Testing times for wannabe judges, prosecutors

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Testing times for wannabe judges, prosecutors

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Students at the Judicial Research and Training Institute listen to a lecture in a classroom last Wednesday. By Kim Kyung-bin

It was nearly midnight on June 23 but the lights were blazing in the library of the Judicial Research and Training Institute in Ilsan, Gyeonggi. The first final exam for first-year trainees was only 10 hours away.

About 50 people hoping to be judges or prosecutors studied in the 660-square-meter (718-square-yard) reading room. It was dead quiet except for the occasional sound of a chair scraping across the floor. The room was very warm - the air conditioner is turned off at 6 p.m. - and beads of sweat dripped down the trainees’ faces.

At another library outside the institute another 50 trainees were also pulling all-nighters. They held books up to their noses even when they stepped out for a drink of water.

A total of 221 bar exam passers joined the institute in March and Wednesday’s final marks the end of their first semester. Each of their first three semesters concludes with final exams. The fourth semester in the program is dedicated to field training.

The final exam results determine their ranks in the program ? and where their careers will start.

First-year trainees take several final exams over a week and they need to read 4,200 pages of study material before the tests. When they take finals next semester, the tests include material from previous semesters as well, so one test could take up to eight hours.

“Sometimes, we have to read 300 pages during a test,” said Kim Su-hyeon, a second-year trainee. “We usually don’t have lunch and don’t go to the restroom either.”

And the competition is getting fiercer. A couple of decades ago, about 30 percent of graduates from the institute were immediately hired as judges or prosecutors, but only 10 percent of the trainees have been named judicial researchers or prosecutors in recent years. (The rest try to find work at law firms.)

“Those who are in their mid or late 30s are studying even harder because they know they won’t be able to get a job if they have bad scores on institute exams,” said first-year trainee Kim Yoon-sik.

The students’ daily routines begin at around 7 a.m. The institute officially gives an hour for self-study at 9 a.m. and lectures begin at 10 a.m., but most trainees study alone or with others earlier in the morning.

They do not set aside time for breakfast, usually having a quick snack or sandwiches, plus some health food to stay strong to study.

After a 110-minute class in the morning, they are given 100 minutes for lunch from 11:50 a.m. although few trainees spend the entire time eating. Mostly, they eat lunch in less than 40 minutes and study again.

“Our schedule is very hectic,” Kim said. “So we have no choice but to sacrifice some of our time for social activities, exercise and even sleeping.”

Lessons end at 5:20 p.m., but then the trainees summarize lessons or do homework in study groups until 11 p.m.

“It’s common to see people studying until three or four in the morning,” said Lee Jeong-jun, a first-year trainee. “About two months before exams, we hardly go out of the institute, which has given rise to the nickname ‘Ilsan Prison.’”

Despite the hard training, trainees say they had good reasons for passing the bar exam and attending the training institute instead of studying at law schools, which are not so rigorous.

“The bar exam is fairly straightforward because you can pass if you study a lot,” said first-year trainee Lee Jin-yeong. “Also, you need to pay a lot of tuition for law schools, which I think is an obstacle for those who don’t have enough money.”

“In law, if you get 99 percent right and 1 percent wrong, you are wrong,” said a second-year trainee Jang Cheon-su. “You study about 10 hours a day for five years, including the time preparing for the bar exam and two years at the institute. And only then do you get to grasp what the law really is.”

BY CHO HYE-KYUNG [kim.bongmoon@joongang.co.kr]

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