What’s a charitable bengoshi to do?

A Japanese lawyer, who I have introduced to a number of foreigners with various legal queries over the years, has come up with (what I feel to be) a proposal that may : “How do I start a legal practice to act for foreigners living in Japan?”

By way of introduction, this lawyer currently works at a mid-size Japanese firm in central Tokyo doing a broad range of civil, commercial and family law. The lawyer has many friends who are foreigners, and is aware that a number of them have had issues in the past with irresponsible and irresponsive lawyers, and sympathetic with the opacity of Japan’s legal system that many foreigners may not understand. The lawyer genuinely wants to make Japan an easier place to live for non-natives.

My intial reaction is… build it and they will come! But thinking about it, I have a number of questions and concerns:
* Surely there is the need for this practice — there are large numbers of foreigners who are confused by Japan, the legal system, the bureaucracy, and the way things work, and who face difficulties in resolving disputes and navigating processes. I am concerned that there may not be a market, in that the individuals clients will be unable or unwilling to pay for the services.
* How should the practice be publicized? Should there be a website to get out the word?
* Would the practice be enough to sustain be done as an independent operation, or while at a law firm with other lawyers?
* Are there areas that the lawyer should seek to specialize, or areas to avoid? I would be interested in the ratio of work that the lawyer gets, and what ratio would be contract disputes, negotiating and litigating divorce and family law matters, criminal defense, immigration, etc.

As this proposal is still at the brainstorming level, I’d be curious to hear the MF community weigh in advice as to how to proceed.

13 thoughts on “What’s a charitable bengoshi to do?”

  1. Where I live the local government offers free legal counseling every now and again. I am not sure who uses it but it would surely be a good place to start gauging need.

  2. The bulk of legal inquiries by foreign residents will likely concern visas. That’s not especially profitable work and you would need to specialize in the area to add any value.

    Your guy also has to consider who he thinks he will be dealing with. The main foreign populations are Korean, Chinese and South American. The first two already have lawyers offering services to them in Japan while he’ll need Portuguese or Spanish to make inroads with the third. Filipinos are often comfortable in English but some of the high profile cases they have been involved with have received pro bono support from lawyers groups.

    He may have in mind dealing with Westerners. Profitable areas might be family law, real estate and tenancy law, labour law and some parts of corporate law (although the latter demand might be better covered by accountants and tax advisers). I’m assuming, from what you wrote about his background, your guy doesn’t necessarily want to get involved with criminal cases.

    He could always think about setting up a practice which essentially acts as a middleman, directing foreign clients with a variety of problems to the lawyer which best serves their needs. This would mean creating a network of lawyers willing to take on foreign clients, if they are referred by him, where he does all the handholding on both sides. The lawyers would get access to clients they wouldn’t otherwise know how to find, and the knowledge they have a legal point man around to advise.

    That sort of practice would get around one reservation I might have. Using lawyers when you are in a dispute in Japan is often like playing a game of top trumps. If you’re opponent has a senior man from an established law firm representing him then you really need to match his firepower regardless of the merits of your case. I’d be concerned that, for all the ease-of-use your friend might offer, he might lack sufficient clout in certain cases, and I’d do better finding a lawyer who didn’t specifically handle foreigners but knew his way around rather better.

    Obviously, not all legal work is resolving disputes but some of it will be, especially where it concerns family, tenancy or labour law.

  3. I recall that Brendon Carr, periodic Marmot commentator and author of the Korea Law Blog, said he would rather take a criminal case than an employment case — the reason being that a person arrested for something is fighting for their freedom and will pay accordingly if they can get it, whereas a person raising a labor dispute is usually broke and barely employable in the future.

  4. About advertising, I’ve seen a couple lawyer ads in Metropolis. Mainly for helping with visa applications.
    A website would probably help, as internet is the first tool used to look for info nowadays (who calls/checks the yellow pages anymore ?)

  5. One problem with criminal cases is that, unless he or she has family in Japan, a convicted defendant is often deported. Without wanting to perpetuate the stereotype of unreliable foreigners, some may not make paying their Japanese lawyer’s bill a top priority when they are overseas. As we know, if the case has made it to the prosecutors, then a conviction is extremely probable. The best chance for a lawyer to achieve a happier outcome is if he can get in after the arrest but before the prosecutors get involved. That’s when deals can be struck.

    Employment cases can involve people who are desperate but the litigants are usually planning on staying in Japan. A reasonable number are also comfortably off but want to fight a point of principle. I know one bloke who has done so well out of legal action against various employers to the extent he now almost chooses to join firms which are most likely to fire him.

  6. The other consideration is that if your case makes it to the prosecutors, you will get a state-appointed attorney for the trial anyway. The only point where you have no choice but to “roll your own legal team” is between arrest and prosecution.

  7. Yeah, but in Japan once your case gets to the point of prosecution, haven’t you very nearly already lost? Or does the defense have a good chance of affecting the severity of the sentence?

    For that matter, are there yet any stats on how likely cases tried under the new “jury” system are to lead to acquittal versus the traditional system?

  8. The juries have had basically no impact – only a tiny few cases overturned in the last year.

  9. A Japan Times interview gives more background on the development Joe noted:

    “Suzuki also serves as secretary general of the Lawyers Network for Foreigners, a group of 833 lawyers nationwide working on various issues related to foreigners that was founded in May 2009. And the setup of the new legal section at the Tokyo Public Law Office is a part of their activity to increase the number of lawyers specializing in foreigners’ issues as well as improving the quality of their legal service. But this new legal section is only a midway stop for lawyers like Suzuki. She said they eventually want to establish an independent law firm and ultimately create a core system to provide service to foreigners throughout Japan and not just in urban areas.”

  10. An often overlooked field of practice is consumer rights. I have experienced and/or heard of ridiculous rip-offs and “no-warranty” purchases that are plain illegal.

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