Getting to 外弁, or “So you want to be a lawyer in Japan.”

This post is aimed at clearing up what it really means to “practice law in Japan,” if you’re not Japanese. Being a foreigner turned Japanese lawyer, without a doubt, conjures up the image of being a truly accomplished bad-ass. There’s a reason for that: being a Japanese lawyer even as a Japanese citizen is insanely difficult. For a foreigner, even more so. Saying “I want to be a Japanese lawyer,” is something akin to that ugly kid in your 3rd grade classroom saying, “I want to be President of the United States”: in theory, it’s possible. But only in theory. In today’s world, ugly people just don’t get to be President.

A man with Chester A. Arthur’s looks would be a prime candidate for those who think their rent is too damn high.

While in theory, a foreigner can reach the level of proficiency and academic aptitude to become a Japanese lawyer practicing Japanese law, the education and licensing requirements represent a practically insurmountable barrier to entry. Currently, there are 30,479 Japanese lawyers (弁護士) registered with a Japanese Bar Association. For purposes of contrast, there are 30,000 lawyers in the U.S. state of Missouri alone. There is a special term for foreigners who actually reach the equivalent status of Japanese lawyer, called Junkaiin (準会員). While you might think this sort of special designation sounds promising, the ability to reach this status was abolished in 1955, so unless you have a flux capacitor and a healthy stash of plutonium, your odds at qualifying as Junkaiin are not great. Currently there is still one Junkaiin in practice.

That 30,000 Bengoshi population figure represents Japanese who have received a Japanese law degree and have successfully passed the Japanese Bar Exam. And we haven’t even talked about the Bar Exam yet. The good news is that the passage rate for the Japanese Bar Exam has increased dramatically since 2006. The bad news is that the odds are still stacked significantly against the test-taker. Even if you’re from a prime Japanese law school, you have no better than 2:1 odds of passing. While this is still better than the 1-4% that passed the test pre-2006, it’s a long way to go, and a long time spent, to only *maybe* become a real J-lawyer.

NOTE: Those who fail the Bar can still become a judicial scrivener, which is similar to Bengoshi, involves the same amount of office work, but significantly reduced courtroom work, and certainly less prestige.

Going for 外弁

What the vast number of foreign lawyers in Japan do, rather than attempt the impossible hurdles of becoming a Japanese lawyer is to procure (1) a Gaiben license (外国法事務弁護士) ; or (2) affiliate with a licensed multinational firm (弁護士法人).

The Gaiben License

Becoming an official Gaiben is a rather long road to hoe, but it’s the closest you’ll get to being an independent attorney in Japan – if that’s your goal.

The main difficulty in getting your Gaiben license is the requirement of prior practice – the Japanese government prefers you work several (I believe four) years in your home jurisdiction before you can be eligible. A few quotes from attorneys and recruiters I’ve talked to flesh this out further.

From a recruiter I spoke with last year:

Another point to keep in mind is the strict enforcement of making sure foreign lawyers in Japan have the gaikokuho jimu bengoshi license (gaiben). In order to qualify for this license a lawyer must have spent a couple of years working in their home jurisdiction. Law firms over here are reluctant to hire junior lawyers who are not eligible for their gaiben qualification. If you would like to work as a lawyer in Japan I would suggest you spend a few years working first in your home jurisdiction and then explore your options after that. I believe this approach will present you with the most options.

From an attorney who practiced in-house in Tokyo before attempting to make the jump to Gaiben:

You may be familiar with the 外国法事務弁護士 license (the “gaiben”). At least today, if you have not practiced a certain number of years in your home jurisdiction, then you cannot qualify to be a gaiben. Essentially, that means that you cannot form a partnership with a Japan licensed lawyer, and you cannot hold yourself out in Japan as a legal professional.

When I graduated from law school, I was happy to be getting a job, and didn’t really think that I would want to ever be a gaiben. I went directly in house.  I don’t regret my decision, but I often caution people like you to think very carefully about the decision.  Worst case scenario, … you might realize that the bureacracy of the company isn’t for you, that you have hit a glass ceiling and are doing too much translation for your own tastes, that you want to broaden your skills, that you want to go back to the US and see your aged parents, it *might* be difficult to do this if your experience is solely in-house … in Japan. One reason why I have stayed in the US as long as I have this time around is to get enough time here to be certain to qualify as a gaiben when I go back.

If you’re looking solely to practice in-house, you may not need the Gaiben license, but practicing in-house can ultimately hinder your progress towards Gaiben if you choose to go that way:

On the other hand, if you want a career in Japanese legal departments, say, or in business generally, you probably won’t need to become a gaiben. (I haven’t checked, but logically you shouldn’t, since most corporate law dept. folks aren’t bengoshi.) Also, I know things are tough for law grads now, so any job opportunity that you get that excites you is a welcome thing.

And BTW, MoJ prefers law firm practice — they wanted me to exclude my in-house practice from my application. Though maybe that was due less to MoJ’s own preference than to their fears about what the Nichibenren might say.

And, of course, even if you qualify for Gaiben, there is still bureaucratic lead time and the significant expenses of maintaining a US state bar license and Gaiben license to consider — another obstacle to any young lawyer graduating with law school debt.

Affiliate with BigLaw

This is the other option: but it is conditional on you (1) doing well enough in law school to be an attractive candidate; (2) demonstrating a commitment to Japan. The first is a matter only you can affect, and given law school grading curves and a tight market, there is a significant “luck” factor at work here. The second you can affect by simply being there, either at your own expense, or at a Law School Study Abroad program in Japan.

Indeed, one of the successful candidates who took this route I know combined his JD with a masters degree in Japanese (with focus on Japanese law). The additional masters degree was a solidly smart move: it gave him an “extra” 2L summer — in other words a second shot at the big firm summer associate recruiters, and enough time to take a semester in Tokyo, which helped him land a summer associate position IN Tokyo. This transformed into an actual job opportunity. Your mileage, of course, may vary.

Epilogue

Of course, Japan is in a state of legal reform, and this situation may change at some point. But anyone who has worked with Japan knows that change can come slow, and for now, if you want to independently practice law in Japan, you’ll need to get to Gaiben first.

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Lateral Interviewing Advice for Asia US Associate Positions (c/o Asia Chronicles)

Interviewing is a tricky business. Part competency assessment, part social skills assessment, part luck of the draw — even with a shining resume the interview is the most significant barrier to finding employment in a tricky legal job market.

The Asia Chronicles, a weblog that puts out materials, including occasional jobs relating to the legal market in (unsurprisingly) Asia, has just put out a great resource on the interviewing interests firms in Asia have in recruiting US associates. It’s a concise, quick read, and is available here.

Law School Tuition Increases from 2005-2011 (c/o Law School Tuition Bubble)

Law school is not an endeavor for the faint of heart. Not only does it present tremendous challenge, high levels of stress, and inordinate amounts of work– it also costs a shit load of money.

At least with IBR, you can aspire to be crushed with debt for only a quarter of your lifespan. Yay?

I usually prefer to let my colleague’s website speak for themselves, but last month Mr. Leichter over at the Law School Tuition Bubble has provided an excellent resource for the cost-mindful prospective law student.

This resource contains charts documenting tuition changes for every law school in the country, by state, over the past five years.

The page is available here, and is well worth reading. Enjoy!

Demystifying Student Loan Reform; Income-Based Repayment (IBR) for Law Students

 

This is a post beneficial to many – not just JETs with J.D.s. But, since law students are the ones graduating in the largest numbers with work (or lack thereof) providing insufficient revenue to pay off their student debts, understanding the mechanics of what IBR is all about may not just be helpful, but necessary.

But first: because I’m an anal-retentive law school type, a DISCLAIMER: I’m not here to provide you legal or financial advice as to whether IBR is right for you (or whether you should go into law school and take on a massive amount of debt in the hopes that IBR will take care of all your financial worries). For that, please consult your conscience, or some kind of financial adviser.

Enough of that. Now onto the good stuff.

Why You Shouldn’t Expect a Student Loan Bail-out

There are plenty of folks out there hoping for some kind of student loan amnesty — a hope that, in some way, their student loan debt, acquired in a down-trodden economy with few job prospects, will evaporate by some magic act of the state. A quick look at the cost of such a bailout, however, is instructive. The average law grad carries around $100,000 in debt. There are currently 200 ABA-approved law schools in the United States. (This is a low-ball number as it does not count non-ABA approved schools. I’m looking at you California.) While each school admits different numbers of students each year, for my calculations I’ll assume 200 students per class. (I also consider this a low-ball since plenty schools clearly have more. See, for example, Northwestern, Ohio State, George Washington University, and the list goes on).

With those numbers, the low-ball cost to bail-out one graduating year’s worth of law school students is…
$100,000 x 200 schools x 200 students per school = $4,000,000,000.00. That’s billion with a “B” in case you’re bad at counting zeros. By comparison, that’s the low-ball estimate for the costs incurred by the BP Oil Spill.

Expand this number to include the entire “Lost Generation” of law students graduating between 2009-2011, and you are asking for a $12,000,000.00 bailout, c/o of the American taxpayer. This calculation doesn’t even entertain the risk that a law student loan amnesty would open the door to other unemployed students: undergraduates who graduate underwater; grad students. When you consider the financial implications of bailing them out, the numbers skyrocket.

I’m sure bailing out newly minted degree holders in the aftermath of the financial crisis carries with it a certain degree of moral superiority, at least compared to bailing out Wall Street bankers. But face it: it’s just not going to happen, and unemployed 20-somethings have a lot less political pull.

IBR may be the closest thing the student community will ever get to a bailout– so it’s worth your persual, especially if you are entertaining the thought of taking on law school debt.

Income-Based Repayment, and how it works

Eligibility

First: IBR only works for non-defaulted federal loans through the FFEL and Direct Loan programs (Stafford & Grad PLUS, for example), and only those loans are used to determine eligibility. So, if you’re in danger of defaulting on that $300,000 you took from Fat Tony that you gambled away in Vegas, sorry: no IBR for you.

Second: In order to be eligible for IBR, you have to be in a “partial financial hardship.” You have a partial financial hardship if the monthly amount you would be required to pay on your IBR-eligible loans under a Standard Repayment Plan with a 10-year repayment period is higher than the monthly amount you would be required to repay under IBR. That means you’re going to have to look at your individual situation to find out whether your current debt-load would be better under IBR than the Standard, and if you are eligible, determine if IBR is a better situation for you.

Reduced Payments

If your non-defaulted FFELS/Direct Federal Loans and your debtload meet the requisite criteria, IBR allows qualified borrowers to cap their monthly payment at an amount that is intended to be affordable based upon income and family size, and will be less than what you would have to pay under a 10-year Standard Repayment Plan. Whenever you hear President Obama talking about not having to pay more than 10% of your income in student loan payments, it’s reduced payments such as IBR that he’s talking about.

But reduced payments aren’t the only benefit. If you make consistent payments under an IBR plan for 25 years and meet certain other requirements, any remaining balance will be cancelled. If you work in public service and have reduced loan payments through IBR, your remaining balance after ten years in a public service job could be cancelled if you made loan payments for each month of those ten years. That’s right — loan forgiveness for consistent payers.

The Downside

You know there has to be one. But compared to the downsides of selling your liver for quick cash, the downside to IBR is not so bad. First: more of your payments are going to be going towards your interest, and not your principal amount. As a result, you’re going to put less of a dent into your principal. There’s also a mechanism in the loan repayment process whereby, if your payment doesn’t cover all the interest, unpaid interest capitalizes INTO the principal amount.

Second, because you’re paying more in interest and your principal is either remaining the same, or, possibly growing: your ultimate forgiven indebtedness after 10 or 25 years is going to be a larger number.

If it’s all disappearing, you’d think it wouldn’t matter, right? But, forgiveness of indebtedness counts as taxable income under the internal revenue code. So, if after 25 years, the government forgives your $100,000 law school debt in total – you now have $100,000 worth of taxable income.

Another drawback is that you’re going to have to submit paperwork to your debt servicer every year, indicating your income, so that they can recalculate your IBR payment for that given year.

—–

Resources

This post is just an overview of IBR, but I don’t want to provide you with just an overview. There are a great number of resources out there to help answer questions and flesh out IBR better for you than I can.

The Federal Student Aid Website has a quick explanation of IBR, and an IBR Calculator available for your use.

They Federal Student Aid site also has a document addressing the most common questions raised about IBR. There is a lot of great information there, including the mechanics of applying for IBR.

Here is a transcript running down the various other methods of student loan repayment, including IBR, that while quite lengthy, goes through things in great detail.

Finally, a fellow colleague of mine over at The Law School Tuition Bubble has also provided a couple of posts regarding IBR that are well worth reading.

Disco’s Career Forum, for JETs with J.D.s

Disco Stu likes DISCO jobs

Every year, Boston welcomes the largest Japanese-English bilingual job fair known to man. The job fair is run by DISCO International, and is otherwise known as the Boston Career Forum. Career forums are also held in Tokyo, London, and Los Angeles throughout the year– but Boston is easily conceded as the largest of these.

This forum is something I wish I had known about earlier as a law student, because a large number of Japanese and multinational employers show up (this year, 132 of them did), and some of them are actually looking to fill vacancies in their legal department, or for whatever other reason are willing to look at J.D. candidates and J.D. holders. The distinct advantage about this career fair, moreover, is that for perhaps the only time in your law school career, you’re not competing with a horde of fellow students en masse, but only those students who have the requisite language skill (not so many), and only those who have been willing to make the journey (even fewer).

While I was skeptical as to whether this large job forum would help me at all (as it seemed largely aimed at undergrads, MBA’s, and engineers) I was able to walk away from Boston having had a number of interviews and a couple positive leads on the job search. Below, I will briefly relay my experience, suggestions, and advice for any JET pursuing a J.D. who might be considering a trip to Boston next fall.

Preliminary Matters

(1) If you want to work for a law firm and a law firm only – the remainder of this post is largely useless to you. Your time would be better spent looking at these vintage (and hilarious) Tokyo subway posters.

(2) If you are below Conversational level Japanese (generally, JLPT 3級 = Conversational), DISCO won’t let you in. So you’ll either have to lie or improve your Japanese ability. I advise the latter.

Preparation

I heard of DISCO and the Boston Career Forum from another JET alum who went to law school and found his first post-graduation job in-house, with a Japanese company, through DISCO. When I first heard about DISCO from this alum (in July), I immediately went to their site and found that information about the Boston Career Forum, and prospective employers, was already posted and some employers were already accepting application submissions. Currently, DISCO does not have information up about its 2011 Career Forums, but it is only a matter of time.

Regardless, I would advise setting up a profile on DISCO’s site sooner rather than later. In setting up a profile, you are given the option of setting up an English and a Japanese resume. I suggest you do both– as some employers will accept the Japanese one only, and others the English one only. Depending on your Japanese ability, this can take next to no time at all, or can be quite time consuming, and you’ll want to give yourself plenty of time to proofread both before you start applying for positions.

Applying to Interviews Before the Career Forum

All your applications for the Career Forum will require one of the resumes you set up through DISCO. That’s usually the easy part of applying to an employer. In addition to the resume, employers can also ask supplemental questions – to be filled out in only English, only Japanese, or either. These questions also tend to impose character limitations. Again, you’ll want time to plan ahead and draft well-written, grammatically correct answers to these questions – which is why I advise you start preparation early.

These supplemental questions also allow employers to vet applicants according to their language ability. DISCO requires you to rank your language ability along traditional JLPT categorizations (Elementary, Conversational, Business, Native), but if your answers to the supplemental make you look like you’re struggling at 4級, and you’re posturing yourself as a Native-speaker, don’t expect too much.

Some employers throw additional hurdles into the application process. This is particularly true of the accounting firms and investment banks. Accounting firms will generally require you fill out an application off of their home site in addition to the one you do for the Career Forum. Investment Banks usually request likewise, and may throw a timed mathematical reasoning test into the mix.

As the Career Forum gets closer, more employers will join in. Even up to the last few days before the Career Forum, new employers were appearing on the list, and accepting applications for interviews. So again, if you plan on going, you should check early and often.

By the date of the Career Forum, I had lined up four interviews in advance, with one (1) investment bank, one (1) accounting firm, and two (2) Japanese multinational companies. All of them were interviewing for their Tokyo offices.

EDITED TO ADD (01/24/2011): Acquiring interviews prior to going to Boston provides you two other advantages: (1) Arranging interviews in advance makes you more likely to receive a travel scholarship from CFN; (2) Arranging interviews in advance may allow you to access travel funds from your law school to be used for traveling to interviews.

Applying for Interviews AT the Career Forum

Submitting for interviews while you are at the Career Forum is also a realistic possibility. While I was in Boston, I was able to gain interviews with a few other employers, including another accounting firm.

Resumes

No employer will tell you this, but they are typically open to receiving both English and Japanese resumes. From my experience, I highly advise bringing copies of a Japanese resume with you in tow. Many of my interviewers looked a bit nervous to be interviewing me with the English resume they received from DISCO. When I pulled out the Japanese resume I prepared ahead of time, there was a visible (albeit concealed) sigh of relief and I became a small hero in their eyes – always a good way to start the interview.

Note that Japanese resumes tend to have a different format than Western resumes, and involve a lot less “grandstanding” of your accomplishments. Samples are here. A template is available here.

Interviews

Much like JET, my interview experiences were ESID. One was with a guy who spoke fluent English and ultimately gave an impression of being a bit more high-pressure than most law firm interviews. The remainders were conducted in a mix of Japanese and English. Some were basic resume review, others were more conversational.

For some interviews I had to fill out additional paperwork before going in, for others I did not.

For a good number of my interviews, JET was treated as an overall positive on my resume. Others didn’t mention it. At the very least, I can say it wasn’t greeted with a head tilted to the side and air-sucking through the teeth.

Like any other interview, I highly suggest going in with a game plan to handle the variations the interview process can take. Enlisting the help of a Japanese confidante or teacher would be a good idea as well.

Post-Career Forum Contact

To e-mail thank you notes or not? Assuming your interview was positive, a friend of mine suggests the following:

My short answer is that I would send a thank you e-mail or thank you letter as you would with any other person who would interview you, expressing your great interest in learning more about [the Company]. If you have Japanese writing skills, or thought that the interviewer might have doubts about your ability to function in a written Japanese environment, you might take the opportunity to showcase those skills.

For the good interviews I had, I did likewise. I do not feel they necessarily helped or hindered my application in any sense, but those thank you’s at least indicate you are still open and ready to converse.

Again, like the interviews, the process in discussing employment with companies after Boston was very ESID. For some employers, I heard responses quite quickly. For others, I am still in ongoing conversations with them, and this is three months after the initial interview. For legal departments in Japanese companies, a colleague of mine offers the following amount of lead time before you get a response:

I’d give [them] 4 weeks to get back to you. From my experience with Japanese companies, the guy you talked to would report in writing/orally through his chain in the HR department, then the HR department would report in writing to the other departments. The other department might take a week or so to respond to HR. (I can imagine that the legal department might not have expected to receive an application from someone like you. It might take a little bit of time for the legal department to warm up to you.)

Again, while four weeks might be a good standard to have, ESID. It takes one guy sitting around not-hankoing things to gum up the process.

Post-Career Forum Surprises

Finally, a couple of months after the Boston Career Forum, I received an email from a Company interested in knowing whether they would still like me to talk to their legal and compliance departments, respectively, about the possibility of joining them in Tokyo. So, even for those companies you apply to and never hear from, possibilities exist that they may contact you long after the fact.

A Final Note

DISCO also posts general job postings for bilinguals throughout the year. I have had some luck with these as well, though they are generally not aimed at J.D.s.

In short, if you’re looking to navigate the Apocalyptic War-Zone that is legal employment in a post-financial crisis world – DISCO offers you a welcome platform from which to market your legal and language abilities – in a much less crowded field of competitors.

Stand Aside U.S. News, Crowdsourced Law School Rankings

Up to now, the primary resource for prospective law students looking for school rankings has been U.S. News & World Report. Exclusive reliance on its rankings is something U.S. News & World cautions against, but that caution sounds no different than S&P or Moody’s saying: “Our ratings of various securities are the best in the industry, but don’t make them the only thing you rely on when making an investment decision.”

In short, rely on us, but don’t really rely on us.

Well, perhaps now U.S. News doesn’t have to worry about being relied on nearly as much. A group called the Conglomerate is taking web user’s votes on law school rankings. The website is hardly scientific, and the voting scheme is more like voting on hot or not. (I can’t even believe that website is still up. You’re welcome.)

But really, is consulting it any worse than consulting a magazine that ranks people according to statistics everyone knows are gamed by the schools, statistics that aren’t adequately audited in any accountable manner, statistics that no reasonable person should trust as a representation of reality?

Conglomerate’s Crowdsourced Rankings are here.

Great Above the law Commentary is available here.

Quick Interview Resource

Most interview advice is pretty predictable: (1) Don’t show up naked; (2) Don’t mention that you think your last employer smelled like poo; (3) Don’t punch your interviewer in the face.

Then, sometimes, interview advice can actually be pretty useful. While this isn’t advice for legal interviews specifically, this short presentation by Goldman Sachs covers some of the basics, but also breaks things down into interview styles, and interview preparation – something many good resources don’t do.

The link, again, is here. Enjoy!

Japan Law Resources

Finally, a post that’s not about the job market! (though if you’re curious, the December employment numbers were generally good, even if legal is still categorically “meh”).

Came across these early this morning and had to share:

1) A lengthy, though tad unwieldy file from the University of Oregon that has a collection of Japanese laws, along with their names in kanji, romanized pronunciations, and English descriptions can be found here.

2) A site with the text of Japanese laws in their entirety, alongside the Japanese originals. Seems like a pretty handy site, though you’ll need some Japanese ability to navigate it. The link is here. Aim for [日英対訳条文] to access the resources I am referring to.

3) Another set of Japanese law and legal terms, sorted by kana and containing kanji and English equivalents can be found here.

See also this old JETs with J.D.s post for additional Japanese law translation materials.