Thoughts on lawyering after the Roppongi Bar Association bonenkai.

I always have an interesting time at Roppongi Bar Association (RBA) events here in Tokyo, even though I never find anyone who can help me out with–as friends and daily readers know–my immediate needs. Last night was no exception.

[more after brunch]

[Update: So where was I? Ah yes. I was saying that the RBA events are always enjoyable, except I get the sense that it’s not the “premier networking event” in Tokyo. In fact, I think the number of high-powered attorneys who show varies greatly by event. But I also feel there are some well-connected people who stay connected to the RBA. So it isn’t like that American Chamber of Commerce E-Central event-slash-con fiasco that I blogged about in October of last year. You will definitely have a better time, you will get to meet people, and the price is about as competitive.

I have been doing these regularly for four or five years, even though I don’t work as an attorney. I like to see how attorneys mingle, and try to figure out who is the transactional lawyer and who is the courtroom litigator. I like to see the different young Japanese and Japanese-American participants, and try to guess how much of their life was spent here or back home. I meet some number of solos who are there to hand out cards. I like to see the different styles of people’s cards.

Sometimes law office support staff is there, too. I wonder about that. They spend all day around lawyers, and then they are going to network with other ones? That’s commitment.

If you are lucky, you might find a Prince Toda among the group who can connect you with someone you might want to meet in the future.

The food is always good. Last night, they also had an open bar.

I’m not certain, but I think the Ascendant guy was there, as part of the American Chamber of Commerce (ACCJ) contingent. (It was a bonenkai, year-end party, co-sponsored with ACCJ.) At least, there was someone who looked a lot like the guy in the Japan Today picture. I have a bad taste in my mouth from my interview with that one (July 2009?), so I made sure not to be a network-ee to him. I just wish he’d have moved away from the buffet table more, maybe–especially his staying on the side close to the bar.

Lawyering in Tokyo must be tough right now, because of the deep recession in the international law market. I hear that the big corporations are moving toward a flat-rate model, and not billable hour. Billable hour was the lawyer’s golden goose; kind-of like “fee for service” in the medical profession. When your clients are telling you this is all you’re going to get for an engagement–and probably no guarantee if you don’t win it for them, that you’ll be seeing a lot of them in the near future–I think that fundamentally changes the business model of corporate lawyering. (Makes me glad I “over-credentialized” myself into a CPA as well years ago. Can’t get rid of the law degree, though.)

While talking to someone from Clifford Chance, I got that firm confused with White & Case, which had the big layoff featured in a New York Times article last year. Same difference maybe. One portion, and a [no pun] money quote, in that article has since stuck out in my mind:

THE gentleman’s profession of the law is becoming a vestige of the past, removed enough from reality to be remembered, like phone booths or fedoras.

Philip K. Howard, a senior partner at Covington & Burling, another multinational firm, may be the closest thing to a gentleman lawyer that one is likely to find these days. He is courtly, white-haired, civic-minded and blessed with an aristocratic pair of arching eyebrows. While he declined to speak directly about White & Case (“I’m not really interested in the business of the law”), he touched on the firm’s current troubles by suggesting that as the bottom line increases in importance, the traditional role of the lawyer as a trusted counselor slips away.

“To the extent that lawyers are simply churning out the same problems one after the other and are treated as factors of production to be laid off or not because of market forces or marginal declines in profitability,” he said, “the emotional and professional commitment that goes along with being an adviser and a solver of problems begins to diminish.”

[Emphasis added.]

The emotional and professional commitment that goes along with being an adviser and a solver of problems begins to diminish. What’s that another way of saying?

This is what I think must be hurting the legal profession right now. Back in the day–before my day, too–it must have been about guiding companies and giving good advice. I think this probably also meant, “this is what the law is”, and less “let’s see what we can do to manipulate and get around, and do it on the clock.” I said sometime ago, that big law firms are wrecking the legal profession. I feel that the lawyer recession is a direct result of the phenomenon that Attorney Howard described.

The Roppongi Bar Association started as, I am told, a drinking club in 1982! This was back in a much better Japanese economy, and pre-Bubble. It must have been quite a club then. I think it still is, but now in some ways a window on the soul of the profession in town.

Oh oh oh, I like this quote at the end of the Times article, too, from a senior partner at White & Case:

“The loyalty of the institution to its people, and vice versa, isn’t really there anymore — it’s a different animal from what a lot of us were used to. It’s much more of a business now and less of a true partnership. The problem is we’re supposed to all be in this together. But at some point, you stop and think: ‘Well, maybe we’re not.’ ”

4 thoughts on “Thoughts on lawyering after the Roppongi Bar Association bonenkai.

  1. Hi, Rick-san. This is Koyama, member of BEAT-8.

    RBA? What kind of Association? A group of pubkeepers?
    And why do you need a help?

    BTW, I got you a photo book for farewell gift.
    So will you come EC88 next Sunday?

  2. Hello Koyama-san,

    Here the “B” stands for the group of lawyers in a community or a state. This bar is said to refer to the actual railing (bar) in most courtrooms, which is before the judge’s “bench”. (So sometimes the phrase, “bench and bar”.) The Japanese courtroom is laid out a bit differently.

    I needed help staying in Tokyo, which now clearly isn’t going to happen.

    I always appreciate everyone’s kind gestures, and thoughts for me, in the different English groups. I will try to visit when I can.

  3. Rick-san,
    Thank you for your quick response to my question.
    “Bar” means the bar of court, not drinking place! (laugh)
    Ah, that reminds me “Shihoushiken” is called “Bar exam” in US.

    And I’ll go EC88 next Friday, not Sunday.
    So please come next Friday class, if it is convenient to you.

    Thank you,

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