The number of in-house lawyers is on the rise in Japan, but more noteworthy, in a country with notoriously poor gender parity, is that the trend has been noticeably female.

According to data from the Japan In-House Lawyers Association, the number of in-house lawyers rose to the thousands in 2018, up from 146 in 2006, and this is expected to increase. By mid-last year there were 2,161 in-house attorneys, and according to the association, 870 were women.

The influx of in-house lawyers isn’t surprising given the number of high profile scandals which have played out in the local and international media in Japan in recent years. A 2018 Nikkei study on corporate law and attorneys in Japan found almost half of companies surveyed planned to expand their legal departments and increase in-house attorney hires. The survey cited an emphasis on legal compliance as a key motivation.

The December-issued 2018 World Economic Forum’s Global Gender Gap Index showed Japan’s position had marginally improved last year to 110th out of 149 nations (up from 114th out of 144). But it still rated women’s economic participation in Japan low. A 2017 ALB sample, which surveyed five key law firms with a total of 495 partners, revealed only 73 were female.

So why the big jump in female in-house lawyers? It’s likely the outcome of a number of factors. Rika Beppu, founding member and chair of networking platform, Women in Law Japan, suggests women may be drawn to the role’s greater flexibility. By her count, 40 percent of all in-house Japanese-law qualified lawyers are female. “There is definitely a sense in Japan that an in-house role would provide the lawyers, male or female, with more flexibility in order to raise a family,” she says.

Mayu Isoi, associate director, legal compliance, risk, and HR team, Robert Walters Japan, says the firm has noticed female professionals gravitating towards in-house counsel positions after having children. “The two main reasons for this are the steady income and the working environment,” she explains. 

Beppu reflects that while women in the workplace is becoming normalized in Japan, “the situation is still not as advanced as it should be. There are no female board members or CEOS in Japan’s traditionally male-dominated companies, which needs to change.”

There are other reasons to support women in the workplace. With a declining working population and ageing workforce to consider, Isoi says “it is absolutely crucial to embrace diversity.” While she believes Japan is “quickly changing and moving in the right direction,” she hopes this momentum continues.

“Change takes time. You cannot suddenly appoint to managerial positions female employees who do not have the qualifications, skills, knowledge or experience required for these roles. You must go through a period of supporting, training, and growing these women so they are equipped with the tools and skills they need to make the move into managerial positions,” she says.

In order to truly change the dynamic, societal expectations, such as women being responsible for household chores or child rearing, must also change.

“Until men become equally accountable for these types of responsibilities, we may not see real equality in the workplace. Society needs to evolve and treat everyone equally, embrace diversity, and provide the same opportunities to all citizens, while companies need to roll out an evaluation system to assess employees based on their performance, regardless of seniority, age, or gender. We hope to see more companies in Japan recognize the value in performance, productivity and contribution instead of focusing solely on the length of working hours,” Isoi says.


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