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David Warburton Director, FAQ, Job search...

#Nexuslegal Director, David Warburton, focuses on the Asia private practice market, specifically Japan, for the past 8 years. The following FAQ’s are what David is asked on a regular basis by perspective candidates who are thinking about progressing their legal career in Tokyo.

1. What is the pay like in Tokyo?

Historically, the pay for 'expat' lawyers in Tokyo has been fairly high, although gone are the days when every firm would offer housing or 'COLA' (cost of living allowance), albeit a handful still offer such packages. The market is diverse and doesn't necessarily follow the structure you would expect in your 'home' jurisdiction - i.e. the Magic Circle English firms don't always pay more than their Silver Circle counterparts, and not every US firm pays Cravath scale rates. Some offer an inflated salary with no extras, whereas some offer relatively low salaries with separate housing allowances and COLA. 

A key reason for this high pay, albeit one decreasing in significance as time passes, is the fact Japan has typically been 'off the radar' of most expat lawyers, hence demand for candidates can outstrip supply, creating upward pressure on remuneration. Many Australian, American and English lawyers think of Hong Kong, Dubai or Singapore when considering an overseas move, and few have personal links to Japan, so firms can find it difficult to attract talent. On average, remuneration in Tokyo is higher than in most other markets, although firms are distributed on a wide spectrum, so discussing pay on a case-by-case basis is recommended.

2. Isn't the cost of living extremely high?

This question follows nicely from the first, as it is a key rationale behind firms' decision to offer greater remuneration packages in Tokyo. Historically, Tokyo has been a top-ranked city in global cost of living surveys, and pay has risen to account for this. That being said, with significant growth in regional markets like Singapore and Hong Kong, Tokyo is now less of an outlier. Opinion on cost of living in Tokyo is mixed, perhaps due in part to how expats choose to live - the more one eats, socialises or generally exists as a local Japanese person would, the more prices seem reasonable. So-called 'Western' food and drink can be more expensive, especially given the increased likelihood of import being necessary to fulfil this demand. For a lawyer moving from London or Sydney, who perhaps might be considering other major Asian cities alongside Tokyo, the cost of living would not seem much different in many cases. One point that does count against Tokyo compared with places like Hong Kong, Singapore or Dubai, is that tax is undoubtedly higher, but that is another question entirely.

3. What is the quality of work like compared to London or New York?

The work in Japan is of equivalent calibre to what one would find at the same firm in London or New York, although perhaps with a slightly reduced diversity of client base. This however is adequately compensated for by the benefits of being in a significantly smaller office, and part of a smaller team when staffed on deals. Numerous lawyers I have assisted in moving to Japan have remarked on the increased level of responsibility and client exposure they get in Tokyo, with one 3pqe Associate stating "I've had more client meetings and dinners here than I had in all my time in London" - he had only been in Tokyo for a few months at that point! 

4. Don't you need to have Japanese language skills?

The answer to this question very much depends on the role. For some practice areas, the client meetings and documentation are all done in English, so Japanese language skills carry much less weight on an application, thus could be considered largely unnecessary. Some practice areas are the opposite, and strong spoken Japanese, as well as the ability to read Japanese and correspond via email, is required. Between those polar extremes are firms that perhaps target Japanese clients who don't speak English very well, or firms that maintain a team where everyone is a Japanese speaker, so the ability to converse in Japanese is a selling point of the practice. Regardless, any level of Japanese proficiency points to a commitment to working in Tokyo, meaning even 6 months of evening classes will carry some benefit! 

5. What do firms look for in candidates / how could I position myself for a move to Tokyo in the future?

Again, this can depend on the role, but key areas would be A) a core 'transactional' area of practice (M&A, capital markets, banking/finance, energy projects) as few firms do disputes work in Tokyo, B) a background from a top or well-regarded firm, C) admission in the USA, UK or AUS, or another core 'Western' jurisdiction.

To discuss current opportunities in Tokyo, or a future move to Japan in general, please contact David Warburton (Director) on +44 161 870 6776 or