Japanese attorneys throw their nets farther out

February 8th, 2013 by Philip Brasor & Masako Tsubuku

Fight club: Bengoshi Kaikan in Hibiya

It wasn’t long ago that the law was a lonely profession in Japan, though the number of attorneys may have only seemed small in comparison with the United States, where litigation is practically a spectator sport. Apparently, that’s no longer the case, according to a recent article in Tokyo Shimbun, which says that there is a glut of lawyers in the major cities. Consequently, many are branching out to smaller cities and even the countryside to find clients. The article profiles one young attorney who opened an office in Tokyo two years ago and has had scant business ever since, so in the past year he has held seven free sodankai (consulting sessions) in Hokkaido — six in Sapporo and one in Obihiro. The Hokkaido Bar Association says that such sessions are a burgeoning trend that started three years ago.

According to a government white paper on the legal profession, there are now 15,000 lawyers practicing in Tokyo, a 70 percent increase over the last ten years. And if you include the surrounding prefectures of Kanagawa, Saitama and Chiba, the number practicing in the Tokyo Metropolitan Area tops 32,000, which is more than half of all the lawyers in Japan.

An earlier white paper released in 2008 charts the steady rise of legal professionals in Japan. From 1989 to 1995, the ranks of attorneys added only about 200 new people a year, and after 1995 the number increased gradually until 2001, when the number leaped to 1,117. In 2008, more than 4,000 passed their examinations to become lawyers. Around the turn of the century, the business world demanded more legal experts, saying that trials, especially civil court cases involving commercial matters, took too long. As a result, more law schools were set up, but the demand never materialized on the scale predicted. Between 2000 and 2008, the number of civil suits handled by district courts in Japan increased by only 0.5 percent, though the overall number of lawyers went up by 62 percent. As a result, the number of cases handled per attorney dropped by 21.7 percent, though the attendant loss of income wasn’t quite as steep. The average yearly pay for a lawyer in 2004 was ¥16.5 million and in 2008 was slightly less than ¥16 million.

The profession received a much needed boost in 2006 when the Consumer Credit Law was revised with regard to “gray area” rates (kinri) and consumer credit companies were forced to refund ¥1.6 trillion in overcharged interest. About 70 percent of the customers eligible for the refunds hired lawyers and notaries to the tune of ¥40 billion, and somewhere between 20 and 30 percent of all the lawyers in Japan have so far benefited from this windfall.

Since most of the nation’s lawyers are in Tokyo or Osaka and the consumer loan-related bankruptcy business in those areas has dried up, they are looking farther afield. One Tokyo law office, Adire, which advertises extensively on television, has already set up offices in Sapporo, Hakodate, Obihiro and Kushiro. Most law offices looking to expand in this way hire advertising agencies, which research regional municipalities and set up the consulting sessions that alert locals to the availability of legal services. A president of one ad agency told Tokyo Shimbun that big city lawyers sometimes have an edge over locals in smaller towns, because people don’t know them. It’s sometimes difficult for locally based attorneys to get business, especially with regard to bankruptcies, because potential clients are also neighbors who would prefer that the community not know anything about certain aspects of their business.

But of course, local lawyers resent these city slickers invading their bailiwicks. A representative of a consumer protection committee in Sapporo told Tokyo Shimbun that since there are no regulations limiting where a lawyer can practice, most stay in Tokyo and do their distant business online or by phone, which means they can’t always help clients in emergencies. Conversely, some of the city lawyers say they are suddenly faced with much bigger travel costs, but assume that increased revenues will justify the added expense, thus implying that until a lawyer shows up in your town you probably never thought you needed one.

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