I moved to Tokyo in January 2014 to take up a 12 month long role as a Foreign Legal Trainee with one of the “big four” law firms in Japan. I confess that, prior to moving, I hadn’t properly thought about what to expect, both of Japan generally or at work.
Despite my best intentions, I also failed to learn any Japanese prior to sitting in the airport’s departure lounge, at which point I leisurely perused the “key phrases” in my newly purchased English-Japanese phrase book. About twenty minutes after landing in Japan, I realised the error of my ways as I stared at the train departure board labouring under some false impression that if I stared long enough I would understand the Japanese characters.
Since arriving, I’ve found Tokyo to be a city that is somehow simultaneously chaotic and organised. Routine is a large part of living in Tokyo, and I was surprised by how quickly I fell into my own routine, adding to the organised chaos of the city.
A typical day starts with a brief ride on Tokyo’s famous train network. Navigating Tokyo’s immaculate stations, however, is surprisingly easy, despite many stations being serviced by multiple lines and often being full beyond capacity with other commuters immersed in their smartphones, anime, and newspapers.
I’m told that many of the offices of law firms in Tokyo have a similar layout. Japanese lawyers, or bengoshi, commonly share an office with two to four colleagues. Secretaries and support staff sit in the rows of cubicles in the centre space of the floor. Bengoshi that share an office refer to each other as “roommates”.
Initially I found this expression strange. However as time progressed it made increasing sense given the amount of time that bengoshi spend together in their offices. Most bengoshi have spare clothes, a sleeping bag, pillows and even some gym equipment in their office, reducing the need to leave the office. If there were kitchen and shower facilities, I suspect some would not return home at all. It is not uncommon for bengoshi to work through the evening into the early hours of the next morning and only returning home on the first train to shower, change and possibly have one or two hours’ sleep before returning to the office.
As a legal trainee in Japan with foreign legal qualifications, the work I’m exposed to is extremely broad. At one end of the spectrum, I review outgoing correspondence written in English for accuracy and expression, providing comments and explanations for suggested amendments to the bengoshi with carriage of the matter. On the other end of the spectrum, I can be asked to advise on any number of legal issues under Australian law, ranging from contract construction to extraterritorial service of subpoenas from Australia in Japan.
The majority of my work, however, falls in the middle of the spectrum and involves English speaking clients conducting business in Japan and seeking legal advice on matters involving Japanese law. For work in the middle of the spectrum, I will often be asked to attend client meetings or teleconferences to listen to the client’s position and questions so that I can act as a “quality control” measure and ensure the firm responds to the client’s needs both during the meeting and in future interactions.
If the client’s instructions involve a “commercial” review of English documentation, I will often be asked to conduct the first review before passing it along to a more senior Japanese lawyer who will also review the documents, paying particular attention to potential issues under Japanese laws, and provide further comments. Those further comments will be returned to me for editing to clarify expression and finally passed back to the Japanese lawyer for confirmation and dispatch to the client. If the client requires more technical legal advice on a particular issue or clause in a contract, my involvement is limited to the “quality control” role, ensuring that the firm’s response succinctly addresses the client’s questions.
At the end of my day, which is many hours before the end of a bengoshi’s day, I will often join colleagues for dinner near the office. It’s a great chance for them to practice their English, and me my Japanese. Towards the end of the week, these dinners are often prolonged and I might find myself running among a crowd of “salary men” to catch the last train for the evening. The bengoshi, however, will most likely return to the office for the evening in the hope of completing enough work to allow them to take some time off over the weekend.
Working in Japan has been a unique experience, both professionally and personally. I’m very fortunate to have had this opportunity at such an early stage of my career and after only six months here, I am already wishing my stay were longer.
Dallan Pitman is an Australian-qualified lawyer currently working at a premier Japanese law firm in Tokyo.