Reform of the nation’s system for training legal professionals — introduced a decade ago to draw people from more diverse backgrounds into the legal professional community — is under scrutiny as the ratio of applicants passing the national bar examination fell to a record low, and many of the law schools created since the reform face declining student enrollments that put their survival in doubt. Abolition and consolidation of some schools will be inevitable as the education ministry moves to cut subsidies to schools reporting low enrollments and poor results of graduates in the bar exam.
The government should carefully reassess the prospect of the demand for legal services in Japan and review its policy on legal education — but not in ways that could unduly discourage people hoping to take up the legal profession.
Those law schools were launched in 2004 as new institutions to train people from a wide spectrum of society for the legal profession, including mid-career types and graduates of university programs other than law departments. Behind the reform were calls to increase individuals’ and businesses’ access to legal services to prepare for an anticipated rise in legal disputes due to economic globalization and deregulation.
There also has been criticism that the old bar exam system, which was known as one of the most competitive public tests in this country, required a massive amount of study and knowledge to get a passing score. The current bar exam system introduced in 2006 required applicants to have completed certain courses at law schools.
The reform has indeed led to a sharp increase in the number of lawyers to around 35,000 as of this spring, compared with 22,000 in 2001. More than 2,000 people have passed the bar exam each year since 2007.
What has not increased as much, however, is the demand for legal services. Many people pass the bar exam only to find that there are not enough jobs as lawyers. With the resulting glut in legal professionals, the government last year withdrew its target, set in 2002, to boost the number of people passing the bar exam each year to 3,000. In April, the ruling Liberal Democratic Party said the number should be cut to 1,500.
This year, 1,810 people passed the bar exam, down by more than 200 from 2013 and marking the first time since 2006 the number fell short of 2,000. The success rate among applicants who have finished law schools was a mere 21.19 percent.
Legal education reform led universities around the country to open as many as 74 law schools. But the subsequent glut of lawyers has caused student enrollment to decline at many schools; 20 institutions have already decided to stop accepting new students. Of the 74 schools, 61 did not have enough new students to fill enrollment quotas this spring. The number of new students was less than half the enrollment quota at 44 schools, and 28 of them had less than 10 new students.
The low enrollment is matched by graduates’ poor performance in the bar exam. This year, 39 of the 74 schools reporteted fewer than 10 successful applicants each, while four schools had none.
Underscoring the problems with the law schools is the high success ratio among people who took the bar exams without finishing a law school. In 2011 the government introduced a preliminary test for the bar exam to make an exception for people who could not afford to attend a law school but still sought to take up the legal profession. This year, 66.8 percent of the people who took the bar exam after passing this preliminary test were successful — compared with the 22.6 percent success rate for all applicants.
Graduates of university law departments are apparently using the preliminary tests as shortcuts to taking the bar exam. There are calls to restrict the number of people qualified to take the preliminary test, but that would not resolve the problems for law schools, which still need to improve the level of legal education they provide to attract more students.