LOS ANGELES – Law schools in Japan and the U.S. find themselves trapped between a rock and a hard place as the number of applicants continues to shrink in the face of a bleak legal job market. As a result, all but the most elite law schools are being forced to take draconian steps to survive
In Japan, cuts in government subsidies based largely on bar exam results are expected to lead to law school mergers. The step is seen as a necessary corrective to the oversupply of lawyers produced since 2004 when 74 new law schools opened in anticipation of increased demand for legal services.
In the United States, the 200 American Bar Association’s accredited law schools are questioning whether too much emphasis is placed on the theoretical over the practical. Possession of a law degree does not necessarily mean graduates are ready to provide legal services, even though three-year tuition can exceed $150,000.
As a result, the number of applicants is down by more than 37 percent compared to 2010. The future is no brighter. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, there will be some 21,880 new jobs for lawyers by 2020 but more than 45,000 graduates by then.
In light of this dismal outlook, legal education in Japan and the U.S. needs a major overhaul. Law schools can raise their standards to admit even far fewer students, and bar exams can be made much harder, significantly reducing the supply of lawyers.
Both countries are already experiencing this outcome, whether by design or by coincidence. Japan reported that 1,810 people passed the bar exam in 2014. This was down by more than 200 from the previous year. In the U.S. the pass rate for 2014 for most states was the lowest in a decade.
The number of lawyers can be further reduced by stiffening accreditation rules. In Japan, law schools are accredited by the Ministry of Education and Science. In the U.S. that responsibility falls on the American Bar Association. Each state then sets its own rules on admission to the bar.
That has resulted in a crazy quilt legal landscape. All but seven states require that those taking the bar exam to have graduated from an ABA-accredited law school. Among other states, rules vary.
For example, in California, Vermont, Virginia, Washington and Wyoming, applicants who have not attended law school can take the bar exam if they have studied under a judge or practicing attorney for a stipulated period of time.
There is a lesson for Japan to emerge from this. The ABA became involved in legal education only after the number of law schools tripled between 1890 and 1930. Dozens of these were for-profit night schools that offered a more practical curriculum at a fraction of the tuition charged by traditional law schools.
The trouble was that some of the graduates of these law schools were accused of incompetence. The ABA had no choice but to take action. By 1935, it was successful in persuading nine states to incorporate rules requiring a degree from an approved school. By 1941, 32 more states followed.
The Ministry of Education and Science, which has been accused of being too lax, in accrediting law schools, could take a page from the ABA in this regard in order to protect the integrity of a law degree. Too much is at stake for the Ministry to sit idly by.
Walt Gardner writes the Reality Check blog for Education Week in the U.S.