For the second article in our Japanese Studies: 5-10-20, today we have a unique perspective from Reid Monroe-Sheridan, the CEO and Representative Director of Tokyo Nexus Limited and an Adjunct Lecturer at the University of Tokyo Law School. Anyone interested in taking their skills into law, business, or technology should definitely check it out! You can find our first 5-10-20 article here.
Eight Years Out, Where Am I Now?
Earlier this year, I left my job at an American law firm in Tokyo to found a Japan-based internationalization consultancy, Tokyo Nexus Limited (in Japanese: 東京ネクサス株式会社). Since then, I’ve been working with several Japanese Internet and technology companies to help them expand overseas by launching international product offerings, preparing investor relations material, and coordinating and executing business transactions with American companies. I’m also interested in helping foreign companies with market entry in Japan.
I’m still licensed as a lawyer in New York but I’m not practicing law and Tokyo Nexus does not provide legal services. I’m also an adjunct lecturer at the University of Tokyo Law School, where I co-teach teach a seminar course on international capital markets transactions.
How did I end up here? Until earlier this year I was working as a corporate lawyer at a law firm called Simpson Thacher, first for a couple years in the firm’s New York office and then in its Tokyo office. At Simpson I worked on derivatives transactions, mergers and acquisitions, and a large number of securities offerings. In Tokyo specifically, I worked mostly with large Japanese companies that were issuing and selling securities to American institutional investors like banks and pension funds.
Back to the Beginning: Majoring in Japanese and Deciding on Law School
I decided to go to law school when I was a junior in college. I loved studying Japanese and I knew I wanted to build a career involving Japanese, but I wasn’t sure what the best route might be. I knew there were American lawyers who worked in Japan and even though I had no idea what kind of work these lawyers did or how their careers progressed, I decided that this was the most promising route based on my goals and strengths. At the time I also did quite a bit of freelance web development for various clients but I didn’t see a good way to tie that to Japan. So I put web development aside in favor of law school.
For any readers considering law school, I advise you to think long and hard about your motives and what your personal finances will look like after you graduate. Law school is enormously expensive, and unless you can attend for free or law school is a concrete step in a well-defined career path, it’s probably a bad idea. What happens often is that law students take on so much debt to pay for tuition that by the time they graduate, they feel compelled to work at a big law firm to start paying back their loans. Generally speaking, working as an associate at a large law firm is extremely demanding and requires significant personal sacrifices. If you weren’t planning on that route from the beginning (or sometimes even if you were), a few years later you might find yourself very unhappy but effectively unable to leave your job for financial reasons. On the other hand, law school and my experience at a big firm were instrumental in helping me build a career and develop a professional skill set, so I do think law school is a good option in some cases.
Law School (with a Japanese B.A. in Japanese)
Studying Japanese in Law School
Keeping up my Japanese language skills was difficult during the first year of law school. Cross-registration into Japanese language courses is difficult or impossible, and adapting to a different class and schoolwork structure takes a lot of energy during the first term of law school. The second term is more relaxed for most students and the second and third years are a breeze (comparatively).
I cross-registered for Japanese language courses during my second year, took a couple Japanese law courses during my second and third years, and also spent a term studying at a law school in Tokyo. Studying abroad at a Japanese law school was a lot of fun and a great way to improve my legal Japanese. (In case you’re wondering, I was absolutely not held to the same standard as the Japanese law students. If I had been, I’m sure I would have failed all my courses.)
Getting a Japan-Related Job as a Law Student
Because I already knew I wanted to work in Japan, finding the right job was an easier process for me than for many other law students. There isn’t much public interest work for U.S. lawyers to do in Japan, so if you want to work here as a lawyer you’re almost certainly going to be working at an international law firm. I spent a summer at a litigation firm after my first year of law school and it became clear that I was better suited to corporate work over litigation.
So by the time I was a second-year law student I knew that I wanted to do corporate work at an American firm in Japan. With that criteria, there weren’t that many options to consider, and U.S. law firms with strong Japan practices are always in need of native English-speaking U.S. lawyers with business Japanese language abilities. After gathering as much information as I could about the Tokyo market, I settled on Simpson Thacher based on the combined strength of their Japan and U.S. corporate practices. Even after striking out on my own, I continue to recommend Simpson to any law students who want to work in Japan.
Working as a U.S.-licensed Lawyer in the U.S. and Japan
Getting the Right Experience and Working in Japanese
For anyone interested in working in Japan as a lawyer, I strongly recommend that you start your career with at least a year of practice in the U.S. The Japanese deal process is idiosyncratic in some ways and becoming familiar with U.S. market standards for deals in your practice area will be hugely valuable. It will also give you experience working and negotiating “the American way,” which differs from the typical workflow in Japan and will be very useful experience once you move out here.
When you come to Japan, there’s a good chance you’ll be involved in some legal work that requires Japanese language skills. The amount of Japanese you’ll be using varies by practice area, and there are some areas that actually don’t require Japanese language skills at all. Generally speaking, litigation requires the least (or no) Japanese, mergers and acquisitions requires some to a lot of Japanese, depending on the type of transaction, and capital markets work virtually requires business proficiency.
I know the prospect of doing legal work in Japanese can be intimidating. One important thing to keep in mind is that you’re almost certainly never going to be doing any drafting in Japanese. You’ll attend Japanese meetings, work from Japanese legal documents, and potentially participate in Japanese negotiations, but as a U.S. lawyer you won’t be producing Japanese-language documents.
Strangely, doing legal work with a Japanese component is easier than it sounds. The bottom line is that you have to get things right, and when you’re forced to do this in a high-pressure situation you’ll be surprised at just how much you can understand. And as you pick up more and more specialized Japanese legal vocabulary the process gets easier and easier.
Registering as a Foreign Lawyer
This is a bit of a side note, but it’s a very important point for anyone who wants to build a legal career in Japan.
Under Japanese law, foreign lawyers cannot practice law in Japan without registering with the Ministry of Justice. This means that even if you’re licensed to practice U.S. law, you cannot provide services or advice regarding U.S. law to clients in Japan unless you’re also registered in Japan. The definition of legal services is more limited in Japan than in America, but this is still a key point worth noting. At a law firm you will almost certainly be working in a support capacity to a partner, counsel or senior associate who is properly licensed, and that person should be delivering the legal services to your client. The general view is that to be a partner at a law firm in Japan you must be either a Japanese lawyer or a registered foreign lawyer. This wasn’t always the case, but these days I’m not aware of any exceptions at all.
As of this writing, to register as a foreign lawyer you need to have two years of practice experience as a licensed attorney outside of Japan, plus an additional year of practice experience either in or outside Japan. Some long-time Japan residents get stuck by establishing a legal career here without spending enough time overseas, and are ultimately unable to register as a foreign lawyer without leaving the country to fulfill the two-year international practice requirement. This can be disruptive to the lawyer’s career, not to mention family life, so you can potentially save yourself a lot of grief if you plan ahead. There has been talk about eliminating this requirement for many years, but it’s unclear if or when that might happen.
What goes through the mind of a foreigner living in Tokyo who decides to start a business in Japan? My primary motives were:
- Working on a broader range of client projects, including business-side strategy and execution
- Working with a wider range of clients, rather than only working with the large companies that can afford a big law firm
- Getting firsthand business experience by building my own business from the ground up
- Having control over my workflow
- Having the freedom to structure and price my engagements to further my professional development in fields of interest
In short, I wanted to branch out and gain a wide variety of professional experience that was unavailable to me as a law firm associate while also having the freedom to focus on my particular fields of interest. And being flexible about engagements has finally allowed me to get back to my web development roots by doing a lot of work with internet and technology companies, a field that I’ve always found exciting and interesting.
Establishing a business in Japan is challenging, in no small part because nearly all of my client interaction is in Japanese and I have to pitch projects, negotiate terms, execute contracts, and do nearly all my corporate administrative work in Japanese. On the flip side, being a native English speaker who can manage this and has professional negotiation, drafting, and transaction management experience puts me at a distinct advantage for many international projects. It also provides an opportunity to work with foreign clients who want to move into the Japanese market and who need a capable English-speaking consultant on the ground in Tokyo.
Combining a Japanese Degree with Professional Skills
I initially focused on law, but there are a number of career opportunities in Tokyo for native English speakers who have business proficiency in Japanese and a little bit of professional training. Despite Japan’s persistent economic woes, there is such an extreme lack of supply of this type of profession that many foreign companies here are eager to snap up any promising recruit with the right language skills.
The fields where this lack of supply is most immediately visible are international internet and technology companies like Google and Facebook, foreign investment banks, and law firms. If you look around at various job postings in Tokyo you’ll see that companies in these areas are nearly always recruiting talented bilingual prospects.
If you don’t have any practical or professional experience, you are unlikely to get hired on the strength of your language skills alone. But a little bit of professional training or experience combined with native English ability and business Japanese will make you competitive for positions that you wouldn’t necessarily be competitive for in the U.S. I’ve observed this plenty of times and I’ve also experienced it firsthand, getting interviews for positions that I almost certainly would not have received in the U.S.
The best part about being a professional in Japan is that you get to combine the usual process of building skills and experience with constantly using and improving your Japanese language abilities. Additionally, if you’re working on international projects, any international experience you bring to the table is likely to be very valuable and appreciated by your team members. Given the very small number of foreign professionals in Tokyo and the continuing overseas expansion of Japanese companies, this remains a great place to establish a truly unique career path.
Reid Monroe-Sheridan is the CEO and Representative Director of Tokyo Nexus Limited and an Adjunct Lecturer at the University of Tokyo Law School. Prior to founding Tokyo Nexus, Reid worked as an associate at Simpson Thacher & Bartlett LLP from 2010 through 2014. Reid has a J.D. from Harvard Law School and a B.A. in Japanese Literature from Carleton College, and is a graduate of Stanford University’s Inter-University Center for Japanese Language Studies. You can contact Reid at email@example.com.
Tokyo Nexus is a bilingual internationalization consultancy working with Japanese companies to help them expand overseas and with American companies to help them enter the Japanese market. Tokyo Nexus does not provide legal services. More information about Tokyo Nexus is available at www.tknexus.com (English) and www.tknexus.com/content/jp (Japanese).