BCCJ members drive Women in Law Japan

Written by Sanae Samata
May 29, 2020
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Written by Sanae Samata
May 29, 2020
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With a refreshed website launched in April and new presences on LinkedIn and Facebook, Women in Law Japan (WILJ) is upping its game in 2020.

The 800-strong member group was established in 2016 to provide an opportunity for those involved in the legal industry to discuss issues facing them and the sector, while developing their career via networking, educational sessions and mentoring.

Today, British Chamber of Commerce in Japan (BCCJ) members are among those leading and developing the group.

The BCCJ spoke to Rika Beppu of Squire Patton Boggs (president of WILJ), Catherine O’Connell of Catherine O’Connell Law (vice-president), Jacky Scanlan-Dyas of Hogan Lovells (managing committee member) and Reiko Sakimura of Clifford Chance (managing committee member) to find out more about the group’s activities.

 

What is the background of WILJ?

Rika: The Foreign Women Lawyers’ Association had been running for more than 20 years in Tokyo, but their activities eventually evaporated. Many of us were sad that this well-respected group was no longer hosting monthly meetings, so a few of us got together to launch WILJ.

Our name doesn’t have the word “lawyer” in it, as in Japan there are many in-house counsels who are not qualified or licensed in Japan or overseas. We also decided to include men in our events, as most of the topics we cover concern all law-related professionals. We aim to have no barriers between those qualified or licensed in Japan and overseas—we use mainly English in our operations for practical reasons—so the word ”foreign” does not exist in our name.

 

What differentiates WILJ and other law-related groups in Japan?

Jacky: The most obvious differentiator is that we are a group of women. The legal profession in Japan is heavily populated by men and it’s rare to have a space exclusively for women. However, we often hold events where men are welcome.

Another difference that we are not all lawyers. We welcome women from all areas of the legal ecosystem. Our members are law firm office managers, business development managers, legal service providers, paralegals, PAs and law students, as well as lawyers (both private practice and in-house) and partners in law firms. Judges and prosecutors are also invited as members and we hope to increase their number.

Lastly, our range of events is quite varied; we don’t just host typical networking-style events like many law-related groups. We have a mentoring programme, educational events, wellbeing webinars, working-mamas’ breakfasts, career development sessions, inspirational speakers and simple fun girls’ nights out—although our next one of these is more like “cocktails via Zoom.”

Catherine: In addition, our speaker meetings are focused on delivering practical, useful tips to members and guests. Our membership is free, and our executive committee is comprised entirely of volunteers.

Rika: Good or bad, we are not an incorporated entity, registered charitable organisation or incorporated not-for-profit organisation. WILJ does not seek financial sponsorship from law firms or companies, and operates independently through 15 volunteers with different legal backgrounds (Japan, South Korea, United States, United Kingdom, India, Australia, New Zealand, Philippines). We aim to host four to five main events a year.

Our mentorship programme has matched 42 participants over the past few years. Some pairs have continued their relationships and fostered meaningful dialogue that has benefited both mentors and mentees. We hope to be more active in this space for years to come.

 

What does the group hope to achieve in the short, medium and long-term?

Catherine: We want to grow the membership through our new website and new presence on LinkedIn and Facebook. I am especially thrilled to be WILJ’s social media maven, building content and creating engagement on these platforms.

I would also like to see an increase in membership among judges, mediators, arbitrators and prosecutors, as well as members of the Japan and Tokyo bar associations.

Rika: There are a lot of themes, interest groups and potential members that we could pursue, but we operate purely on a volunteer basis and therefore try not to bite off more than we can chew.

It would be good to continue our collaborations with the Lawyers for LGBT & Allies Network, Japanese In-house Lawyers Association and various other non-governmental organisations, as well as law firms and companies.

One goal is to develop a deeper relationship with the Japanese Bar Association’s relevant committees and women groups. Also, doubling our membership base in the next few years would be great.

 

What impact has WILJ had on the community?

Catherine: We have been able to shine a light on issues such as human trafficking and diversity and inclusion. We have also spotlighted smaller law practitioners in the Tokyo legal community who are not often profiled. Our panel discussion with small and solo practitioners was one of our most popular, and many people who contacted me afterwards expressed interest in starting a law business.

We receive superb pro-bono help from Translation Business Systems Japan. Their translation of event notices into Japanese helps us reach a larger section of the law community and has driven work to them—another positive impact.

Reiko: Our events give women an opportunity to be frank about the issues they face in the legal community; some of our speakers have probably been much more forthcoming in sharing their experiences and views because we’re predominantly a women-only organisation. Providing a forum for networking and discussion among not only lawyers but all those involved in the law can only be a good thing for the profession.

Rika: Simply the existence of our group carries weight. I hope it acts as a refuge for those seeking guidance and a network, when needed.