Rin Phirun stuck his hand into a blue, satin-covered box, and pulled out a balled-up piece of paper to cheers from his friends and a smattering of polite applause.
But this was no simple lucky draw. Mr. Phirun’s selection determined whether he would enter Cambodia’s judicial system as a judge or a prosecutor.
On Wednesday, Mr. Phirun, 32, was one of 55 graduate students at the Royal Academy for Judicial Professions to take part in the life-changing lottery, where he plucked out a paper emblazoned with the word “Judge.”
Although Cambodia’s legal system is based on that of France, this selection process deviates from the methods of its former colonizer, where future judges and prosecutors, in the order of their class standing, choose from a list of available postings prepared by the French Justice Ministry.
At the Royal Academy for Judicial Professions, Cambodia’s only training ground for aspiring judicial officials, career paths are left almost entirely up to chance.
In a two-part ceremony Wednesday, students were first called to the front of a lecture hall in order of academic rank, where they chose tickets numbered between one and 55 at random from the blue box in an atmosphere at times fraught and, at others, jovial.
The group was then re-ranked according to the numbers they drew and given a second chance at the lottery, which had 32 places on offer for the more prestigious—and potentially highly lucrative—position as judge, and 23 for that of prosecutor.
Mr. Phirun, a former Siem Reap Provincial Court staffer, who languishes near the bottom of the class academically, said that despite his selection of the more desirable posting, he was merely happy to be moving up the judicial ladder.
“For me, I don’t care, but for some, they care,” he said, adding that most women prefer to be judges, because prosecutors’ work is considered more dangerous.
“I think for the women, it’s a bit harder to work with the police,” he said. “Most women are small; they have to be the team leader of the judicial police, so for some, it’s a bit hard.”
The class’s No. 1 student, 30-year-old Lim Bunheng, who was a practicing lawyer for four years, insisted he was happy to become a prosecutor—despite appearing decidedly downcast.
“I am happy with the result because it is just, and it [the lottery] was done without bias,” he said.
Chhorn Proloeung, the president of the academy—which only accepts students who hold undergraduate law degrees or have significant civil service experience and who have passed an entrance examination—said the lottery has been used since the school was established in 2005.
“The reason we chose this method is because we do not want to compel the one who is outstanding or weak to become a judge or a prosecutor; we leave it for luck to decide,” he said, adding that both serve an important role.
Mr. Proloeung conceded that some students were unhappy with their future professions, but said that after finishing their degrees—they have a further six to seven months to brush up on their specializations before a final exam—“they would understand” the academy’s reasoning.
Phnom Penh Municipal Court Judge Chuon Soreasey, a graduate of the academy, also said he supported the system.
“It is good, it is good,” Judge Soreasey said. “If they were selected by a school director, they would fight for the best position. If they were all judges, who would be prosecutors?”
But Pech Pisey, director of programs at Transparency International in Cambodia, said the process of selecting judges and prosecutors should be based primarily on “experience, merit and the quality of the individual candidate.”
“I strongly believe that each individual should be able to choose their profession based on their passion, so to me, it’s a little strange,” he added.
Mr. Phirun, now focusing only on preparing to become a judge, admitted that his destined role will be a tough one.
“Some people, even me, like the [idea of being] prosecutors, too; I think the job is a bit easier because he doesn’t make the decision,” he said. “Making the decision is a big weight on your shoulders.”
But before entering the judiciary, he and his classmates will face one more test—a final lucky draw to decide to which of the courts across the country they will be posted.