Back in the early 2000s, the government implemented reform of the nation’s system for training legal professionals, launching law schools modeled after those in the United States for people aspiring to become judges, prosecutors and lawyers. Today, the government is exploring ways to revamp the system in the face of declining enrollment at the law schools — more than half of which have already been shut down — and disappointing bar exam performances by students who completed the two-year programs at such schools.
The changes under consideration would shorten the minimum period for students before they qualify for taking the bar exam. Concerns have been voiced by those involved in the education of legal professionals, however, that the proposed changes might undercut the very purpose of creating the law schools in the first place. Careful discussions involving experts in relevant fields will be needed in reviewing the law school system.
In 2001, the Judicial Reform Council called for the establishment of postgraduate law schools to beef up the education of legal professionals and maintain their quality as the government sought to increase the pool of legal professionals to respond to an anticipated rise in demand for legal services in this country. It set a target of boosting the annual number of people who successfully passed the bar exam from the roughly 1,000 at the time to 3,000 by around 2010.
Previously, after graduating from university, many aspiring attorneys would spend years studying — including at cram schools — for Japan’s extremely competitive bar exam. After the reforms, people who completed four years in a university law department would go on to the two-year program at a law school to qualify for the bar exam.
The number of law schools launched by universities across Japan since 2004 reached 74 at its peak. However, 38 of them — mainly in regions outside the big metropolitan areas — have since closed down due to sluggish enrollment and cuts in government subsidies on the basis of their graduates’ poor rates of success in the bar exam. Meanwhile, the government in 2015 gave up on its goal of boosting the annual number of successful bar exam applicants to 3,000, halving the target to 1,500. Last year, the number of applicants who passed came to 1,525.
Behind the poor enrollment and bar exam performance of many of law schools is believed to be the system created in 2011 to hold a “preliminary test” for people who wish to take the exam but cannot afford to enter law school. The test was also intended to expand opportunities for people from other backgrounds to pursue a career in the legal profession. Even though it was introduced as an exceptional route to taking the bar exam, the test proved popular as a shortcut to the bar exam for people who studied law at a university.
Many talented students aspiring to become a legal professional chose to take the preliminary test instead of going to law school. In fact, the bar exam success rate last year among those who had passed the preliminary test reached a record 77.6 percent, whereas the figure among those who completed two-year courses at most of the law schools was much lower — as many as nine schools did not have a single graduate pass the bar exam.
Now the government is considering revamping the law school system to attract more aspiring legal professionals — in the belief that enrollment at such schools is poor because it takes too much time and money to qualify for taking the bar exam by taking this route.
A reform reportedly under consideration would enable students in university law departments who have earned all of the credits needed to complete the four-year course in three years to advance to law school. Such students who fulfill certain conditions would be allowed to take the bar exam once they have finished the first year of law school. These steps would enable students to take the bar exam in about four years at the fastest after entering a university law department.
Some experts in education for legal professionals, however, are concerned that such changes could undermine the purpose of education at law schools, whose launch was also meant to get aspiring legal professionals not to focus too much on technical skills to pass the extremely tough bar exam. The law schools introduced more practical education in which the students worked alongside lawyers to discuss solutions to specific legal problems and took part in training at law offices.
The experts worry that time for such practical education could effectively be lost if students are allowed to take the bar exam before completing the two-year program at a law school. They suggest the government should instead review the way people take the preliminary test as a shortcut to the bar exam.
The law schools were supposedly launched not just to teach the students specialized legal knowledge and skills but to nurture in them a sense of responsibility and ethics as legal professionals. It should be carefully examined if the review of the system under discussion would serve its purpose.