Lawyering Career Path in Japan

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Are you considering to pursue a career in law? Or are you currently studying to become a lawyer? Ever wonder what it takes to be a lawyer in Japan? As an Indonesian lawyer who used to work in Japan, Indonesia Mengglobal Columnist Steffen Hadi shares about what it takes to become a lawyer in Japan.

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Lawyer is a universal profession that exists in every corner of the world, including in Japan. Although the first known lawyer in history can be traced back to the Roman Empire, the concept was first introduced in Japan around the eighteenth century. Interestingly, lawyer in Japan is one of the most honorable professions outside of academia. Those who are admitted to practice law in Japan have the privilege to be called sensei (“master” in English).

Sure enough, such privilege does not come easy. To become a lawyer in Japan one must overcome a difficult path. In this opportunity, I would like to share the path to be taken to become a Japanese lawyer.

Pre-university

During the pre-university time, a Japanese lawyer undertakes an education track that is similar with their counterparts in Indonesia, namely elementary, junior high and senior high. The real struggle starts when a Japanese lawyer has to enter a good high school. Those who could enter into good high schools would have a higher chance to enter prestigious universities because the reputation of the high school would also be considered aside from university entrance exam. In many cases, a high school has a direct access to a certain university because they are affiliated. So for instance, if a Japanese lawyer could enter into a high school A, they would be prioritized to enter the affiliated university A.

Some universities like Tokyo University do not offer such scheme. Every high schooler who wishes to enter Tokyo University must pass the entrance exam, and it is not easy. Many people in Japan who fail the exam choose to repeat again the next year, hence delaying their career for a year.

University

A Japanese lawyer does not have to take a law degree, not even a university degree. Surprised, huh? Yep, because to become a lawyer in Japan you just need to pass the Japanese bar (i.e. a series of exams and trials to become a lawyer). Although few people manage to pass the bar without entering university, the majority of lawyers in Japan have at least one university degree.

Nowadays, a typical lawyer in Japan would have a law diploma before taking the bar exam. A law diploma is similar to a master’s degree, but specialized only for law. Such law diploma is offered by many universities in Japan and the purpose of this law diploma is for the bar exam preparation. Now, more lawyers in Japan are actually having two degrees, their undergraduate degree and master of law degree.

Bar Exam

Bar exam in Japan is arguably one of the hardest bar exams in the world. Recent passing rate shows that only around 20% takers passed the bar exam. Even worse, not until ten years ago, the passing rate was around 3%.

The bar exam structure consists of two stages. The first stage is a multiple choice exam and the second stage is a three-day essay exam test. All of the tests consist of various areas of law, ranging from constitution law to criminal procedure law.

Post-bar Exam

A few lucky takers who pass the test would undertake a legal training by interning in government offices around Japan, including the district court office and the attorney general office. This training is the last phase of the bar exam. Although theoretically this is still considered part of the bar exam, many consider that it is just a formality as most takers would pass.

Post-admission to Practice

After being admitted to practice, a Japanese lawyer obtains all of the privileges as a lawyer in Japan. Being called a sensei, relatively higher salary than other occupation and becoming part of an “honored society”. However, most Japanese lawyers would not be entertained with all those privileges because after being admitted, the real challenges start: a real legal practice. Japanese lawyers work long hours and often during weekend. The lack of Japanese lawyers in Japan makes all legal works in the country linger around the few people, thus adding the weight of workload.

How Foreign Lawyers Could Enter

Increasing number of cross-border transaction, usage of English documents and international clients enable foreign lawyers to enter the legal market in Japan. Japanese big law firms actively recruit foreign lawyers from various law jurisdictions to adjust the firm with the client needs. Now, if you visit a Japanese big law firm, do not be surprised if see many non-Japanese lawyers inside the firm.

That’s it folks! Interested? Just try!

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Photo by Ruthson Zimmerman on Unsplash

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Steffen Hadi
Steffen Hadi studied LL.M. in University of Pennsylvania Law School and Wharton Business and Law Certificate of the Wharton School at the same university. He was the Class President of Penn Law LL.M. Class 2016, Penn Law Students Representative in University of Pennsylvania’s council, and international associate editor in Penn Law Journal of International Law. Steffen also interned at a prominent international law firm in Philadelphia. Aside from LL.M. Steffen also holds a Sarjana Hukum (LL.B. equivalent) from Parahyangan Catholic University. Steffen has been practicing law as a corporate lawyer in Jakarta and Singapore. Presently, he is a senior associate in a prominent law firm in Indonesia and independently assisting few legal issues for start-ups. In his spare time, Steffen is a movie freak, loyal runner, and outdoor trekker.