A bengoshi is a Japanese attorney, although closer to the Commonwealth concept of a barrister than to the U.S. concept of a lawyer.
Japan's legal industry
Japan is often said to have a shortage of lawyers in comparison to the States. This is statistically true. The lawyer:citizen ratio in the U.S is about 1:300, whereas in Japan, the bengoshi:citizen ratio is about 1:7,000. However, this comparison ignores some key differences between the legal industries in the two countries.
In the U.S., lawyers do all sorts of work. They might be prosecutors who bring criminals down, or defense attorneys who save them, or judges who decide their fates. They might be corporate lawyers who work at enormous firms in Manhattan or in-house at big corporations, drafting contracts and filing regulatory paperwork. They might do people's income taxes. They might be litigators who sue, sue, sue! They might be professors who don't actually practice. They might do divorces or immigration or fight speeding tickets. Heck, they might even be running for president.
Bengoshi have a slightly different job profile. They generally specialize in going to court, not messing with paperwork. This is largely because there are a variety of other legal professions in Japan. For instance, there are judicial scriveners (in about the same quantity as bengoshi) who sell legal advice without actually going to court. There are administrative scriveners (about twice as many) who do title work, regulatory filings, and other mundane government-related tasks. There are tax agents (about four times as many) who give legal advice related to taxes. Patent lawyers (benrishi) go through a totally different process of accreditation. The largest segment of the legal industry consists of individuals who study law as undergraduates and then go to work in companies, effectively as in-house counsel, although they are never admitted to a bar or professionally regulated.
In fact, when you compare the overall number of JD holders in the U.S. to the overall number of LLB holders in Japan, the proportion is roughly the same. So the evidence is that Japan doesn't really have fewer lawyers: it just has a different concept of how the legal professions should work, one that's somewhat closer to the European divide between barristers, solicitors, advocates, etc.
Profile of a bengoshi
To become a bengoshi, a person must get a bachelor's degree from a university in Japan, and then attend the government-run Legal Research and Training Institute for two years. LRTI is basically a "school" in which bengoshi-to-be are hooked up with judges and lawyers, and learn the trade apprentice-style. Some students from LRTI graduate and become judges, which in Japan is a very bureaucratic, rather self-regulating profession completely separate from that of the bengoshi. The remainder are admitted to the bar once they finish their two-year stint.
The catch in this process is that the entrance exam for LRTI has a pass rate of... are you really ready for this? THREE PERCENT. And it tests many subjects that are only slightly related to the practice of law: economics, for instance (I know, Richard Posner is going to kill me). Even among graduates of "elite" schools like Tokyo and Kyoto, the pass rate rarely tops ten percent. Most people who get into LRTI have to take the exam three or four times before they pass it. One result of this system is that most bengoshi are of a very nerdy bent; they have to be in order to survive the intense studying regimen that goes into the exam.
Once they get past LRTI, bengoshi are likely to end up practicing on their own, or in a small law firm. There are only five firms in Japan with over 100 lawyers, and none with over 200 (though the two biggest, Anderson Mori Tomotsune and Nagashima Ohno Tsunematsu, are close to that number, and many firms have been merging with each other in recent years). The largest firm outside Tokyo, Osaka's Kitahama Partners, has only 26 bengoshi. Compare this to the U.S., where there are at least twelve firms numbering over 1,000, and the profession looks dramatically different: of course, this is because the top-dollar corporate work that pays the big firms' overhead is often done in-house, or by non-bengoshi, in Japan.
Bengoshi are also likely to be well-off, but not extraordinarily wealthy. The average mid-career salary is around ¥11,000,000 (about US$110,000), and even the top partners at Tokyo corporate firms rarely make more than ¥50,000,000 (about US$500,000) a year. (Gaikokuho jimu bengoshi, foreign attorneys licensed to practice in Japan, tend to make a bit more because they mostly deal with high-end cross-border business matters; corporate finance, organizing subsidiaries, and the like.) It's very much an upper middle-class job, in contrast to the seven-figure salaries that rainmakers in American firms enjoy.
- Ramseyer and Nakazato, Japanese Law
- Personal experience