The Who’s Who of the Japanese Legal World
Tuesday, May 28, 2019
More than just Attorneys
Why don’t Japanese people regularly use attorneys?
Many people who come to Japan are accustomed to working with attorneys to solve personal and business problems and might wonder why Japanese people don’t do the same. There is a long-standing debate as whether Japanese people have a different feeling or relationship to law and lawsuits and although many Japanese people associate attorneys and lawsuits with undesirable confrontation, the undeniable reality is that there are very few attorneys (bengoshi, see below table) in Japan (only around 40,000 in 2018) and the bulk (around 58%) work in Tokyo and Osaka.
Japanese attorneys have traditionally focused on lawsuits and disputes. As the Japan Federation of Bar Associations’ homepage explains:
“The duties of attorneys are to provide services relating to civil and criminal lawsuits, family matters such as divorce, etc., petitions against administrative agencies, out-of-court settlement negotiations, legal consultations, and other legal services.”
This focus differs from many attorneys in the US and other countries who offer comprehensive services for business transactions as “transactional attorneys” and “other legal services” is quite a wide category of services like immigration which non-Japanese may find essential.
Are there any alternatives to Japanese attorneys?
The alternatives to Japanese attorneys are summarized below.
Occupation name (Japanese)
Common English Translations
Scope of activities and legal problems dealt with
attorney qualified in Japan
All legal matters with a focus on lawsuits
None, but bar association permission is required for non-attorney positions such as corporate auditor
gaikokuho jimu bengoshi
gaiben, registered foreign attorneys, foreign legal consultant
Advice on the law of the foreign country where the attorney is qualified
Advice on Japanese and third country laws and representation in procedures before a court, public prosecutor's office or other public agency
judicial scrivener, shiho-shoshi lawyer
Handling of real estate transactions, corporate registrations, representation in summary courts, arbitration and mediation proceedings, application for Japanese citizenship
Representation in lawsuits other than in small claims court
administrative scrivener, immigration lawyer, visa lawyer,
Prepare legal documents such as filings with the national and local government (particularly immigration and forming companies)
Representation in lawsuits and registrations
Handle IP rights (e.g., patents, utility models industrial designs and trademarks) and prosecution of IP rights at the Japan Patent Office in particular
Representation in lawsuits (possible to represent together with a Japanese attorney)
certified public tax accountant, tax attorney, tax agent
Taxation procedures, prepare tax documents such as tax returns and provide tax consultation
Legal advice not related to taxes, representation in lawsuits and registrations
Public notary, notary public
Notary (authentication) services and review and safekeeping of wills
Services not specified in Public Notary Act
Why use non-attorney legal professionals?
Non-attorney legal professionals often offer services that Japanese attorneys generally lack knowledge of such as patent attorneys (benrishi) who handle intellectual property rights and certified public tax accountant who prepare tax filings and advise on tax matters.
Japanese attorneys’ fees reflect the years of study and training and therefore are much higher than the other professions on the whole. As well, Japanese attorneys still tend to charge by the hour rather than a fixed rate for assignment. In particular, the fees of judicial scriveners (shiho shoshi) and administrative scrivener (gyosei shoshi) will be much lower for the same work and they will often bill for an assignment rather than by the hour.
Problems with Japanese attorneys
Japanese attorneys are subject to the same complaints made about attorneys in other countries with incompetency and inaccessibility (not responding to calls and email) being frequently cited as complaints. Non-attorney legal professionals will tend to be more specialized in specific procedures with some handling only one category such as restaurant, construction, or alcohol license and will be more client-orientated.
As well, non-Japanese clients will frequently be frustrated by the unwillingness of Japanese attorneys to accomplish their goals. Japanese attorneys, particularly compared to US attorneys, are reluctant to be proactive for their clients and non-Japanese clients are often disappointed by Japanese attorneys telling them why their goal cannot be accomplished rather than finding solutions. As well, some non-Japanese have the frustrating experience of having their case rejected if the goal is not an immediate lawsuit. Non-attorney legal professional may be more willing to suggest alternatives and accept small jobs and may have a better understanding of what government officials are looking for in making filings which can be particularly important for visas where immigration officials have wide discretion to refuse.
Finally, there are very few Japanese attorneys who are competent in English or other languages and those who are fluent will frequently charge much higher fees for work in English compared with non-attorney legal professionals.
These days, larger law firms (both foreign and Japanese) will frequently employ non-attorney legal professionals and other paralegals and foreign attorneys, and so the above benefits can be realized together with the expertise of Japanese attorneys although the fees will be higher than when hiring a non-attorney legal professional directly.
Note on notaries
Many embassies including the US embassy offer notary services which may be substantially less expense than Japanese notary publics (kosho nin) depending on the notarization requirements.
If you need an attorney for legal advice, you might be able obtain free or subsidized legal advice depending your financial situation and the nature of the consultation.
Once the advice is obtained, it may be possible to hire an attorney based on contingency fee (the attorney receives a percentage of a judgment or settlement after deduction of expenses as the fee).
You can also find English speaking attorneys and registered foreign attorneys in Japan through Martindale Hubbell. These firms primarily have corporate clients and the fees will be relatively high.
More information on non-attorney legal professionals:
About the Author
Lawyer in Tokyo