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(News Focus) Grim job prospects spark clash between old, new legal hiring systems
By Kim Eun-jung
SEOUL, March 3 (Yonhap) - Over the course of her 20s, Seo Hae-eun, an aspiring state prosecutor, shut herself off from the rest of the world intermittently to memorize law books in a cram study gulag in southern Seoul.

   After studying law at a Seoul university and spending six more years cramming in a so-called "Goshi Village" ("goshi" means higher state exam), Seo, now 30, was finally one of the 1,000 who passed the bar exam last November, out of more than 23,000 applicants.

   Despite her passion to start the career of her long-time dreams, Seo refused to attend the admissions ceremony held on Wednesday at the Judicial Research & Training Institute (JRTI) in Goyang, northwest of Seoul, in protest of the Justice Ministry's new plan to hire its first-ever class of graduates from law schools early next year. Half of Seo's fellow new judicial trainees also stood absent.

   "I set all other matters aside in my 20s to prepare for the bar examination. I passed the tough test, and now I have to spend two more years training. It's just not fair to treat us the same as law school students, who only studied the subject for three years in graduate school and do not have experience in the field," she said as she watched the ceremony on a screen outside the institute building.

   The admissions ceremony, normally presented as the beginning of one's "rosy future," made headlines in the national media on Thursday with photos depicting empty seats and students holding a banner reading "Abolish the system to employ law school graduates as prosecutors" at the podium.


Two judicial trainees hold a banner at an admissions ceremony on March 2 held at the Judicial Research & Training Institute (JRTI) in Goyang, northwest of Seoul, in protest of the Justice Ministry's new plan to hire law school graudates as state prosecutors. (Yonhap)

The unprecedented move by the prospective judges, prosecutors and lawyers reflected the looming turf war between those who passed the state bar exam under the current legal hiring system and the law students who are ready to jump into the job market when they complete their three-year courses this year.

   South Korea's legal system is undergoing significant changes under a 2007 bill to introduce U.S.-style professional law schools to cultivate attorneys with the ability to adapt to growing needs for specialization and globalization.

   For six decades, those who held an undergraduate degree, no matter what their major was, could take the bar exam. If they passed, they could undergo two years of mandatory training courses at the JRTI, which is operated by the Supreme Court, to join the nation's bar or bench.

   While the current system is expected to be phased out by 2017 when the bar exam is completely scrapped, the government has been mulling ways to integrate the some 1,500 prospective law graduates into the already saturated market.

   With roughly half of all current law students to be awarded law licenses through the first bar exam next year, the Supreme Court plans to employ top scorers upon their graduation as law clerks, positions that play a supporting role for career judges, giving them an advantage when vying for a judiciary position.

   As part of efforts to secure a talented legal graduate pool, the Justice Ministry has also revealed its plan to interview dean-picked third-year students from the 25 schools across the country and then recruit "high-performing" candidates as prosecutors starting from 2012.

   Candidates have expressed concern that breaking the institute's exclusive right to appoint new prosecutors would drive bright students to face even fiercer competition to land a job, which only 139 among them succeeded in doing last year.

   "If the government allows the law school deans to pick students, there is the possibility that standards will become arbitrary and the benefits could go to some students with good family backgrounds, which is not fair to all students," said Cho Young-gon, a new nominee for the judicial trainees' association. "The ministry's plan breaches the principle of hiring public servants according to their ability."

   With regard to the criticism that the judicial trainees' collective action was to get a bigger portion in the legal "pie-eating contest," Cho conceded that was true in part, but stressed that they also sought "to raise awareness about the ministry's unilateral move to hire law school students without collecting various opinions from the legal circle."

   The Korean Bar Association (KBA) also criticized the government for its narrow focus on students who earn high marks.

   "The Justice Ministry is pushing for short-sighted measures to hire those who earn good grades, an attempt that goes against the founding principle of law schools that try to foster a variety of legal professions," KBA spokesman Jeong Joon-kil said in a statement.

   South Korea, like many Asian nations with a Confucian tradition, has put high importance on academic tests for success.

Out of the nearly 1,000 who passed the national bar examination, less than half of the new judicial trainees attend the admissions ceremony on March 2, while others boycotted the event in an unprecedented collective move by prospective legal professionals. (Yonhap)

In response to their unprecedented move, the ministry explained that the proposal is still under review, but it has not budged on its intent to scrap the plan out of concern that it would otherwise lose an opportunity to recruit top-performing law school graduates as prosecutors.

   "If we require the candidates to take another exam for a prosecutor job, it will again create competition among those who get obsessed with passing the test," Kwon Ik-hwan, the ministry official in charge of prosecution inspection, said. "Besides, it is premature to say that the law school deans have the right to appoint prosecutors."

   In fact, a remarkable number of judicial trainees who failed to secure public jobs until the final semester at the training institute aren't just job-searching -- they're picking through the few openings with a fine-toothed comb. As the job market shrinks in the wake of the economic recession, many applicants have a hard time landing one of the coveted limited spots at the nation's deep-pocketed law firms.

   Only four of 10 landed a job before they finished up at the training institute as of January, a steady decline from 64.1 percent in 2008 and 55.9 percent in 2010. The employment rate is even lower than that for four-year graduates, with 68 percent that year.

   In the 1970s, when less than 100 people passed the bar exam, nearly all of those judicial trainees were hired by courts and prosecutors' offices and launched lucrative law careers when they retired from the public sector with ties to legal networks. But that is not the case in South Korea anymore.

   "Landing a job with a middling salary at a company or small law firm would be a matter of pride for me, as I graduated from a so-called 'prestigious university' and passed the tough state bar exam," said a 32-year-old who is still applying for jobs after completing training in January, who did not wish to be identified. "As far as I know, most judicial trainees prefer to have public jobs first and then open law firms when they establish some expertise and create networks at an early stage," he added.

   In a sign reflecting the legal sector's recent waning status, Chief Justice Lee Yong-hoon advised prospective legal professionals to change their attitudes.

   "Some say legal professionals are in the midst of a crisis. I think it means that many still miss the old days, which do not fit into today's society anymore, with all the rapid change over the years," Lee said in his address in January to those graduating trainees.

Chief Justice Lee Yong-hoon advises newly appointed judges to make efforts to adapt to society's rapid changes in his address on Feb. 28. (Yonhap)

Law school defenders note that huge swaths of the country still lack adequate and affordable access to lawyers, which suggests that the issue here isn't oversupply so much as maldistribution.

   "There are other advanced countries that appoint those who pass the bar exam soon after they do so. It promotes competition and consequently improves the quality of legal professionals," said Kim Hyung-goo, president of the law school students' association.

   And this is all happening while foreign law firms and lawyers are chomping at the bit to flood the Korean market once the gates open. Thus, the competition to survive is expected to grow fiercer under the two-track system.

   "This is a pain we have to endure in a time of transition as the bar exam will be abolished and the training institute will be replaced by law schools by 2017," said a top court official, who refused to be identified due to the sensitivity of the issue.

   "The trainees for this year are the ones who chose between a law school and the bar exam. They could have anticipated this kind of situation. It is not appropriate for them to take such extreme collective action as future legal professionals without going through due process, laying the blame only on law schools."