Colleges hope new law schools will boost student numbers

Staff writer

With the nation's birthrate falling and the number of high school graduates in steady decline, institutions of higher learning have been scrambling to maintain student levels.
News photo
Keio University President Yuichiro Anzai discusses the new law schools debuting at 68 universities.

One source of relief may come from judicial system reforms that will require more legal professionals to speed up trial proceedings and cover more complex and technical legal issues.

Beginning Thursday, 68 universities across the country -- 22 public and 46 private -- will open new law schools modeled after those in the United States, which focus on case studies and practical skills.

The new programs may help some schools attract more students, but many insiders expect universities to face stiff competition as they vie to acquire a reputation as solid providers of specialized education.

"Frankly speaking, this is a war to get as many talented students as we can," said Keio University President Yuichiro Anzai.

Even Keio, one of Japan's top private universities, has employed various survival strategies, including lowering tuition fees and trying to offer better programs than its rivals, he said.

The new law schools will emphasize practical legal education instead of the law programs that up to now have focused on juristic research -- an approach criticized because bar exam applicants all too often pursue only the technical skills needed to pass the extremely competitive test, and attend cram schools to acquire them.

The new law schools are also in keeping with education ministry moves last April to allow universities to set up profession-specific graduate courses.

Last year, eight universities created programs of this kind in areas that include public health, international accounting and finance.

The reality for the new law schools, however, is that even they will have to focus for the time being on preparing their students for the bar exam.

And the schools have been trying to outdo each other in attracting the most talented people.

Keio is stressing its new law school's curriculum, which includes classes on contemporary legal areas such as finance and intellectual property.

The school also hopes to form alliances with law schools and law firms overseas, so its students have a chance to study in the U.S., Europe and other parts of Asia.

But Anzai admitted there are limits to how unique the curriculum can be, because many courses are mandatory for passing the bar exam, which itself has yet to be overhauled.

"Even if we want to teach more about timely subjects, there is little room (in the curriculum) to do so," he said. "This will not change unless subjects (required) for the bar exam change."

Competition is also fierce on the tuition front. Last year, Tokyo's Waseda University, whose graduates have a good track record with the bar exam, triggered a price war by announcing that its law school's annual tuition would be lowered to between 1.2 million yen and 1.5 million yen.

According to Anzai, Keio's law school would have to charge at least 2 million yen to break even. It was able to reduce the figure thanks to the 2.5 billion yen in total government subsidies paid to private universities that established the new law schools.

Keio will waive tuition fees for the top 40 scorers of its law school entrance exam if these students continue to get excellent grades. In addition, the remaining 220 students will each receive an annual scholarship of 500,000 yen. As a result, Keio's annual tuition comes to between 1.2 million yen and 1.36 million yen.

Despite this, tuition at private institutions is still basically more expensive than it is at public universities, which receive more financial support from the national and local governments. For example, tuition at law schools set up by national universities is fixed at 804,000 yen per year.

"We have to compete with public universities under such unequal conditions," Anzai said.

Those who pass the bar exam after graduating from public university law schools should work in rural areas, which are suffering a lack of lawyers, for a few years to justify the lower tuition made possible with government support, he said.

Because students who were undergraduate law majors will be able to graduate from the new law schools in two years, it won't be until fiscal 2006, when they take the bar exam, that those institutions that came out on top will be known.

Hiromitsu Ishi, president of Hitotsubashi University, believes, like others, that there are too many law schools, and some may be forced to close if their graduates' bar exam success rate falls short.

In fiscal 2003, only 1,170 -- 2.58 percent -- of 45,372 applicants filled the pass quota.

Although the government plans to boost the quota to 1,500 in fiscal 2004 and to 3,000 in fiscal 2010, many observers say that with about 5,600 people being accepted at the 68 law schools this year alone, institutions whose graduates have relatively poor bar exam results may face a crisis.

Like other law schools, Keio's priority is to have as many students as possible pass the bar exam, Anzai conceded.

However, he noted that will not be enough to fulfill the school's mission.

"It's important not to make it a school that just provides students with skills to obtain legal qualifications," he said. "We also hope our graduates play leading roles in the international legal community."

The Japan Times: March 31, 2004