On language skills in the Tokyo legal market

If you head to Japan to find a legal job, you’ll realize something pretty quickly: What school you went to, what you did there, and what work experience you have, all trumps your Japanese ability. Easily. A person from a top-20 school who speaks no Japanese at all is miles ahead of a person from a second or third-tier school who’s totally fluent.

That’s not to say language doesn’t matter at all. It can save an otherwise crappy resumé (mine comes to mind), and it can qualify a person for a better job. If you have an Ivy League degree and speak Japanese, the town is your oyster. But it’s not nearly as important as the other qualifications that law firms look for back in the US.

I used to think this was just a matter of priorities: firms value nice schools over language ability, since the schools woo clients more easily, there’s no shortage of translators and interpreters to bridge the language gap, and many Japanese clients don’t expect to see a gaijin speaking their language anyway. No doubt all of these factors play a role.

But I was recently talking to a seasoned lawyer from a big American firm in Tokyo, and he said that language skills can actually be a problem for many clients. That made no sense to me, so I prodded him on. “It’s actually pretty simple,” he said. “In many cases, they don’t want you to know everything that’s happened on their side of the case. If you know Japanese, you have a way of independently finding out. So if you don’t know Japanese, they figure they have more control over you.”

So what’s the best solution? Know the language, but don’t make the fact readily apparent?

25 thoughts on “On language skills in the Tokyo legal market”

  1. Well — it’s complicated. 🙂

    There are too many factors involved to give a clear answer either way, if language helps or hurts for some employers. In sum, OF COURSE its important; but don’t expect it to be your trump card.

    The biggest issue is needs. Some firms want lawyers with certain legal skills; some firms want lawyers with language skills; some firms want people with a long-term commitment to Japan, others want cheap labor. Some firms have REQUIREMENTS that their attorneys speak Japanese; others want quite the opposite.

    With clients, it goes both ways. A few old school Japanese firms may want to hide their deck from their attorneys, but many want quite the opposite. And US clients in particular want US attorneys in Japan they can trust and who know their shit.

    Coudert Brothers, a premier international law firm which recently decided to disband, had an infamous Tokyo office where the partner feared Japanese speakers would trespass on his turf and only hired people who didn’t know Japan. This reminds me of the attorney you mention. But a long-term commitment to Japan and familiarity with the language and culure is another big one.

    Also, how well do you speak Japanese? (I don’t mean “you” as in “Joe,” but as a stock statement.) I know lots of Americans who speak the Japanese language but don’t know how to speak it, or they don’t get the culture, and just embarass those around them.

    At the end of the day, it’s telling that so many Australian lawyers with negligible legal pedigrees who are nonetheless fluent in Japanese dominate the Tokyo western legal market. Your big lawyer might say its all about credentials, and he’s not incorrect; but as a successful non-ivy league US attorney in Tokyo told me once, “guys like me may start out slower, but we always win the race in the end.”

  2. If you head to Japan to find a legal job, you’ll realize something pretty quickly: What school you went to, what you did there, and what work experience you have, all trumps your Japanese ability. Easily. A person from a top-20 school who speaks no Japanese at all is miles ahead of a person from a second or third-tier school who’s totally fluent.

    This statement is just flat-out wrong.

  3. Hey, for somebody who’s halfway decent, but not fluent, in Japanese, and is about to graduate from a decent law school, what do you guys think would be the best way to find ANY work in Tokyo?

  4. My friend, who is totally fluent in Japanese (having lived there most of her life), went to an interview with a fairly well known American firm in Tokyo. Despite a well qualified resume, the first comment from the lawyers conducting the interview was, “[insert name] School of Law? I’ve never heard of [insert name] before.” She got the sense throughout the interview that her 2nd tier status weighed heavily on her marketability. Needless to say, she got no call-back.

  5. Aburioe: what did you do during your summers?

    Everlasting: Not an uncommon situation, but what a law student does during the summer is pretty important, and would be more than half of the substance of a meaningful interview for a post-law school job.

  6. Since I’m privy to a little more information than the rest of the readers/commenters, the attorney mentioned in the post is at a firm with just a few attorneys in Tokyo and whose sole purpose is to funnel the legal work of Japanese clients to offices in the US. This is the function of most law firms in Japan with just a few attorneys resident in Tokyo, and why the attorney mentioned has such a warped view of the usefulness of language skills. Plenty of international firms have both an established local practice and a global practice. I for one wouldn’t want to work at a firm with such a narrow practice where the attorneys were bitch-slapped by its Japanese clients.

    (THIS is why I blog quasi-anonymously.)

  7. Curzon: I studied in Tokyo and then did a month long internship at a patent law firm in Akasaka, and then worked for the Navy JAG the second summer.

    Since my school, University of Texas, is not very internationally oriented, I’m not sure if my career services office has ever even heard of Japan (at least it doesn’t seem like it), so they’re not much help. Do you think it’s possible to find good work by just taking the bar and then going over to Tokyo, setting up residence, and then just sending out resumes and trying to network? cuz that’s what I’m thinking about doing.

  8. The foreign lawyer law(gaiben hou) was recently changed (in April 2005). And it opened a path for foreign lawyers to work more actively but if you want to work in Tokyo, the most important thing is which state bar you are holding. Without bar, it can be considered as not strong candidate.

    NY state or CA state bar is very popular in Japan as you know. JD Graudtaes without bar can be very useless for Japanese firms.

    As principles, Foreign lawyers cannot go to a courtroom and clain anything in Japan. There is also no LLM course for foreign lawyers who want to get bar now. It is very limited for foreign lawyers to work in Japan, so it is necessary to have the bar of the popular states.

    Getting the Japanese bar in Japan is a small percentage of being successful. Only 3 % of the people who take the exam can pass it. It will be more since we have the law school now but studying law in Japan is very different from studying law in America. We more focus on memorizing instead of being practical.

    To pass the bar of Japan, you need to learn Constitutional Law, Administrative Law, Civil Law, Criminal Law(principles, contracts, properties, family, tort, and securities), Ciriminal Procedure, Civil Procedure, Corporate Law, and Commercial Law as mandate subjects.

    The bar does not ask any extra knowledge about speciality. People need to take one elective subject for the bar but its weight on the exam is not big enough. There is a saying that people who master Civil Law can pass the exam. So memorizing a lot of theories and way of writing exams is the most important thing to get the bar of Japan. This also sets up big obstacles for foreign lawyers who are used to study in a practical way. I had a classmate who is Japanese and had a NY bar in my law school, but he quited as soon as the classes start because it is wast of time for him because the way of studying is totally different and hard for him to sacrifice his time. We can work and earn more as NY bar instead of spending 3 years in a law school.

    Anway, NY bar is very plus for you, Aburioe.

  9. Aburioe: As Shuhei says, of course you have to be admitted to a bar — otherwise you’re not an attorney. Going straight to Tokyo after taking the bar is risky as you may not be able to find substantial work — you’ll probably get stuck in a Japanese firm as their English spellchecker. The most important thing for you is probably experience in the US for a few years in any transactional work (i.e. real estate and corporate but not divorce and wills), and then head to Japan. NY and CA are probably the best bars, followed (in no real order) by Illinois, DC, Texas, Florida, Washington, and Pennsylvania, but more important is probably the substance of your work — don’t go to NY to do crap work if you could do substantial work in Texas. Email me and we can talk more (through the ABOUT section at ComingAnarchy.com).

  10. aburioe: Well, if you want to be a lawyer in Tokyo, you have a few options:

    1) Work for a large American firm. This carries most of the upsides and downsides that it carries in the United States. Good pay, ridiculous working hours, high expectations, high qualifications.

    2) Work for a Japanese firm. In most such jobs, you’ll be a document checker. Not a bad job per se, and it pays pretty good money, but you won’t be calling the shots from a corner office anytime soon. The better jobs almost always require you to be qualified as a gaiben, which means you need a couple of years’ experience overseas first.

    3) Work in-house. Usually, you need years of experience before you can be considered for these jobs. In patents, though, you might not have such a hard time (many big companies like Sony and Matsushita advertise patent attorney positions through their main employment sites; see what kind of qualifications they demand).

    4) “Hang out your own shingle.” This is generally a really bad idea unless you’re experienced and have an affiliation with another law firm, but there are a few crazy solos working around Tokyo.

    Shuhei mentions bar admission as important; I think it’s mostly important for perception reasons. It’s going to go on your business card. If you have NY or CA admission, it screams “big money!” I’m not sure what Texas would scream, but it might make people in Tokyo giggle a little. (Nothing against Texas of course…) That said, there are lawyers in Tokyo who got their admissions in Texas, Michigan, Washington, Illinois, and a bunch of other states (plus the huge population of Australians that Curzon mentioned), so bar admission isn’t determinative.

  11. Thanks for all the information, everybody! I really appreciate it, and who knows, maybe some of us will run into each other in the future in Tokyo!

  12. BTW, the managing partner of Vinson & Elkins in Tokyo took the bar exam in… Maine.

    Goes to show you can get away with anything in that department.

  13. There is a professorat my law school, whose name is Robert Grondine, who served as the head of American Chamber of Commerce in Japan. He has a bar of CA, DC, NY, and MA. Formerly of Baker & McKenzie Tokyo Aoyama Law Office, he is now with White & Case LLP Tokyo.

    Actually, he is the very successful example. American lawyers in Japan can do very limited jobs due to the Foreign Lawyers Law (Gaiben Hou). It even had banned foreign lawyers to run the law firm in Japan without Japanese lawyer’s supervision. It changed this year and allowed foreign lawyers to run their firm without Japanese lawyer’s supervison but they can do very limited things under the Japanese law. Most of their jobs are dealing international contracts. Some people might think its a kida traslating job but most international lawyers’ jobs(shogai bengoshi) are things like that in Japan.

    International Lawyers(shogai bengoshi)’ images are good but most of them say it is just a hard job to check the contrats all day, so the money is very good. Even Japanese lawyers also spend a lot of time to check the contracts at the international law firms.

    And the reason NY and CA bars are pouplar is that Japanese companies which are their clients often have trasactions with companies in CA or NY. They even have their branches there, but the decision-making body is always in Japan under the Japanese company system, so the tokyo headquater always needs to be sure about the contacts they will make with. International lawyers are usually counsels for them.

    So accoding to Ichiro Kasuga, my professor of Civil Procedure law, they always need to determ how to decide which state’s jurisdiction they will use or if they use an arbitration system that eliminates all jurisdiction beforehand as practice. So, it will be plus for you to have good knowledge about International Civil Procedure Law, especially jurisdictional disputes or its limits. Professor Kasuga also said there are very few lawyers who are an expert of the International Civil Procedure Law in Japan yet, so there is a big demand now.

    By the way, Professor Kasuga is an examinar of the Japanese Bar, so I am sure he is not an idiot who tell a lie though.

  14. There’s more than contracts, though that is a big part of the business. Foreign lawyers work in all sorts of fields–corporate, M&A, project finance, securities, real estate, commercial arbitration, etc. Where Japanese law is involved, they often work with Japanese lawyers: most of the serious international firms in Tokyo have both Japanese and foreign lawyers on staff.

    It’s boring work, but corporate/commercial work is boring no matter where you’re practicing. And I must say, I would rather be doing it in Tokyo than in New York or Chicago. (Won’t comment on California because I haven’t really been there.)

  15. If you can read Japanese, check this website below.

    You can find how much limited the things that foreign lawyers can do in Japan. In Japan, JD or paralegals without Japanese bar can be considered as nothing but a usual person. If they act as if they have a Japanese bar or act beyond their limited legal authorities, they face with 2 years of sentence as its maximum or 3 milion yen of penalty.

    It also says Foreign Lawyers can do only 6 things that are not related to their home country. They are listed under the article 3 of the Foreign Lawyer Act(Gaiben Hou). As you can see, the most of the things they can do is to make the documents. They cannot stand in the courtroom or cannot do any other jobs after they submitted the documents. But, do not be so disappointed. Check out a number 3. It allows foreign lawyers to gives their opinions on an application of laws that are not their home country law. Of course, you can only gives “Your Opinions” and have some limitation.

    And interesting provision is article 63. It says you cannot make your legal interpretation of the Laws that are effective in Japan as the form of documents. You will face 2 years-sentence or penalty of 3 milions yen.

    I think the honest feeling of the Japan Bar Assosiation is that they do not want to invite foreign lawyers into Japan. The bar assosiation now has a big authority on foreign lawyers. The Assosiation can determine any regulations over the activities of the foreign lawyers and they must follow it. Otherwise, they will be expelled from the bar and cannot work as the lisenced foreign lawyers in Japan. If you do not have a foreign lawyer lisence and work as if you have it, you will face 2 years-sentence. So, if you guys decide to work in Japan, you may need to understand that Japanese lawyers and the bar association has a unfavorable feeling to invite them into Japan. I am sorry if you feel bad about this, but I thought it would be better to know this before you come to Japan and will hate my country.

    I just pasted the important parts of Gaiben How below.
    第 三条 外国法事務弁護士は、当事者その他関係人の依頼又は官公署の委嘱によつて、原資格国法に関する法律事務を行うことを職務とする。ただし、次に掲げる法律事務を行うことは、この限りでない。
    一  国内の裁判所、検察庁その他の官公署における手続についての代理及びその手続についてこれらの機関に提出する文書の作成
    二  刑事に関する事件における弁護人としての活動、少年の保護事件における付添人としての活動及び逃亡犯罪人引渡審査請求事件における補佐
    三  原資格国法以外の法の解釈又は適用についての鑑定その他の法的意見の表明
    四  外国の裁判所又は行政庁のために行う手続上の文書の送達
    五  民事執行法(昭和五十四年法律第四号)第二十二条第五号の公正証書の作成嘱託の代理
    六  国内に所在する不動産に関する権利又は工業所有権、鉱業権その他の国内の行政庁への登録により成立する権利若しくはこれらの権利に関する権利(以下「工業所有権等」という。)の得喪又は変更を主な目的とする法律事件についての代理又は文書(鑑定書を除く。以下この条において同じ。)の作成

    第 四十二条 外国法事務弁護士は、所属弁護士会及び日本弁護士連合会の会則中外国法事務弁護士に関する規定を守らなければならない。

    第 四十四条 外国法事務弁護士は、業務を行うに際しては、外国法事務弁護士の名称を用い、かつ、その名称に原資格国の国名を付加しなければならない。

    第 四十六条 外国法事務弁護士は、日本弁護士連合会の会則で定めるところにより、その事務所内の公衆の見やすい場所に、原資格国法及び指定法を表示する標識を掲示しなければならない。
    2  前項の規定による掲示のほか、原資格国法及び指定法の表示に関し必要な事項は、日本弁護士連合会の会則で定める。

    第 四十八条 外国法事務弁護士は、一年のうち百八十日以上本邦に在留しなければならない。
    2  外国法事務弁護士が、自己又は親族の傷病その他のやむを得ない事情に基づき、出国をして本邦外の地域に在つた場合においては、その本邦外の地域に在つた期間は、前項の規定の適用については、本邦に在留した期間とみなす。

    第 四十九条 外国法事務弁護士であつて弁護士又は外国法事務弁護士を雇用するものは,自己の第三条及び第五条から第五条の三までに規定する業務の範囲を超える法律事務(以下「権限外法律事務」という。)の取扱いについて,その雇用する弁護士又は外国法事務弁護士に対し,雇用関係に基づく業務上の命令をしてはならない。

    2  前項の規定に違反してされた命令を受けて,使用者である外国法事務弁護士が権限外法律事務を行うことに関与した弁護士又は外国法事務弁護士は,これが雇用関係に基づく業務上の命令に従つたものであることを理由として,懲戒その他の責任を免れることができない。

    3  外国法事務弁護士であつて弁護士又は外国法事務弁護士を雇用するものは,第一項に規定するもののほか,その雇用する弁護士又は外国法事務弁護士が自ら行う法律事務であつて当該使用者である外国法事務弁護士の権限外法律事務に当たるものの取扱いについて,不当な関与をしてはならない。

    第 六十三条 外国法事務弁護士が、業務に関し、次の各号に掲げる法律事務を行つたときは、二年以下の懲役又は三百万円以下の罰金に処する。

     一  国内の裁判所における訴訟事件(刑事に関するものを除く。)、非訟事件、家事審判事件、民事執行事件、民事保全事件その他民事に関する事件の手続についての代理

     二  刑事に関する事件の手続についての代理、刑事に関する事件における弁護人としての活動、少年の保護事件における付添人としての活動又は逃亡犯罪人引渡審査請求事件における補佐

     三  国内の行政庁に対する異議申立て、審査請求その他の不服申立事件の手続についての代理

     四  国内において効力を有し、又は有した法(原資格国法若しくは指定法に含まれる条約その他の国際法又は第五条の二第一項の規定により特定外国法に関する法律事務を行う場合の特定外国法に含まれる条約その他の国際法を除く。)の解釈又は適用についての書面による鑑定

  16. I think you’re sort of exaggerating the situation, Shuhei. You’re correct about the laws and the penalties. But the point is, if you’re a foreigner wanting to practice corporate, commercial, and business law, which accounts for most of the demand in Tokyo, the laws don’t keep you from doing so. Litigation is obviously out of the question, but I think a person would have to be crazy to move to Japan to become a litigator…

    Interestingly, while there was a ban on new foreign lawyers from the 50s to the 80s, there have been foreigners practicing law in Tokyo almost as far back as the Meiji Restoration. Even now, the bar associations in Tokyo seem to be quite willing to let in anyone who pays their dues and meets the requirements. In fact, the recent changes to the law have loosened the system to make it easier to become a gaiben, and to enable gaiben to provide more legal services.

    That said, I never encountered that “unfavorable feeling” you mentioned. There are many foreign lawyers in Japan now, gaiben or not, and their colleagues realize that they provide valuable services. And at any rate, foreign lawyers have to be allowed under the WTO agreements, so if Nichibenren (the national federation of bar associations) really had a problem with that, there’s nothing they could do about it.

  17. well, you are too optimistic, Joe. I see the situation completely opposite. The Nichibenren(Japan Bar Assosication) is not such a nice body as well as is a huge authoriterian organization. All they need is to keep their existing benefits. They greatly opposed to the new foreign lawyers law although the Koizumi administration has pushed judicial reform.

    Check this document. You will see how Nichibenren is trying to put a bar on foreign lawyers. Its a document made by American Chamber of Commerce in Japan, which is a pro-foreign lawyers association as you know. They severely criticize Nichibenren’s attitude toward foreign lawyers.


    And my point is that area of foreign lawyers activities in Japan is on the hand of the Nichibenren. Article 42nd of the Foreign lawyers law is a success of the Nichibenren. It says, “Foreign Lawyers must act comply with the Nichibenren regulations and the regulations of the local bar assosiation that they register”. ACCJ clearly understood this danger and published this document to warn the Nichibenren as well as the Japanese Government.

    Actually, my legal writing professor, Robert McIlroy, who also worked to make a new foreign lawyers law(shin-gaibenhou), told me how much the Nichibenren tried to disburb and how hard it was to make the new law when I had a tea with him.

    Of course, there were foriegn lawyers in the past when the regulations were severer. But, they could do very limited things, so they tried to remove their obstcles through their lives. Some succeeded and others failed. Foreign lawyers in Meiji priod are the people who were invited by the Meiji Government or other official bodies, so it was quite different from the current situation where the official body is not “willing” to invite but “accepting”.

    They did great job to influence Japanese Civil Law or Criminal Law. However, you know the civil law that was made by Boissonade, a french lawyer who was invited by the government, was not adopted eventually. The main reason that Japanese lawyers opposed to it is that they do not want a law made by a foreigner.

    This tendency still exists. Suprisingly, 50% of the people in Japan do not want to amend article 9 of the Constitution but they think it is necessary to amend the some provision of the Constitution BECAUSE it was made by an American not Japanese.

    So, people who become a bar in America and are thinking to come to Japan to work as a lawyer need to be realistic about the Nichibenren’s obstacles as well as Japan’s closeness they will face with here. The judiciary field in Japan is the MOST conservative fields. Without seeing the reality and having enough motivation to flight against this closeness, foriegn lawyers will sacrifice their good career chance in their own state.

    Actually, Professor McIloy said similar things to my opinions. So this is not only my impression as a Japanese.

    And you bring the WTO agreement, but you know international law does not mean anything in terms of binding power in reality. Japan ratified International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women(ICERD), but we have sooooooooo many discriminations against women.

    Besides, Japan is a member of Convention on the Rights of the Child, but there was no ciriminal law to punish Japanese people who had invloved in child porn until recently. We made a law in 2004 with Nichiberen’s great opposition although we ratified the treaty in 1994. If international law has stong binding power, the war on Iraq did not happen in that way, too.

  18. Being a foreign attorney in Japan is way more than translating and checking contracts — the field is wide open and extends to all areas of transnational law, including tax, energy, finance, banking, trade, international litigation, real estate, corporate, and much more.

  19. That litigation means appearing in front of a judge is like saying building a house means constructing a roof. Document preparation, contacting witnesses, gathering evidence etc etc etc is another major role for attorneys involved in transnational litigation overseas, whether it be Japan or elsewhere.

  20. I’m confused about what non-gaiben can do. The laws reprinted by Shuhei apply to Gaiben. How can a licensed attorney who is not a gaiben work in Japan?

    Can they work as in-house counsel? If so, what can they do? Can they be employed in a Japanese or Foreign law firm with a branch in Japan?

  21. Chase, it’s a month late, but if you read this you’ll have your answer. Basically if you are not a gai-ben you cannot do any lawyer work. It is basically like working in a law office in the US without passing any state bar. You cannot advise anyone on any laws and cannot represent clients in Japanese courts (which you can’t do even if you are a gai-ben). All the people I know who work in Japanese law firms and are not gai-ben usually handle translation work, English editing, English letter drafting, and research. It kind of stinks that you can pass three state bars but can’t give legal advice in Japan without being a gai-ben. The only requirement that I know of to be a gai-ben is to pass a state bar and have two years of legal practice experience in the states, and one year of experience in Japan, at that point you can apply to be a gai-ben.

  22. Jidohanbaiki states the law well, but it doesn’t have that much to do with the gaiben qualification. The fact is that if you’re a Western lawyer, and you don’t have the requisite experience to become a gaiben, your relevant skills are probably limited to translation, drafting letters and research.

    With solely-Japanese firms it’s a tougher situation for foreign lawyers because the focus is on Japanese law. Most of the domestic firms refer their clients to foreign firms for foreign law work. All they do in-house is Japanese law. The gaiben in these firms mainly exist to intermediate with foreign clients: their job is to get questions, refer them to the Japanese lawyers, get answers and write back. Practically, this is what junior associates (or rather “trainees”) will be doing as well, except that they are much less likely to be doing it directly, which means they’re basically drafting and translating.

    On the other hand, if you’re working in a foreign firm, you’ll be doing more “legal” work: figuring out whether a contract will be valid, structuring transactions, etc. You can get away with that because even though you’re in Japan, you’re working with law of which you actually have a detailed knowledge. The gaijin banking and finance lawyers at firms like Linklaters and Sullivan Cromwell are working in law of jurisdictions where they’re actually qualified; if their case involves Japanese law, they’ll be pulling in Japanese lawyers. And they might not be gaiben. Some foreign firms have lots of gaiben, some have zero.

    The point I’m making is: what you’ll be doing as a lawyer in Japan is much more dependent on your experience than on whether you’re wearing a phat lapel pin around. And if you have the experience to do the real legal work, you’re probably qualified to become a gaiben (and you’ll probably get bored at a Japanese firm rather quickly).

  23. To more directly answer Chase’s question: Legally, gaiben are the only foreign lawyers allowed to practice law. As a practical matter, there is little difference between gaiben and foreign lawyers who are not gaiben. However, unless you have the requisite experience to become a gaiben, you probably won’t be marketable in Japan except as a translator or glorified secretary.

  24. JDHB: You’re just stating one interpretation of the law — look at the actual foreign law firms and you’ll see how the registration works in practice. Firms White & Case, Baker & McKenzie, Vinson Elkins, and a very few others are the only ones that _insist_ on gaiben registration for all their attorneys. Other firms (Orrick, Davis Polk, Simpson Thatcher, Sullivan Cromwell) say that only their partners have to be gaiben, and have no gaiben registered associates. Others, such as Morrison Foerster and Skadden Arps even have non-gaiben partners, and believe that the low only requires one or two gaiben, enough to establish an office. Skadden in particular has 25-30 attorneys but only 2 gaiben.

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