Law school enrollment blues

Recruitment failed to meet enrollment goals at 63 of Japan’s 73 law schools in 2011. The number of students enrolled was less than half the quota at 35 law schools, compared with only 14 under-filled schools last year.

Twenty law schools had fewer than 10 new students. The Justice Ministry’s plan to increase the number of lawyers in the country, begun in 2004 with the opening of new law schools and the introduction of a new bar exam, needs serious reassessment.

Perhaps the right rate of expansion for law schools was miscalculated. Still, the need for more lawyers is evident. Japan has one lawyer for every 4,119 people, compared with one lawyer for every 250 people in the United States. More lawyers are needed, for example, for businesses expanding abroad and for clearing up the aftermath of the Tohoku disaster. In addition, judges, prosecutors and other law professionals are needed to develop Japan’s domestic legal system, both civil and criminal.

Part of the reason for the drop in applicants to law schools is that the bar exam is so difficult to pass. In 2011, only 2,063 people, 23.5 percent of examinees, passed — the lowest rate since the new exam began in 2006. Though that is much higher than the 2 to 3 percent pass rate before the changes, many laws schools have had to sacrifice teaching how the law actually works to teaching techniques for taking and passing the bar exam.

Because the bar exam questions are too specialized, too obscure, or too unfathomable, the quickest way to ensure students pass is to make them memorize the legal codes, without knowing what they mean or how to apply them.

Consequently, just as with most other entrance and licensing exams in Japan, students have flocked to cram schools. Many aspiring students have spent millions of yen, often at both law and cram schools, only to fail the bar exam repeatedly.

Hints for improvements can be found in law schools all over the world. Though the Socratic method, case studies and small classes are the norm overseas, in Japan one-way lectures and memorization dominate because of the exams.

Japan needs a more realistic exam with questions pertaining to the theory as well as the practice of law. Lawyers, like doctors and teachers, also benefit greatly from an apprentice system that provides hands-on experience.

Perhaps one day, one of the lawyers who have managed to pass the exam will help force the Justice Ministry to reform its entrance examination and build a better legal education system.

Before that happens, the Justice Ministry and the law schools have urgent work to do. Without more legal professionals, Japan’s potential to develop the rule of law with greater transparency, efficiency and justice will remain uncertain.