A Fireside Chat with Law Society President, A&O Shearman and British Embassy, Tokyo

Written by Sterling Content
May 31, 2024


Written by Sterling Content
May 31, 2024

Described as “the goose that lays the golden egg,” English law has helped make London a centre for global business and placed UK law firms in demand globally.

Bringing greater opportunities to UK lawyers and law firms in Japan, together with the internationalisation of Japanese law firms and navigating current geopolitical risks, were among the topics of discussion at a recent “fireside chat” organised by the British Chamber of Commerce in Japan.

Hosted by A&O Shearman, the event featured keynote speaker Nick Emmerson, president of the Law Society of England and Wales, alongside Xue Wang, partner at A&O Shearman, and James Carter, deputy head of trade at the British Embassy, Tokyo, with moderation by James Nepaulsingh, BCCJ Executive Committee member and senior legal counsel at a well-known Japanese trading house.

Emmerson said his ties with Japan go back to studying Japanese in Fukuoka in the early 1990s, as well as participation in the JET Programme and secondment to a Japanese trading company in Tokyo. Japan-based stints with law firms Dentons and Herbert Smith Freehills were followed by a period spent in Hong Kong and Shanghai with Eversheds Sutherland, before returning to his hometown of Leeds, where he helped develop an international law firm network for Gateley.



Now a corporate M&A partner and head of capital markets at Lewis Mathys Emmerson, Emmerson became president of the Law Society in October 2023 after serving the Leeds Law Society as president, deputy vice president and board member.


Geopolitical risks

Asked about the geopolitical risk environment for British law firms, Emmerson said “ultimately all law is local—it reflects societies—and countries are very protective of their law.”

He added: “What we’ve seen with Brexit in particular; we’ve gone overnight from dealing with the European Commission and having rights to practice in all European countries, to having to deal with 27 different jurisdictions with varying degrees of protection.”

For example, while there are around 30 UK law firms in France, Emmerson said that in some countries, like Greece, practising rights for UK lawyers are still unclear, as they have yet to implement the EU-UK trade deal into national law.

A&O Shearman’s Wang said that while there has been a slow-down in deal flow from China, in part due to geopolitical tensions, this has created more opportunities in other Asian countries.

“You see the decoupling of trade flows and supply chains favouring certain countries in the region … [and] the tightening of regulation in Japan and Europe, with an increased deal flow having to build new projects to suit the new regulations,” she said.



“And we have tonnes of deals playing to that market of needing localised manufacturing capacity instead of equipment and materials imports which used to largely come from China.”

The British Embassy, Tokyo’s Carter said he had seen UK companies make “a slight shift away from China” to make more resilient supply chains.

Carter explained that the UK–Japan relationship had “never been stronger,” exemplified by the agreement of the Hiroshima Accord and the signing of the Japan-UK Comprehensive Economic Partnership Agreement, as well as the UK’s accession to the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership.

“In terms of trade between the UK and Japan, we are like-minded countries, we’re both open, rules-based, and despite some language challenges and occasionally different business cultures, there are tremendous opportunities here for both UK and Japanese companies to collaborate, including legal firms and companies in many other industries,” he said.

Carter pointed to the British government’s official website which provides information on geopolitical risks and managing overseas business risks in a range of countries.


Internationalisation: London & Tokyo

Asked about the increasing “internationalisation” of Japanese law firms, exemplified by Anderson Mori & Tomotsune opening a London office in September 2022, Emmerson said  the Law Society welcomes the trend as reflecting the UK’s open trading environment.

“In London there are 200 overseas law firms from 100 different jurisdictions … There is no restriction on a Japanese lawyer coming to London and advising on Japanese law, and they are permitted to advise on English law outside of a few reserved areas,” he said.

“By being open, we’re getting a lot of global business,” he said, pointing to the legal industry’s contribution to the UK economy. Worth £60 billion a year, with £7.25 billion in legal services exports, the legal industry also employs around half a million people.

Further improving the ability of English lawyers to practise in Japan, however, remains a focus for the Law Society, with Emmerson determined to unlock greater opportunities.

“I think Japan now has a historic opportunity. There’s a real historic chance for Tokyo to take leadership in the region and be a centre for legal disputes and legal work, and it’s whether there’s a willingness to grasp that,” he said.

Carter agreed, noting that making it easier for foreign, and particularly English and Welsh lawyers and law firms, could help Japan achieve its foreign direct investment (FDI) target.

“[Prime Minister Fumio] Kishida announced a revised target of ¥100 trillion of FDI by 2030—currently it’s around ¥40 trillion, so there’s still quite a way to go,” he said.

“To achieve that, foreign companies need to be comfortable and supported in setting up and doing business here. There needs to be a strong ecosystem of enabling services that cater to international businesses and businesspeople. This includes things like access to international law firms and foreign lawyers, international education, accountancy services and advisory firms.

“There’s also an emphasis on attracting highly skilled foreign talent, and this needs to include making it easier to have foreign lawyers coming here. This will be crucial for Japan to grow given its declining and ageing population,” he concluded.