfaction of only those requirements. Let the market do the rest.

Now is the time to reflect on the 10-year experiment and put the bar exam on the right track. The exam should be one that incentivizes and facilitates the basic objectives of the legal education reform initiated 10 years ago.


Lee Jae-min
Lee Jae-min is a professor of law at Seoul National University. He can be reached at jaemin@snu.ac.kr. -- Ed.
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