The government plans to make sure that at least “1,500 or more” aspiring lawyers pass the national bar exam each year after successful applicants sank to a record low of 1,810 in 2014.
The figure for 2014 is 239 lower than in 2013, and the lowest since the current exam debuted in 2006.
The government is worried the downtrend could continue and slip below 1,500 on the back of falling law school enrollment. Another factor is the sluggish birthrate, which is producing fewer potential students.
The government thinks at least 1,500 people need to pass the bar exam each year to offset turnover in the legal profession. But the plan represents a huge shift in its policy regarding the number of new lawyers it aims to certify.
In 2002, the Cabinet set a goal of gradually increasing successful applicants to 3,000 a year by roughly 2010.
Thursday’s proposal means the government has effectively endorsed reducing the number of passers from the current level of 1,800.
The proposal was presented Thursday to a panel tasked with reforming the bar exam system and won broad approval from its members.
Based on the panel’s discussions, the government will formally adopt the plan by the end of July. It will also adopt other reform measures, including on how law schools are run.
In 2002, the government projected that Japan would experience increasing numbers of legal disputes, boosting demand for lawyers at companies and local governments.
But it retracted the target in 2013, as the volume of cases, both civil and criminal, held steady.
The number of people passing the bar exam has risen from 1,000 in 1999 to somewhere between 1,800 and 2,500 in recent years. The number of registered lawyers meanwhile has tripled over the past 14 years, to 36,000 in 2015.
The Japan Federation of Bar Associations has complained that the rapid rise in lawyers has resulted in excessive competition, leading to situations where newly licensed lawyers have a hard time finding work. The group has also argued that the quality has declined.
The government now says the target of 3,000 lawyers per year was unrealistic.
The current format for the exam, which was revised last October, requires applicants to take it within five years after graduating from law school. Those who fail can try again, but only up to five times in total.
To qualify for the exam, participants must either complete law school or pass a preliminary exam, which was introduced in 2011.
A panel of experts within the ruling Liberal Democratic Party and the JFBA also argue that 1,500 is a suitable annual target. They said that if it stays around the 2,000 mark it will remain difficult to give prospective lawyers sufficient training after they pass the exam.
But one government official criticized the JFBA, saying the industry group has “ended up discouraging good students from pursuing a career in law by spreading negative information” about their job prospects. “In the long run, it is digging its own grave,” the official said.
Law schools will also be hit hard by the shift in government policy. Seventy-four new law schools have opened since 2004, but only 54 of them recruited students in April this year.
“In the past, there were many talented students who after graduation from law school would seek employment at governmental offices or at large firms,” said Hiroe Moriyama, dean of the Osaka City University Law School. “But now, many students give up taking the bar exam, landing (non-lawyer) jobs at government agencies and companies.”
A professor at another law school in western Japan said many law schools are facing financial difficulties and are shutting down or merging.
The professor is critical of the current curriculum at many schools, saying it is aimed purely at preparing students for the bar exam rather than fulfilling the original purpose of imbuing lawyers with a rich sense of humanity.
“It’s like a cram school,” the professor said.
One professor at a leading national university agrees: “Law schools were supposed to foster lawyers with broad knowledge. They now focus on the recruitment of students and compete just to get more students through the exam. They are distorting how legal education should be.”