Public prosecutors, including the first batch of Law School graduates, are sworn into office, 2012
Image source: Joongang Daily
2009, the year I entered university, was a remarkable year. It was the first year Law Schools as 3-year postgraduate programs were introduced (same for Medical Science, but this topic really deserves another post). The goal was to “offer law (and medical) studies to a wider array of students, instead of discouraging them at the high-school level”.
As a result, the Gosi System (사법고시, or ‘National Bar Exam’, but I will use the term ‘Gosi’ in order to distinguish it from the National Bar the current Law School graduates have to pass) will end in 2017. Instead, Law School graduates will have to pass the National Bar, a much simpler exam, in order to start practicing. A difference is that one does not need to hold a Bachelor’s degree in Law Studies in order to pass the Gosi, but one does with the new Law School system.
In reality, prior to this, many high-scoring students would retake their CSAT (national university entry aptitude exam), in order to get into the 0.1% you need to be in to go to law or medical schools. You also had to choose your career at high school, and if you failed, there was no other way in.
You’d think people stopped cramming as much, but no. Instead of law of med schools, majors who included similar curricula replaced the competition – Bioscience and Bioengineering, or Political Science, Public Administration and Economics, for instance.
The issue is also that there are many more Law School graduates than Gosi passers. The idea of the government was to increase the number of lawyers for people to have better access to the law. Which was a brilliant idea in my opinion, because Korean law-people tend to be elitist and haughty and think they are better than other people (which they sort of are entitled to, with all that cramming they had in order to pass the Gosi).
Problem 1: Not all Law School graduates are placed into internships due to the sudden jump in number. In fact, many students who want to become lawyers are now retaking their Law School entrance exams in order to make it to the top 3 universities (Seoul National, Yonsei, Korea), for fear they will not find work placement.
Problem 2: Gosi graduates look down on Law School graduates for not being ‘as smart as they are’. Although the Law School is a 3-year program, and most successful Gosi passers study for 3-4 years to pass the exam, many of the latter consider the LS system to be lax in comparison.
Problem 3: Law Schools are expensive. Most graduate programs in the Humanities/Social Sciences cost 6 to 7 million KRW per semester (7,000 USD), and Law Schools cost 10 million per semester (10,000 USD). Considering Korea does not have any interest-free student loans available, the burden on the students and their parents is immense. (Note: Undergraduate programs cost between 3,000 and 5,000 USD per semester in the Humanities)
Problem 4: Lawyers who are already in practice are complaining that their fees will plummet if so many law school graduates enter the market. (I don’t really see this as a valid ‘Problem’ per se, since lawyers make a bit too much money in my opinion, to the point most people cannot afford legal counselling)
I once made a joke about Korean parents asking their children about what job they’d like to have in the future: “Lawyer or doctor? Lawyer or doctor?“. Although this isn’t too true now, law and medicine are definitely still the two most ‘honourable’ and coveted professions in Korean society. They bring fame, money, and good marriage propositions (I’m serious).
Some of my friends went to law schools. All of them are from rich families, with good academic records, and most of them are passionate about helping other people. Some are in law just because of the social status it entails (but this does not mean they take their jobs less seriously).
I also know several students who studied law at university and did not pass the Gosi exam. They read millions of pages for several years, but at their third or fourth attempt, gave up, because they knew it would not work out. And they’ve moved on to other jobs, often but not always law-related. Whether they wanted to become lawyers in the first place, I don’t know – many believe it’s what they want because it’s what their parents want.
It’s difficult to balance the opinion between the lawyers who want to keep their privileges, and the government and people who want better service. It’s tough to enter the profession, so they want their privileges. But all in all, I think Koreans need better access to legal advice. Cheaper, friendlier, available legal services. Not just for corporates, but also for ordinary people.