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Leading South Korean daily Chosun Ilbo reports that the nation’s legal profession is losing its luster as a growing proportion of newly qualified lawyers fail to find work. Korea’s Judicial Research and Training Institute, which teaches a mandatory two-year curriculum to bar exam-passers, told the newspaper 34 of the 978 lawyers who graduated in its 2009 class remain unemployed. That compares to just three unemployed at the same time last year. The problem may seem miniscule compared to the level of joblessness among U.S. lawyers, but it is still causing concern in a nation where lawyers have long enjoyed exalted status, due in no small part to the extreme difficulty of passing the Korean bar. For each of those 978 JRTI graduates, there were at least 10 others who failed the exam. And even many who are landing jobs are taking lower salaries. The Chosun Ilbo notes that some law firms are now advertising starting salaries of 40 million won ($32,000), barely half what newly qualified lawyers could have expected to earn a decade ago. Other new graduates are struggling to find cases as solo practitioners, and the newspaper reports they are running afoul of “brokers” who bring them cases in exchange for up to 50 percent of the fees — a practice similar to U.S. lawyers’ illegal use of “runners” to find cases. At the nation’s top corporate firms, the situation has not been as dire. Eun Young Park, a partner at Kim & Chang, by far the largest firm in South Korea, says his firm recruited a normal-sized class of around 30 lawyers and has had no layoffs or salary cuts. Park adds that work is starting to pick up again after falling off for much of the past year. But Park notes that unemployment among Korean lawyers may not solely be the function of the economic downturn. As tough as Korea’s bar exam seems, it used to be tougher. When Park graduated JRTI in 1991, he was part of a class of only around 300. The pass rate was increased in 2002 to annually qualify 1,000 lawyers. This year the nation is beginning a transition to a U.S.-style postgraduate legal education system that could double the number of new lawyers by 2012. The problem is that Korea’s economy and society have yet to create enough roles for all the new lawyers. The nation’s corporations and government agencies still hire and use far fewer lawyers than their counterparts in the United States or Europe. The situation is quite similar to that facing the legal profession in Japan, which we reported on in March. There, as in Korea, the expansion of the profession has also outpaced the creation of legal jobs. An official at the Korean Bar Association who spoke anonymously to the Chosun Ilbo cast the situation in dire terms: “We are seeing the beginning of a crisis for lawyers as jobs become tougher to find and work more scarce. Only the fittest lawyers who have survived cut-throat competition will remain standing in the end.” But Park is more optimistic. “It’s a bottleneck situation,” says Park. “In the long term, we do need more lawyers and lawyers will play a more important role in society. But, in the short term, this is a problem.”

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