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[OUTLOOK] Expanding the Role of Korean Lawyers

Feb 13,2001
Members of the Legal Profession Have to Participate in All Areas of Society

The number of lawyers in the United States, the so-called paradise of lawyers, is estimated to be at least one million. Not all of them practice law, however. Aside from those who serve as judges and prosecutors, some of them go on to become successful politicians or chief executive officers of multi-national corporations. Still others even work in unskilled jobs, such as driving a taxi.

In some ways, the high number of lawyers helps to better protect the rights of the people, but it also results in substantial ill effects. There is even a joke that a hungry lawyer is more frightening than an angry lion.

The number of lawyers in Korea is poised to soar in the future. On Jan. 18, 678 judicial apprentices completed their training and became new members of the legal profession.

The Ministry of Government Administration and Home Affairs, which administers the state-run judicial examination, comparable to the Western bar examination, announced the names of 801 successful examinees late last year.

The ministry intends to license as many as one thousand this year. Because the number of lawyers in Korea was 4,699 as of Jan. 1 this year, the higher quota will mean a surge in the number of those engaged in the legal profession. Korea might witness striking lawyers in the future, as 35,000 lawyers in France did last December to demand higher wages for court-appointed lawyers.

In Korea, we often refer to an upright citizen as one who could ihlive even without the law.lu The law in this case may refer to the law used to punish humans' excessive greed with criminal punishments or the law for settling disputes and controversies. The judicial profession will serve in an extremely limited role, however, if we perceive the law to be essential only for trials and lawsuits. Actually, the majority of lawyers in Korea specialize exclusively in lawsuits, and less than 5 percent of practicing lawyers are engaged in areas unrelated to litigation. The situation has given rise to the claim that massproducing lawyers in such circumstances will create many problems.

The biggest concern is the possibility of the national economy suffering a loss due to high-quality human resources committed inordinately to non-productive areas.

The average age of those who pass the state-run bar exam keeps on rising each year, and surpassed the age of 29 many years ago. Many bright students at Korean universities, even those who do not major in law, are betting their future on passing the exam and joining the legal profession. As a result, more than one third of applicants who pass the bar exam are those who did not study law at their university. The phenomenon has even spawned a theory of the bar exam being the ruin of the nation.

The issue of how the nation and society should make the best use of the rising number of lawyers, judges, and prosecutors is becoming an important task to be tackled from the perspective of national management.

Out of this year's 678 judicial apprentices, about 220 are expected to become judges and prosecutors. Another 130 plan to join law firms, and the rest, excluding the 153 who have to fulfill their military services, are likely to find employment with the government or companies or open their own practices.

If practicing lawyers face intensifying competition for clients and resort to filing unnecessary lawsuits to increase their revenues, the costs of providing legal services to the people will surge and might pose a burden on the national economy.

In a democratic country, laws do not exist simply as judicial norms to be used as the basis for settling disputes, but also as the basis for reconciling various values of the society.

Laws also exist as behavioral norms to prevent disputes in advance. In order for the public to benefit from the increase in the number of those working in the judicial profession, it is essential that lawyers' roles diversify and expand into new areas beyond the traditional role of handling legal proceedings.

For this to happen, the government and its affiliated institutions, as well as companies and public social organizations, have to employ them and give them the opportunity to use the specialized knowledge they worked so hard to gain.

As we can see happening in the countries with advanced legal systems, administrative procedures can become more transparent, businesses' international competitiveness can improve, and the pub lic can experience the practice of legalism in daily life if members of the legal profession participate in all areas of society.

Those practicing law, for their part, have to discard the prevalent notion of being entitled to special privileges or view a lawyer's license as a ticket to life-long wealth and prestige.

Those in the legal profession have to keep in step with the changing demands of society and become fully prepared to provide specialized, high-quality legal services to the public.

The writer is a lawyer at Kim & Chang Law Firm.


by Han Sang-ho




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