Note to U.S. Bar Examinees: It Could Be Worse

japanese flag.jpgAmerican University Washington College of Law, where I teach, has recently established an exchange program with Ritsumeikan University, a law school located in Kyoto, Japan. Our students and faculty regularly visit there, and a group of Ritsumeikan students comes to American University each summer for three weeks to study U.S. law. As a result of my law school’s connection to Ritsumeikan, I have learned a little about the Japanese legal education system, which is in a fascinating period of transformation right now.

Until very recently, Japan has offered no post-graduate legal education. Instead, students would study law as undergraduates and then take the National Law Examination, a wickedly difficult exam with a less than three percent pass rate, producing only 1,200 new lawyers a year. (Compare that with the 2005 U.S. bar passage rate of 64% percent, which produced 51,958 newly-licensed U.S. lawyers that year.) Whatever one may think about the number of lawyers in the United States, the paucity of Japanese lawyers is widely recognized as a problem for the world’s second largest economy. Without lawyers, Japanese businesses and citizens are denied access to courts, with inevitable consequences for the growth of the economy and the advancement of social justice.

In June 2001, the Justice System Reform Council proposed major changes to the Japanese legal education system, which it had developed during its two years of studying the problem. In response to the Council’s recommendations, Japan has established post-graduate professional law schools, such as Ritsumeikan, to provide a three-year legal education with the goal of improving the quality and quantity of Japanese lawyers. A J.D. degree is now a basic requirement for those who will take the new National Law Examination. The pre-established pass rate is higher than before, though still extraordinarily low by U.S. standards – only 3,000 students will be permitted to pass the exam each year. It will be interesting to see how these changes affect Japan in the years to come.

So for those recent graduates of U.S. law schools (and a certain professor at Stanford Law School) who are awaiting their bar results, take a moment to be grateful that your chances of getting licensed to practice law are considerably higher than those of your Japanese counterparts.

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9 Responses

  1. Kerry says:

    Hmmm . . . that still seems like small comfort for an individual that just spend the previous SEVEN years preparing for the day on which they would take the bar exam.

    It’s been three years since I took the bar. I am still suffering from the resultant post-traumatic distress.

  2. LM says:

    Kerry, good point.

    On the subject of the legal profession in Japan: culturally-speaking, Asian countries have tended to rely upon more, shall I say, “harmonious” dispute resolution princples. Conciliation is preferred over litigation; confrontation is avoided to the greatest extent possible. This may help to explain the relative dearth of Japanese lawyers (and, similarly, the low passage rates on their law exam).

    Of course, the recent trend in Japan is toward a more Westernized approach to the rule of law (utilization of the courts, litigation, etc.), which, in turn, seems to have spurred a revision of Japanese legal education. It will be interesting to see just how much of the conciliatory approach is retained in Japanese legal culture.

  3. Kaimi says:

    Another interesting difference (probably at least in part a result of the lawyer gap) is that Japan uses non-lawyer paraprofessionals — the equivalent of specialized paralegals, more or less — to handle a lot of matters that we would use an attorney for in the United States.

  4. The extremely low pass rate reminds me of the chances of successfully getting a job on the tenure track after most humanities PhD programs. I just hope Japanese law school is as interesting and enriching as such programs!

  5. LM says:

    Here’s one more bit of information (on becoming a licensed attorney in Canada):

    “Attaining a law degree in Canada requires three years of classroom study. Almost immediately upon graduation in Ontario, the Bar Admission course administered by the Law Society of Upper Canada begins. The first phase lasts a month and consists of workshops that focus on practical skills necessary to perform competently at articles. These workshops include legal drafting, interviewing clients, advocacy skills and ethics and professional responsibility. The second phase lasts twelve months. It is during this phase that you article at the firm. The third phase consists of further classroom study in eight general areas of substantive law. Each of the eight areas contains an examination component. One is required to pass each of the eight examinations in order to be called to the bar of Ontario.”

    From this website.

  6. Seth R. says:

    Thing is, Japan doesn’t have a legal market for much more than 1,200 new “bengoshi” per year.

    Japanese typically don’t sue people. It runs against the culture.

    Not saying that won’t change or isn’t changing already. But lawyering in Japan is a completely different animal than it is in the U.S.

  7. LM says:

    “Japanese typically don’t sue people. It runs against the culture. Not saying that won’t change or isn’t changing already.”

    Exactly. On the other hand (or, perhaps, in the same vein?), it’s possible that Japan’s changing legal system will follow the same path as that of post-WTO-accession China, resulting in a more formal legal education system, an increase in the number of certified attorneys, etc.

    On the flip side, Japan’s impetus for revamping its legal system may not be motivated by the same factors as China (accession to the WTO, complying with WTO requirements, assuring foreign business investors of the trustworthiness of China’s legal system, and creating a more transparent legal system).

    Then again, looking at it from a more general perspective, Japan may be “Westernizing” its legal system in order to accomplish the same ends that China seeks to accomplish: attract foreign investment (and assure companies that they will have a judicial forum in which to litigate disputes). If that’s the case, Japan’s legal system could very well lose some of its traditional conciliation-oriented characteristics.

  8. Jeffrey Lubbers says:

    To add to Amanda’s interesting post, I would point out that Korea is also about to adopt the US-style 3-year graduate law school system too. See, e.g.,

    Korea is approaching it somewhat differently I’ve heard. It will have a smaller number of universities (in the teens versus the 68 or so in Japan–which may prove to be too many). And the participating universities will have to eliminate the undergraduate law degree programs, which Japan is still maintaining during a 10-year transition phase. By the way, Japan’s insistence on maintaining the LLB programs has led to overly busy law professors who have to teach in both tracks.