Legal education quality

China, India and Japan grapple with quality of legal education

The American Bar Association has sustained plenty of criticism from people who believe there are too many law schools in the United States producing too many would-be lawyers who are struggling to find jobs.

Other countries face much larger problems when it comes to regulating the number of law students and quality of legal education. Legal educators from India, China, Japan and France spoke on Friday at Harvard Law School during a panel discussion about the challenges they face in producing an appropriate number of good lawyers.

The panel was part of the FutureEd 2 program -- a partnership between Harvard's Program on the Legal Profession and New York Law School. The multi-year project is focusing on incorporating globalization into legal education.

The sheer number of law schools and law students in China has become a problem, as few law graduates can find legal employment, said Peking University Law School professor Zhang Qi. The number of registered law students in the country in 2008 was about 787,000 -- a 200 percent increase compared to 30 years before, he said. "Expansion is not bad, but over-expansion is not a good thing," Zhang said.

There are about 927 legal education institutions in China and their quality has suffered as their number has grown. "What students have learned in law school is not what they learn in legal practice," Zhang said. For example, he said, graduates can't write legal memos, draft documents or negotiate deals.

Most legal educators in China agree that law school should represent an elite program, and not a popular degree for the masses, Zhang said. Educators are also considering making legal education more relevant and finding ways to hire better faculty.

India faces a similar conundrum, with a glut of law schools but few quality graduates, said C. Raj Kumar, dean of Jindal Global Law School in Haryana, India. "There is a crisis in legal education in India," Kumar said. "Mediocrity is institutionalized in the Indian bar."

There are 14 highly regarded national law schools in the country, but they represent just a small percentage of the more than 1,000 law schools overall, Kumar said. The shortfalls in India's legal education system have caught the attention of high-ranking government officials, who have condemned the quality of education. Law schools are an important component for the development of rule of law in India, Kumar said, and access to justice remains a huge problem.

Change is on the way in India, however. The country is starting an entrance exam for would-be law students, and people have realized the need for better faculty at law schools, Kumar said.

Japan confronts a different problem, said University of Tokyo Law School professor Daniel Foote. The country has a shortage of attorneys, and reforms imposed six years ago to address the shortfall have only seen marginal success. Ten years ago, the Justice System Reform Council was formed to make improvements to the legal education system, which was dominated by large undergraduate law programs that involved one-way lectures and no skills-based courses. A scant 3 percent of takers passed the bar exam under the former system.

Since the 2004 reforms, the country has moved toward three-year, graduate-level law schools, although the undergraduate programs remain because they are steady revenue generators for universities, Foote said. Teaching has improved as more schools bridge the gap between practice and theory, but only about 25 percent of takers passed the bar exam last year. The Japanese bar has pushed back strongly because its members don't want added competition, Foote said. The number of bar passers has increased to about 2,000 per year from about 500, although the bar is pushing to lower that figure to about 1,500.

(Published by - October 18, 2010)

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