Linklaters is set to create Japan's first cross-border law firm by merging with a team of lawyers from Mitsui Yasuda Wani & Maeda.
Mitsuhiro Yasuda and Akihiro Wani will become Linklaters partners on April 1 2005 when a new law that rolls back restrictions on foreign firms comes into force. They will bring a team of more than 20 lawyers with them, making Linklaters the first firm to offer US, UK and Japanese legal advice under one roof.
Some foreign firms have tried to create integrated outfits before, despite restrictions imposed by the conservative Japanese bar associations, but the results have been patchy - barred from becoming full partners in foreign firms few elite Japanese lawyers have been willing to leave exalted positions at respected local firms.
As a result, foreign firms' joint ventures with local lawyers have not made much of an impression on the market and top clients still prefer to use the big Japanese law firms in tandem with US or UK lawyers from one of the foreign firms.
The new rules provide the framework, in theory at least, to change all that. Conceived by a committee of industry players and academics, they allow Japanese law firms to merge with foreign firms and create a single partnership.
Even so, it is something of a coup for Linklaters to have drafted in two such senior lawyers: Yasuda is regarded as one of the best capital markets lawyers in Japan and Wani, who is Japan's Isda representative, is highly rated as an adviser on derivatives and structured finance transactions. He will become joint managing partner of the Tokyo office alongside Tony Grundy, the current head.
The other two name partners will go their separate ways and the Japanese firm will be dissolved. Hiroshi Maeda will join Nishimura, one of Japan's top firms, and Takuhide Mitsui is setting up his own practice.
The creation of Japanese one-stop-shops should make things easier for everyone. "It's frustrating to act on a cross-border deal in relation to Japan; advising on strategy, drafting and doing the negotiation but outsourcing the Japanese law aspect of the deal," says Simon Davies, Linklaters' Asia managing partner.
It is also cumbersome for clients, who have to deal with two law firms instead of the one firm their counterparts can use in New York, London or Frankfurt. But this reform, and Linklaters' ground-breaking merger, will not necessarily open the floodgates. "It's unlikely other firms will react dramatically," says Davies.
Most already have a joint venture, under the old rules, with one or two Japanese lawyers. A handful of firms have quite large contingents; Baker & McKenzie and Freshfields are among the biggest. But the hidebound traditions of Japan's legal community are likely to ensure that, notwithstanding Linklaters' deal, change happens gradually.