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April 2010

To qualify as a lawyer (bengoshi) with full rights to give legal advice and represent clients – and also to be appointed as a senior court judge or public prosecutor – candidates must pass the National Legal Examination (shiho shiken), and then be trained at the Legal Research and Training Institute (LRTI). University legal education still takes place primarily at the undergraduate level. Every year, about 45,000 students graduate with a Bachelor of Laws. However, most of them do not become lawyers, instead finding employment in governmental organs or private corporations, because it has been extremely difficult to pass the National Legal Examination. In 2004, while more than 40,000 people took the Examination, less than 1,500 examinees passed. The number of successful examinees is intentionally limited. The number was 500 in 1990, then gradually increased to 1,000 in 2000, and to around 1500 in 2004. It was expected rise to around 3,000 per annum in 2010, as part of a broader program of judicial reforms underway since 2001, but the recent election of a new President for the Japan Federation of Bar Associations now makes this very unlikely.

Another aspect of the agenda advanced by the Judicial Reform Council (JRC) related to the training of prospective legal professionals was the inauguration of 68 new postgraduate “Law Schools” from April 2004. However, although it is easier for their (carefully selected) students to pass a “New Legal Examination” (shin-shiho shiken), it remains one of the most difficult in Japan – with a pass rate of about 30%. The old shiho shiken, which could be attempted without any university degree, has been gradually phased out to allow the new Law Schools to get established, although (as recommended by the JRC in 2001) a small new scheme will be introduced to allow those unable to afford Law School to still qualify to become a bengoshi, prosecutor or Judge.

But what happens after this Examination and when one joins the almost 3,000-strong judiciary in Japan?

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