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Tokyo bullet trains

Express or local?

It was probably around 1994 when I landed in one of the major capitals of Central Eastern Europe, where a US client had an office doing international corporate law. My client was one among probably ten other major US and UK firms in that city with similar practices. I had arrived there to meet a candidate, a partner, who was at that time (and may still be) with a local firm. We’d been talking the previous few months, and he in turn had been interviewing with my client, who was itching to recruit him. The client was confident that this partner-level hire would benefit the candidate with a broader exposure of major international clients, around a 30% increase in compensation starting off, and various other benefits specific to major US firms. From phone calls I knew him to be quite a warm fellow with a refined manner, and was sure I’d like him in person as well. When he walked into the lobby of my hotel for our meeting, he turned out to be strikingly tall. Somehow I heard myself asking if he’d played sports. Oh yes, he’d played basketball in high school and college. As I heard him say this, instinctively, I also knew that going forward I should never make a remark, even oblique, about any physical features of candidates or clients – there’s little upside. (Of course there are exceptions – anyone who knows Nick Norris in Hong Kong knows that he hasn’t aged or gained weight since the mid 90s.) But on that afternoon in Central Europe, I had no reason to ask what I did.

Eventually, the candidate decided to remain at his current firm, and for a while I wondered if my comment touching on his height might have contributed to his decision to stay with his local, more diverse practice instead of joining a major international firm.

It took a few more years for me to realize that his decision had nothing to do with any such awkwardness and everything to do with the nature of practicing at a local firm. In short, at a satellite office of a US firm, it’s New York, Chicago, or Los Angeles calling the shots and shaping long-term strategy.

The realization dawned on me half a world away, while working with bengoshi in Tokyo 2000 to 2002. I remember sitting down over breakfast at the New Otani Hotel, drinking the strongest coffee in Asia Pacific, and speaking with a midlevel associate who was working with one of the major four Japanese law firms. He was looking a bit disheveled from a long night of work – one among many long nights that are the norm among bengoshi, along with hallmark pasty complexions thanks to continuous indoor lighting.

But his situation was about to radically improve, I thought. Nono, as we’ll call him, had an offer from one of the major US firms in Tokyo at about three times his current salary, with half the hours, nice offices, and a guaranteed car ride home after 10 p.m. (Where he then worked, as at other local firms, the associates took the subway and train irrespective of the time, and their homes, because of their salaries, tended to be on average about an hour’s train ride from Akasaka.)

To my amazement Nono rejected the offer, as did most of the bengoshi associates in similar circumstances with whom I worked during those years. It all seemed so illogical that I wondered what other factors were at play.

It didn’t take long to figure it out: Japanese are generally not flashy and they seek excellence and substance. For Nono, substance was work. He wasn’t weighing in the money, the hours, or the lifestyle – he was weighing where would he get the better work. And hands down, Nono, like his peers, concluded that for an associate that work that would help him build a career as a Japanese lawyer was at Nagashima or Anderson Mori and the handful of other top-tier Japanese law firms. At the major US or UK firms, their Tokyo offices’ focus was in the offshore piece, in the US or UK document. The bengoshi would serve either a support role, offering Japanese advice, or documenting the ‘lesser’ part of the transaction. That would mean playing a smaller part in the entire firm, without much directional impact on its growth and development. In contrast at the Japanese firm, by the time Nono was a 9th year, he’d be a substantive, competent, and competitive bengoshi with the skills and confidence to compete in his marketplace. Had he gone to the international firm, however, with some exceptions, Nono’s fortunes would have been tied to the client or other international firms. Over time, he would lose know-how and diminish his status as a complete and competent bengoshi.

As many US and UK firms expand throughout different markets, they are (and will be) encountering many of Nono’s cousins. And while comp and lifestyle remain key determinants, ultimately the high-end local work for the local practicing lawyers – and the competitive competence that doing that work builds – will factor into the recruitment process.