Japan Times Monday, April 20, 2009

Raising the bar at law schools

In April 2004, 68 law schools were established in accordance with the nation’s legal reform. Since then, the number has increased to 74. Earlier this month, about 5,800 people enrolled in these schools. Those who have not studied law at undergraduate level will have to complete a three-year course and those who did, a two-year course.

These schools were created to help satisfy a national demand for legal professionals who can provide high-quality services, in particular lawyers. But criticism persists that some of these schools fail to offer high-quality education.

The Japan Law Foundation, the National Institution for Academic Degrees and University Evaluation and the Japan University Accreditation Association have recently evaluated 68 of the law schools and determined that 22 of them have problems with their curricula and teaching methods.

Problems identified include a shortage of basic subjects, a lack of balance between theoretical studies and practical application, a lack of transparency in the evaluation of students’ performances in tests and under-qualified teachers.

The result of the third state bar exam under the legal reform held in 2008 highlights the under-performance of some of these law schools. While 6,261 graduates sat for the exam, only 2,065 of them — 33 percent of the applicants — passed. This is less than the Justice Ministry’s target of 2,100 to 2,500 successful applicants and the first time the pass rate has fallen below 40 percent. In 2007, 1,125 students also failed to complete the required courses.

The basic problem with the law schools seems clear. Some of the students they accepted were likely not qualified to study law, and some universities may have rushed to open law schools in a bid to raise their reputation or to bring in more tuition fees.

A special panel of the Central Council for Education has proposed setting a minimal level for entrance-exam scores and reducing the student quota at law schools where the competition for the entrance is less severe. Each law school also needs to review and rectify its weak points, and some should consider reducing the number of students they accept.

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