Lessons from the Japan Field Study Trip

I went on the Japan Field Study trip because it seemed like an interesting opportunity to explore patents from an international perspective in one of the most technology-driven countries in the world. My expectations of what I would learn were both met and exceeded by the actual content of the course. I learned a great deal from the site visits, both about the intricacies of Japan’s legal system and patent laws, but also about the expectations that Japanese lawyers and clients have for foreign lawyers. Moreover, through class sessions and discussions with the Waseda Law School students, I got a taste of Japanese cultural and pedagogical differences.

One of the best features of the trip for me was the chance to interact with students from Waseda. It was interesting to hear their perspective on the laws and cultural norms that we were learning about. I enjoyed hearing the questions they had and seeing where their areas of focus differed from those of the Stanford students. The Waseda students all came from vastly different backgrounds and hearing about their goals and plans after getting their degree was a fascinating window into how law is practiced as a profession throughout various other parts of the world. Many of our Waseda colleauges had already had practical experience in the legal profession in some capacity. One especially enjoyable conversation that I had with a Waseda student was about his work as a patent attorney in Japan, a role that we learned is different from an attorney at law. The Japanese legal system divides the roles of attorneys into categories that seem quite different than those in the American system, and this conversation helped me to understand those differences in a much more concrete way. The idea that a patent attorney was a separate category from an attorney at law was at first a challenging one for me and talking with other students helped me understand why anyone would want to return to school to become an attorney at law if they were already a qualified patent attorney. In point of fact, my discussion with the Japanese students helped me understand that the main ability that patent attorneys lack is to be able to engage in trial work, and that this restriction is primarily felt at the infringement stage. The result of this division of responsibilities is that barriers to entry for working in parts of the legal profession are much lower than they are in the United States. In the US, those hoping to practice almost any form of law must pass the bar, placing an extraordinarily high bar on entry into the legal profession, regardless of the nature of the person’s intended practice. On the other hand, entry level legal positions in Japan are much easier to obtain, but there is a much higher bar for moving between different specialties. Through talking with Waseda students, I gained a better grasp of the practical benefits and disadvantages of different ways to structure the legal profession.

In this same vein, in class sessions we learned that Japanese attorneys tend to decide very early on whether they want to work in government, the private sector, or as a judge. Once a person has made this initial decision, they usually stay on that same track, and there is little movement of personnel between these three branches. I found this difference quite surprising, because I’m used to thinking of government, academia, practice, and judging as fields that overlap almost completely. Learning about the Japanese system encouraged me to question some of my assumptions about whether being a practitioner is better preparation for being a judge than simply working as a judge throughout one’s career. It was also interesting to hear about how judges would often spend a couple years rotating through agencies or law firms. This system seemed to be a solution to the problem of making sure that judges are in touch with the realities of the legal system in practice, a problem that America has traditionally solved by having practitioners move between the different specialties. I found it really useful to think through this different approach, especially in conversation with individuals who had actually been members of the Japanese judiciary for quite some time and who had first-hand experience with the strengths and weakness of this organization.

Finally, I really loved the site visits because these gave us a practical view into several aspects of the Japanese patent system and even basic struggles that intellectual property lawyers might face in practice. One insight that has stuck with me since the trip was that the way that Japanese clients structure their decision-making process is vastly different from the way American clients do.

While talking with Morrison and Forester lawyers who worked as outside counsel to Japanese clients, we learned that for many decisions, the role of each member of a decision-making chain is to collect and organize all the available information. This role differs from my conception of the typical decision-making process in the US, where each person’s role involves some data gathering, but also some synthesis as well. Thus, when Japanese clients work with outside counsel, one of their main concerns is making sure that they have each and every relevant piece of information, which they can then pass along to their supervisors, who will review and make a final decision. This seems to me to contrast with the attitude of American clients, where each person in the decision-making chain seems more concerned with making sure that they have the most accurate overall big picture but aren’t necessarily concerned with having all the details of each facet of the problem. Instead, each person is supposed to synthesize the details they can while leaving only the most important or complicated questions open for those further up the chain.

Prior to the field study trip, I had never thought about the possible advantages of this sort of system. Instead, I realized that I had internalized the idea that information synthesis is the most important task that young associates can provide to those above them. Much of my time at Stanford has focused on learning how to get comfortable synthesizing information, and I have spent relatively little time learning how to think through various hypothetical scenarios to determine whether I have collected all the relevant factual information. I appreciated the Japanese perspective as a good check on a way of legal thinking that I hadn’t quite realized I had been indoctrinated into.

During our site visit to Sony, I also heard from the lawyers there that one of their biggest frustrations with outside counsel, especially those from foreign law firms, is that the outside lawyers often don’t take the time to fully explain the law or their thought process to the general counsel. This leads American lawyers to go so far as to sometimes say things that are incorrect about American intellectual property law, with the result being that when Sony lawyers eventually follow up with their own research, they find the advice they’ve been given unconvincing. This led them to encourage us to carefully present convincing evidence when we present our advice to clients. While such an admonishment might seem obvious, it was clear that in the past, American lawyers had not successfully done so, and I hope to keep this perspective in mind as I look towards beginning practicing law myself.

Overall, I really enjoyed the trip. I learned a lot about intellectual property law in Japan, and while the details of specific technical concerns might not stay with me, I really felt that I also gained an invaluable additional perspective on the legal profession and the role of lawyers. I also had the opportunity to experience some of the legal and amusement culture of Japan with a great group of students of professors, and it’s an opportunity I will always cherish.

Heather Hughes