[Outlook]Law school fees for the elite?

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[Outlook]Law school fees for the elite?

Competition is fierce among the many prospective students interested in applying for the U.S.-style law schools due to open here in March next year.

Nearly 11,000 people applied to take the Legal Education Eligibility Test, but only one in five will secure a place. The 25 universities planning to open law schools are limited to 2,000 students.

Japan introduced U.S.-style law schools in 2004 and competition there has become even fiercer.

Korean universities permitted to open law schools are complaining that the maximum number of students allowed to join the programs is too small. Those universities that failed to get permission to set up law schools are demanding that the government allow more campuses to open law schools. Some professors have filed a lawsuit with the Constitutional Court, arguing that it was unconstitutional for the government to try to make each region in Korea have an equal balance of law schools opening up.

However, allowing more universities to open law schools and increasing the quota of students is a dangerous move. You only need to look at the popularity of the proposed U.S.-style program to appreciate what problems might lie ahead. Clearly, if the popularity of the programs doesn’t cool off, some applicants might end up wasting years of their lives after college as they try to pass the national bar examinations.

The Ministry of Justice is considering putting a limit on the number of attempts and the time period for applicants to take the national bar examination. According to the plan, law school graduates will be given three chances within five years after graduation. But it is uncertain whether this move will prove effective.

Let’s say a law school graduate fails to pass the national bar exams after three attempts over a five-year period. He studies for four years at university, three years at law school and spends two years doing his military service ?18 months from 2014 when the draft is shortened.

By the time this student is 30, he has tried for the bar exam three times, but, having failed, he finds it hard to get a job now he is in his 30s.

Regardless of the predicament that people like this find themselves in, some commentators say it is unconstitutional to limit the number of attempts to pass the national bar examinations.

In Japan, law schools were very popular in the first year, but the number of applicants has dropped in the past four years. This year, 46 schools, or 62.2 percent of all 74 law schools there, failed to fill their quotas. In addition, the number of law school graduates passing the national bar exam dropped from 48 percent in 2006 to 40.2 percent last year. This year the figure is expected to fall below 30 percent.

Tuition fees are also problematic. In most private Korean universities, these range from 18.6 million won ($17, 781) to 22.4 million won a year. When the cost of living and textbooks are factored in, three years at law school will cost more than 100 million won. It costs extra if you spend more on private [test prep] instruction.

A year’s tuition at law school here is around the same as that in Japan: 1 million yen ($10,000) in public law schools and 2 million yen in private law schools. Considering the difference in national incomes, tuition fees at Korea’s law schools are double those in Japan. Korea’s universities that are to open law schools say they set high tuition fees because their quotas range from only 40 to 150 students, depending on the school.

The tuition fee is a clearly a huge amount, one that households with modest incomes will struggle to pay. This is why some people complain that law schools are only for the elite.

If students from low-income families can’t go to law school and can’t work in the law field for financial reasons, we have a serious problem with economic equality.

Scholarships or student loans from financial institutions can be measures to solve this problem. But most schools focus on investing in equipment or employing professors rather than financial support. Only a few universities promise to provide scholarships, including Seoul National University, which plans to provide full or half tuition free to 38 percent of its quota, or 57 out of 150.

But one can’t force universities to provide more scholarships. The only possibility is for the government to increase its support to national and private universities to provide benefits to more students. But scholarships are not enough. Student loans might also be necessary.

If law schools are ill-prepared, they will bring calamity upon legal education here rather than fresh opportunities.

The government and the universities must prepare measures to minimize these possible calamities, and they must do so with haste.

*The writer is chief editorial writer of the JoongAng Daily.

by Shin Sung-ho
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