Wider horizons loom for legal mindsIlsan, Gyeonggi
Entering the legal profession is regarded as attaining an honorable social status, providing a stable income and vocation, especially in Korea. It is a privilege as well as a position demanding a sense of duty.
For entrants to the Judicial Research and Training Institute, a two-year preparatory program established by the Supreme Court of Korea for those who pass the legal examination, it is a time to explore a diverse range of options, a time when there is “much ado about everything.” The legal trainees are required to take courses in law, gain external work experience in the public and private sectors, similar to an internship, and take more exams that will determine which legal field they will venture into.
For their external experience, some trainees opt to go abroad to attend legal training programs at Harvard and Columbia universities in the United States and Aix University in France.
Forty members of the International Transaction Society, a club within the Institute, participated in the weeklong Program of Instruction for Lawyers at Harvard Law School in Boston, and spent another week in New York, visiting courts and such organizations as the United Nations. The JoongAng Daily met with seven legal trainees at the institute who are members of the society to discuss their recent visit to the United States, their lifestyle, and what the future holds for them.
JAD: How long was the trip?
Ha: We were there from June 23 to July 7, spending a week in Boston and another in New York, plus a short stopover in Buffalo, N.Y., to see Niagara Falls.
JAD: What was the purpose of the trip?
Choi: Instead of gaining external experience in domestic institutions, we chose the Harvard program because it allowed us to meet with lawyers and judges from all over the world to discuss legal issues on a global scale.
Ha: It was also great that we got to visit the UN for the first time and to meet with legal experts there. That was an exhilarating experience for me. These were people in the same profession, whom we may one day work with or compete with.
JAD: What types of courses were taught at Harvard?
Kim JH: We took such courses as mass torts, intellectual property law, U.S. securities law and U.S. income tax law. We each chose subjects that interested us based on recommendations by our professors and seniors at the institute.
Ha: My most memorable course was legal psychology. It’s an unfamiliar subject and the professor had a medical background.
Kim SH: The securities law course was quite riveting, not only because we had a good-looking professor but also because it dealt with recent cases such as Enron.
Ha: To me, it was notable to see the heated debate that took place in the classrooms. Lawyers and law professors would argue a case for hours on end without much regard for the progress of the classwork. It was very impressive to observe the debates because you could learn a lot.
JAD: Did you have any trouble communicating in English?
Yon: I could understand 70% of what was being said but it took more effort for me to speak, to speak with the appropriate cadence.
Kil: Even if you speak English fluently, as a foreigner it is extremely difficult to express emotions when making arguments the way native speakers can. It’s hard to overcome the language barrier. I felt there were limitations to what we could do.
JAD: What was it like to meet with legal minds from all over the world?
Yon: There was a 23-year-old Brazilian lawyer that I talked to who made me think that our judicial training system was quite uncommon. Most lawyers or prosecutors in other countries enter the profession right after law school, but our two years of training at the institute can either hold us back or make us more refined.
JAD: Did you think the weeklong session was too short?
Kil: Yes, definitely. If only we had about two months for the program. That would have given us time to befriend everyone there.
Yon: It was too short to learn much but sufficient enough for us to be duly impressed.
Choi: There was this lawyer from Croatia whose expertise was intellectual property law, and she voluntarily took part in these re-education programs for legal experts for her own benefit. She invested her time and money for her professional value. It was a contrast to the passivity of some Korean lawyers.
JAD: What did you do after the training session ended?
Choi: We visited the American Arbitration Association, the United Nations, Morgan Stanley, New York’s Second Circuit Court of Appeals and the Cleary Gottlieb Steen & Hamilton law firm.
Kil : Our schedules were pretty tight, but there was always this feeling of lacking depth... if only we had more time.
JAD: Describe the activities in New York.
Lee: When we went to the federal appeals court, we asked a lot of questions, which impressed our hosts. They were more than willing to be detailed in their presentation.
Kil: At the Cleary law firm, we were told the pros and cons of working for a big law firm versus being an in-house corporate lawyer.
Kim JH: At the arbitration association, we heard about how the Injunction system, an American legal code, would apply to Korea.
JAD: What were some of the questions you were asked by the people you met?
Yon: People mostly were interested in the process of judicial appointment ― how judges were nominated ― and Korea’s prosecutorial methods.
Kil: Some asked what our social position was in Korea. I told them it was “so-so.”
JAD: Do you wish you had more time there as well?
Kim SH: It would have been great if we could have participated in the negotiations workshop at Harvard.
Kil: Even if we had to pay for it from our personal expenses, I would have preferred a lengthier stay.
JAD: Let’s talk about life in general at the Institute. Is there a lot of stress?
Yon: It would be a lie to say we don’t suffer from immense stress, because everyone is competitive.
Ha: You can find competition in any circumstance. It all depends on how you control it. Many students turn to sports to relieve stress.
Kil: For those who aim to attain appointments as judges and prosecutors, there is an incredible amount of pressure. But for those whose objective is to become a lawyer, it’s less of a burden.
JAD: What are your prospective careers?
Yon: I hope to join the prosecutor’s office, but I feel that if I do I’m setting myself up as a “frog in a well,” having a very narrow perspective. They have a yearlong program for study abroad but that’s just so meager in this day and age.
Ha: Whatever profession I choose, I want to work in the field of international legal affairs.
Kim SH: I want to explore what it is like to work in a law firm and also as an in-house corporate lawyer.
JAD: What part of the curriculum or the legal exam system would you like to see changed?
Yon: We are the first batch to have 1,000 in our class, so of course many will be heading for law firms. But the curriculum at the institute is still very much centered on courts and prosecutorial training, so there is a pressing need for reform.
Lee: By having 1,000 candidates pass the legal entrance exam, we are creating more supply when there isn’t much demand. Providing more supply will not automatically create more demand.
Kim SH: I think it’s positive that we have so many people entering diverse areas other than courts and prosecutors’ offices. This will enable us to have more clout and give us competitive edge.
JAD: What are your thoughts on establishing law schools in Korea?
Ha: In Korea, there’s a sharp difference between academics and practice. It is uncommon to find professors with both an academic background and experience as a lawyer.
Yon: I believe that setting up a law school requires us to fundamentally rethink the entire judicial system. We cannot go ahead with establishing law schools without due regard for the current judicial structure.
JAD: Do you think your social status at the institute has improved?
Lee: We are partly student apprentices and partly public officials, which gives us ample opportunities to learn more and gain from the diverse experiences we are exposed to.
by Choi Jie-ho