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A number of major Japanese firms recently announced overseas expansion plans. While some were bolstering their existing presence in the ASEAN region, others were looking further afield - in Europe and the United States, for example – with the aim of becoming global players. ALB speaks to some of the firms about the strategic considerations underpinning their decisions, and their game plans going forward. 

 

ALB: What factors does your law firm consider when selecting locations for your new international offices? How do you think the expansion will benefit your clients?

FUMIHIDE SUGIMOTO, managing partner, Nagashima Ohno & Tsunematsu: As a provider of legal services to many Japanese companies, we recognise the importance of supporting our clients’ businesses in various countries and regions where many of them operate. This involves taking into account unique national and regional conditions as well as understanding the client’s culture. In light of this, we have been targeting such countries and regions where many Japanese clients are operating in establishing our overseas offices.

At the same time, we have taken into account the need for these countries and regions to invest in Japan.

Having a local office in these countries or regions allows us to strengthen our commitment to our clients operating in these countries or regions.

MASAYUKI ATSUMI & YUHEI SAKAO, partners, Miura & Partners: Miura & Partners strives to be a global legal partner for our clients and opening international offices recently in Jakarta, London, and San Francisco is a great way to improve our client service globally. While we considered various factors to determine the locations of our new offices, the most important factor was whether there would likely be enough need from our clients (both existing and prospective.)

Having international offices greatly benefits both our clients and our firm in a number of ways. Having offices in the vicinity of our clients enables us to communicate regularly with them and understand their needs better. This is key for enabling us to provide problem-solving advice rapidly without any communication gap (and without any time zone difference, which can prevent us from providing timely advice). This applies to both Japanese clients with subsidiaries abroad (i.e. outbound needs) and international clients with Japanese law needs (i.e. inbound needs).

Moreover, by having an office in a given location, the firm demonstrates its dedication and focus on that jurisdiction and the clients based there. Also, the symbolic effect of having such an office gives us an advantage in expanding our client base in that location.

RYUTARO NAKAYAMA, managing partner, Nishimura & Asahi: The basic idea is to provide legal services in high demand at a given location. As clients engage in more cross-border activities, we believe it is especially crucial for them to access the highest quality of full-service, borderless legal assistance.

KEN SHIMONO, partner, TMI Associates: In choosing the location of our new international offices, the most critical factor we considered is the “needs” of our clients. In this case, “needs” refers to not only their existing needs but also the potential needs that our clients may have in the future. To fulfil this purpose, we have set up branch offices/local desks in the countries where our clients have expanded their business to provide legal support from the perspective of the local laws.

We also look to the countries where our clients have yet to expand their business but may have interest in expanding to in the future. We believe it is beneficial for our clients for us to develop our own presence in these countries prior to our clients so that we may offer them guidance based on our first-hand knowledge and network.

Our firm’s desire to expand into new countries also comes from our lawyers’ passion to challenge themselves as they create a legal network in new locations. Launching a new international office is challenging and we could not achieve success without their passion and commitment. If any of our lawyers are keen to accept the challenge of adapting to a new international location, we support them however possible to achieve their ambition to the greatest extent.

We believe that the expansion of our offices inter-nationally enables us to better serve our clients who conduct and will continue to conduct business in the global market while offering them seamless services.

ALB: How is a new office integrated into the firm’s existing operations and culture, and what steps are taken to ensure a smooth transition?

SUGIMOTO: Our lawyers are dispatched from our Tokyo office to our overseas office, where they work full-time. In hiring local lawyers, we also explain the firm’s philosophy and policies. After joining the firm, we share the firm’s basic philosophy and team approach through training in Tokyo, participation in various firm events, and, most importantly, working together as a team.

ATSUMI & SAKAO: With the exception of our San Francisco office, M&P started its inter-national offices on its own so that the operation and culture of the international offices would be seamless. For San Francisco, M&P has a strategic alliance with Yorozu Law Group, which will establish our San Francisco Office starting April 6, offering a new challenge of integrating with an existing law firm abroad.

However, we believe the integration will be smooth as both firms share the principles of “diversity and inclusion” and “full coverage with top quality.” For a smooth transition, attorneys from both law firms have held a number of meetings (both online and in-person) to understand each other and visited each other’s offices many times before the integration. After the integration, both firms will continue to communicate regularly.

NAKAYAMA: In most cases, each office consists of a core team of locally qualified lawyers with a long history with Nishimura & Asahi of legal practice and client collaboration. In this sense, the new offices have evolved from shared operations and office culture from the beginning. The Messaging Guide reflects and puts into concrete words the fundamental values, aspirations, and strengths that we all share as a firm.

SHIMONO: When we set up a new office, we send experienced lawyers from our Tokyo headquarters. These lawyers are familiar with our operations and culture, so through training and the course of daily practices they can instil these values into the new offices, the local lawyers, and staff that become a part of our global network.

If necessary, the local lawyers or staff can also undergo training at the Tokyo headquarter office for several weeks.

Also, the local lawyers and staff are invited to a retreat overnight trip in Japan every year where they can socialise with many of their colleagues and get to know each other personally.

By taking these steps, the local lawyers and staff are better able to understand the firm’s operation, and culture, and become fully integrated into the firm. We deeply value all these steps as they allow us to maintain the integrity of our firm, which is essential for us to better serve our clients.

ALB: What are your long-term plans for your offices, and what role do you hope they will play in the process?

SUGIMOTO: In the long term, we aim to strengthen our relationships with Japanese companies expanding overseas. We also aim to position ourselves in many of these overseas locations as a firm capable of providing more comprehensive legal services, similar to in-house general counsel in such locations.

In addition, with the continued expansion of our offices in Southeast Asia, we plan to expand our services to cover matters related to foreign investment in Japan from overseas companies.

ATSUMI & SAKAO: It depends on each office and its surrounding market, but we expect each office to grow organically to respond to the clients’ needs. As clients’ operations become more international, it is necessary for a law firm like ours to be able to handle multi-jurisdictional issues. By having offices around the world, M&P will become one of the rare Japanese law firms able to provide one-stop international legal services.

NAKAYAMA: We are always looking for opportunities to provide better service. We intend to first steadily strengthen our capacity in Asia. We believe this will then carry over to the high-quality services we provide to our clients outside Asia.

SHIMONO: The long-term plan for an office varies according to the location, but what we can say definitively is that we are keen to expand our capacity in every location. More specifically, we will engage more local lawyers, paralegals, and staff. By maintaining this goal, we can handle larger projects and a wider range of matters.

As mentioned before, we send law-yers from the Tokyo headquarters to our international offices during the early stages, but in the long term, we plan to localise the offices as a way to serve more local clients and participate in the market like local law firms.

The role we intend to play in the process also differs according to location. For example, in locations where we, a foreign law firm, are allowed to advise on local laws, the office would be expected to adapt and expand our capacity to advise on local laws and regulations. Or in locations like Singapore that function as a hub for the region, we hope the office will work closely with regional offices to manage projects so that we can provide efficient and seamless services.

ALB: Law firms from the U.S. and U.K. have a long track record of establishing offices internationally. What are some of the best practices you can utilise, and what unique approaches are you adopting?

SUGIMOTO: The models used by U.S. and U.K. law firms, which focus on their languages and laws, are not necessarily helpful or applicable because they differ from those used by Japanese law firms in their overseas expansion. As mentioned above, we believe that culturally sensitive advice for Japanese companies and an in-depth knowledge of the local legal system are crucial for the growth and development of our overseas offices.

ATSUMI & SAKAO: We believe one key to the successful establishment of foreign offices is to assign enough resources and to appoint an appropriate attorney in charge. Also, M&P has a strong culture of encouraging its lawyers to embrace challenges, and the heads of each new office have a strong passion to enter a foreign country market with a pioneer spirit.

For example, for our Asian operation, Mr Inoue is in charge of the operation and has demonstrated a deeply curious investment in various Asian countries, including learning multiple Asian languages, which will also thoroughly improve the services provided; our U.S. operation will be headed by Ms Koshi, a Harvard graduate who pioneered new political territory by serving as the Mayor of Otsu for eight years, the youngest female mayor in Japan up until that point, and also assisted many start-up companies with their U.S. operations; and for Europe, Ms Murata, who already handles a number of European M&A transactions, and Mr Atsumi, who is registered as a solicitor in England & Wales, will co-lead our U.K. office.

NAKAYAMA: We are proud to have built one of the largest networks in Asia to reflect our global reach. M&A, finance, crisis management, business restructuring, and international arbitration have traditionally been strong practice areas and continue to be in high demand from our clients.

In addition, the firm has been strategically focusing on sustainability, trade/sanctions, and digital transformation, which has increased in relevancy and significance given the current trends in global affairs.

SHIMONO: One of the most impressive aspects of these practices is their branding to show that they can provide seam-less services worldwide. The pitches, brochures, and other deliverables are integrated under the same image and format as if all the offices are acting as a single team. Such uniformity is essential in solicitating cross-border projects which require legal advice across multiple jurisdictions. We aspire to utilise these practices in expanding our services globally.

In addition, we can make use of our network with international firms, including a major U.S. firm and U.K. firm which have been affiliated with our firm for more than two decades. If we think it best for the clients, we will not hesitate to align with them even if we have own offices in the jurisdiction. Such flexibility may be unique and ensures that we offer the best solution to the clients.

ALB: What are the long-term goals for your law firm’s global expansion, and how do you plan to achieve them?

SUGIMOTO: We generally aim to establish and expand offices in countries and regions where our clients (primarily Jap-anese companies) need our local support and where we can provide extensive legal services. In addition to our seven overseas offices, we have an extensive network of leading law firms in many countries and regions, which we leverage organically to meet our clients’ needs. The establishment of overseas offices is always an option under our strategy, and we plan to adopt the most suitable approach depending on the prevailing circumstances.

ATSUMI & SAKAO: M&P’s long-term goal is to become a truly international law firm, and we do not exclude any possibility to achieve this, including opening new offices, strategic alliances with, or acquisition of, existing law firms in each jurisdiction with growing legal needs.

NAKAYAMA: Our presence in Southeast Asia is well established, but there are some areas where we can better appeal to non-Japanese clients. We aspire to improve our recognition in Asia as a top-quality firm through various rankings, peer reviews, and other accolades, in addition to accumulating a track record of ground-breaking projects in Asia.

In 2020, N&A created a messaging guide to articulate our firm’s common goals and principles, with the pledge of “Leading You Forward” to our clients and society, and establishing strength, commitment, and spirit as the three principles that support this pledge. We always provide legal services to our clients with this in mind.

SHIMONO: The long-term goal for our firm’s global expansion is to grow - in size and capacity -enough to compete with the established U.S. and U.K. firms. We believe that globalisation is the key to our firm’s growth and success in the future. To achieve this goal, we will engage with many more foreign lawyers, including top lawyers acting on the front lines, which we believe will revitalise our firm and further enhance our skill level.

Furthermore, we aim to be the “best” law firm, which does not necessarily mean the largest in number of lawyers or revenue, but a firm that can quickly respond to our clients’ needs in this ever-changing world and provide the best solution in accordance with the situation. We also strive to offer a work environment for our lawyers and staff where they can fulfil their potential while working positively and healthily.

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