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The Looming Threat for South Korean Law Grads? Unemployment
The Asian Lawyer
Though the threatening statements coming out of North Korea have led newscasts and headlines in South Korea along with the rest of the world, many observers have noted that the mood in Seoul and elsewhere in the south, which has long learned to live with saber-rattling from Pyongyang, has been business-as-usual.
The latest public opinion surveys by Seoul's Asan Institute for Policy Studies show that though worries about the north have been rising over the past few months, South Koreans' No. 1 concern remains job creation.
And that may be nowhere truer than in the country's legal profession. Reforms to the legal education system more than doubled the number of South Korean law graduates last year. The fear is that there aren't nearly enough jobs for them all.
"I don't think the Korean market is ready for so many lawyers," says Heewon Yang, who graduated last year from the law school of Seoul's Ewha Womans University.
She counts herself among the lucky ones, having recently landed an in-house role with conglomerate SK Group that 120 other lawyers applied for.
The large expansion in the number of law graduates stems from the introduction of U.S.style postgraduate law schools in 2009. Before then, the law was only open to 1,000 students a year who passed a notoriously hard bar exam and then trained at the government's Judicial Research and Training Institute. Unemployment was practically unheard of in this elite group.
But the 25 new law schools pumped out about 1,900 graduates from their first classes last year. Meanwhile, JRTI will continue to operate for the next six years, with the number of students incrementally reduced until the final class graduates in 2019. The likely result has been clear for some time.
"We are producing more lawyers than we need at the moment," says Noh-young Park, dean of the Korea University School of Law.
Domestic media last fall reported statistics from South Korea's Ministry of Education, Science and Technology showing that 83 percent of students from the new law schools had found jobs within eight months after graduation, with 50 percent landing jobs as prosecutors, judicial clerks or law firm associates. But, as with similar statistics in the United States, these have been met with widespread skepticism, and several students, professors and law school administrators say those numbers don't fit with the reality they see before them.
"There's a lot of pressure on law schools and law faculty to say their students have found jobs, and to help them find jobs, to pump up these numbers," says Benjamin Hughes, a professor at the Hanguk University of Foreign Studies law school and an independent arbitrator based in Seoul. "But there just aren't enough positions in the traditional law market to handle all the graduates."
Coveted government prosecutorial and judicial positions are scarce, and JRTI graduates, who are already salaried public employees, are seen as having an edge for many. Law firms can't hire that many either, as there are only a handful of large corporate firms in the Korean market. The biggest, 600-lawyer Kim & Chang, might hire close to 50 first-years in each class, while somewhat smaller rivals like Bae, Kim & Lee or Lee & Ko might hire between 30 and 40.
Miyoung Chang, another 2012 Ewha law graduate, says only three students from that school got hired at large firms.
Of course, where you go to school does make a difference.
"More or less, those graduates from so-called good law schools do not have any problem finding jobs," says Korea University's Park. "But those graduates in other schools in the country, they must have difficulty in finding jobs."
Korea University is the "K" in SKY, an acronym for the country's top three universities, the other two being Seoul National University and Yonsei University. All are in Seoul, as are a dozen of the other law schools.
One law student from Daegu, in southeast Korea, says that it is commonly believed that top law firms eliminate applicants based on the school they attended and that very few spots, if any, are reserved for students from schools outside of Seoul.
"We don't get the opportunity to get reviewed in the first place," says the student, who requested anonymity.
Lawyers in charge of recruiting at several major firms all rejected this claim, however; they say each applicant is evaluated on an individual basis without regard for location or the school attended. Bae, Kim & Lee partner Mi Eun Roh says the firm intentionally hires graduates from outside Seoul in order to give them the chance to work at a top-tier firm, although she does admit that new recruits come mainly from the country's most prestigious schools.
In any case, even SKY graduates are feeling the pressure; several who interned at top firms ultimately did not receive full-time offers. One such student says a school's brand name was not enough to guarantee a job.
"People think you get credit just for being a [SKY] student, but that is not true," the student says. "You still have to go under very strict scrutiny from law firms, and your GPA is very important."
Jen Kim, a first-year at Yonsei, says law students there have become more flexible about job prospects, looking at in-house or government jobs along with law firms.
"Most of the students get a job," she says. "You may not get the job you wanted, but you get one somewhere."
Likewise, Yang says many of her Ewha classmates are now rethinking firm ambitions and, like her, looking in-house. Chang, after taking some time off, also went in-house at Samsung's data services subsidiary.
In-house legal departments in South Korea, even at the biggest conglomerates, have traditionally been relatively small compared to their U.S. counterparts. Joongi Kim, associate dean of international affairs at Yonsei, says Korean businesses have not traditionally considered lawyers crucial. He cites his own university as an example.
"Yonsei is the largest university in the country, but we don't have a general counsel," he says. Kim says increased hiring of law graduates by companies for in-house roles could be a sign that the legal market is actually expanding in response to the glut of talent on the market. He thinks that will spread to smaller companies, government agencies, public interest groups and other employers who have not hired many lawyers in the past. That will in turn mean greater access to lawyers across the society.
"I'm a pretty strong believer that supply actually creates demand over the long term," he says. "I definitely think it's going to increase the pie."
Hughes also thinks the transition to law school will pay dividends in the end. The move was intended to introduce more diverse backgrounds in the legal profession, such as business or overseas experience. Firms in particular argued that JRTI graduates were often too academic in their thinking and had difficulty relating to clients.
The presumably more sophisticated and capable law school graduates are expected to be well positioned for further globalization of the South Korean economy and legal profession driven by free-trade agreements with the United States and the European Union. U.S. and U.K. law firms, which have just been allowed to open offices in Korea, will be allowed to hire Korean lawyers in 2017.
So the future's bright for South Korean law grads, says Hughes. The only problem is that it's the future: "That's cold comfort to graduates coming out of school now and can't find a job."