Boom and Bust: Japan and the United State’s Law School Admissions Problems

By Dean Galaro

Published on February 5, 2013

Being a young lawyer is tough. I’m acutely aware of this problem because I’m in the midst of my law school application process. As I await word of admissions and scholarship decisions I can’t help but fuss over legal job prospects three years from now.

Too many J.D.s are being dolled out and not enough jobs are waiting for them. With the astronomical pricing of most law degree programs, many graduates are forced to combat the legal market with the weight of student debt on their shoulders (to not speak of undergraduate debt as well). It is widely reported that American legal education has a serious problem. Japan has a serious problem with its market for lawyers as well. Per capita, they are sixteen times the amount of lawyers in the United States than in Japan. Why? The bar passage rate in the United States in 2011 averaged 69% across all states, while only about 25% of Japan’s law students passed their bar exam the same year. And this has only been since 2004, when the education system was radically changed to help allow more people to study law. Just as in American law schools, Japanese law school enrollment has been steadily declining for several years. Japan has too few lawyers and the United States still has far too many.

Before 2004, Japanese legal education focused on preparation for the remarkably difficult bar exam, rather than reasoning and research skills. In order to expand the judiciary and allow for more lawyers, a new law school system was modeled after the United States’. Now, instead of studying law as an undergraduate major, Japanese students from any educational background can study law at the graduate level before passing an exam and becoming licensed to practice.

Japan needed more lawyers and, initially, they got more. But while the changes to the educational system were radical, parts of the reform were also very restrained. For fear of flooding the market, the number of students who can pass the bar exam is capped. In 2010 only 2000 lawyers were allowed to pass the bar exam and practice law. Those who do not make the cut can retry two more times within the following five years. However, many law students will never pass and never practice.

Part of the reason for this difference is that the practice of law in Japan is very different from American law. There is a greater diaspora of Japanese lawyers than American ones. For example, the largest firms in Japan (coined the “Big Four”) have between three and four hundred attorneys each. In comparison, the largest American firms have almost four thousand attorneys. Roughly 60% of Japanese lawyers are solo practitioners. There is much less ladder climbing in Japanese legal practices, which can probably be attributed to a culture that emphasizes order and group harmony over private self-interest.

Becoming a judge, the highest honor in legal practice, is also very different in Japan. Graduates of law school can apply to become judges and may, if possessing high enough grades and the correct personality traits, begin their legal career as a judge in their late twenties. For a thoughtful detailing of this process, see Professor Mark D. West’s book Lovesick Japan, specifically the first chapter: “Judging.”

Korea has also entered the fray, passing legal education reforms similar to Japan’s in 2009. The number of Korean law school and the number of students are both limited. Even with expectations of high bar passage rates, critics are quick to point out that Korea’s new system has simply passed the pressure from bar passage to school entrance. These reforms will not necessarily create better lawyers; there will simply be more attorneys with better test scores.

Like the United States, Japan is trying to find balance between the quality and quantity of lawyers. If it is too difficult to get into law school, then there will be too few lawyers. On the other hand, if the bottleneck is the bar exam then law schools will simply become cram schools like they were in Japan. Law schools could charge less, but the cost of keeping attorneys on staff as professors when they could be making more money in government or private practice is not easy.

Quotas and caps will not solve the problem. The law, like any other occupation, follows the principles of supply and demand: balance between the number of lawyers and the number of jobs will, exclusive of outside influence, normalize overtime and find equilibrium. While the government is coordinating Japan’s law schools, the United States’ system is freer flowing. So then how did we get in this mess?

Because markets do that from time to time. Neither the supply nor the demand for lawyers will always be stable. Given enough time, these two forces will stabilize. And given enough time after that, they will destabilize once more and fall out of sync with each other. We are in such a time right now. Demand for lawyers has not been rising at the rate that the supply has. As law school admissions numbers drop, the balance will, eventually, be found.

This will happen faster, however, if law schools can find ways to innovate. If fewer graduates are being hired, one could read that as the market warning law schools that their graduates are not prepared to fill the roles that the market needs filled. American law schools ride high on the hog of tradition, but this tradition may have become too stifling.

Japan’s regulations have gone too far in trying to expand their field of legal practitioners. The United States has become too lax. While taking a hard look at ourselves we can also take a good look at Japan and learn from the problems that come with a skewed focus. I trust that legal education in the United States will sort itself out. I do hope, however, that it sorts itself out before I graduate.

The Author

Dean Galaro teaches high school math and history at a bilingual school in Honduras

Article picture: Pixabay


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