What's Wrong with Legal Education in Ukraine?
27.10.2020
Analyst of DEJURE Foundation
"Would you want the doctor operating on you to have bought his degree?" This reasoning is often used to illustrate the harm of corruption in the higher education system. It makes sense to bring up doctors in this context since their professionalism directly impacts our most precious possessions — our health and life.
What about lawyers?
Have you heard anyone use judges, defense attorneys, or prosecutors as a similar example? It's not really common to think about their education and professional training. It is, however, their professionalism that plays the key role in ensuring our rights, freedom, and protecting our Constitution—that is, for Ukraine's existence as an independent country respecting human dignity and serving its people.

In developed countries, both lawyers and doctors belong to the so-called "regulated professions." This means that, given the nature of the professional activity, namely the direct influence on the most important aspects of a person's life, the government must pay special attention to the professional education in these majors. Therefore, requirements to the law degree (like the medical degree) are usually extremely high.
This makes it extremely hard to enter a law school or a medical school, studying is far from easy and very expensive, and not everyone can graduate and get the degree—however, those who do succeed become highly valued professionals in their societies.

Professional communities also care very much about their reputation, which is why they have the right to ban individuals deemed unprofessional or unworthy (e.g. by revoking their licenses to practice). Thus, being a doctor, a judge or a lawyer in Germany, the UK or the USA means a lot. This is corroborated by the consistently high level of trust in these professions in those countries.

In Ukraine, the level of trust in courts is consistently low. Taking into consideration the "Vovk's tapes", "Honored Lawyer Portnov" or "academician Kivalov," the honor of the legal professions sounds nearly absurd, or, at the very least, remains a theoretical textbook concept, far removed from reality.

The question is, where do such legal professionals come from? And will the change of generations have at least some positive impact on this situation?

Ukrainian judges, defense attorneys, and prosecutors are graduates of our legal schools. Sometimes, these people also have academic degrees and even government awards. If you look at the flip side of this, i.e., the education these professionals receive in Ukrainian law schools, it becomes evident that legal education is in dire need of reforms.


There are numerous urgent problems with legal education in Ukraine
For instance, it is no secret that in most cases, a law degree does not guarantee employment, since according to the OSCE research findings, there are way more law faculties, institutes, and universities in Ukraine than the labor market requires. That's not to mention the law graduates of vocational schools. In Ukraine, it is not only higher educational establishments that train lawyers but also vocational institutions. This profoundly devalues the prestige of legal education, even though it remains among the most expensive majors.

The mass scale of legal education inevitably impacts the quality of training. Most legal education institutions cannot and will never be able to ensure the proper quality of education. Therefore, if we want judges, defense attorneys, and prosecutors in Ukraine to be qualified, we must recognize that most legal faculties need to terminate their activity. Instead, strong law schools must finally receive sufficient resources to train high-level professionals.

At the same time, professional legal education involves much more than acquiring specific knowledge and skills. It involves professional and personal growth with a deep awareness of the professional mission to protect human rights and uphold the rule of law. Knowing the law is not enough to be a lawyer. A lawyer must be aware of the limits of good and evil in their professional activity. Only then will society be able to trust its judges, defense attorneys, and prosecutors.

If a law student receives his\her education in the atmosphere of corruption, or in strict subordination, like in law schools within the Ministry of Interior, will he or she become an independent judge, defense attorney or prosecutor? Will he or she resist when the president of the court suggests they "discuss" a future decision? Will he or she refuse to bribe a judge on the client's behalf? Of course, each decision of such kind is a personal choice and personal responsibility. However, the research shows that the atmosphere in which a person develops has a profound effect on their further professional life.

The legal profession is primarily perceived as an opportunity to make great money, not as a field where you can work to protect human rights and uphold the rule of law. As a result, motivated and successful law school graduates join the ranks of law firms that serve private clients. Conversely, the work of a prosecutor or a judge is seen as less attractive and less prestigious.

Naturally, law schools that primarily exist to help the government ensure the justice function and the ones that receive state funding should instill the right values and motivation in their students. But currently, it is what it is.

Therefore, without a legal education reform, there can hardly be hope for effective judicial reform and the development of institutions deemed by society as trustworthy. Like any major institutional change, this path is hard and will take quite a while. But if we do not accomplish this, we will be doomed to replicate the shortcomings of the current system, running around in circles and gradually regressing, which is obviously not something we want.
DJR
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