Head of Capital Legaland Capital Compliance,
The Japanese economy has been enjoying a resurgence, especially in the past five years. The Financial Times says real GDP per head in Japan grew faster during this period than in any of the other major economies. It has been a major financier of projects around the world, and Japanese companies have been investing overseas for many years.
A&O was quick off the mark to open in Japan when bar regulations changed in 1987 to allow foreign law firms to open offices in the Japanese capital. It benefits from its long-standing presence in the market. “Going forward,” says Matthias Voss, head of both the Tokyo and Seoul offices, “we are looking to further build on our leading reputation in the market.”
Reflecting the changing business environment and priorities, the Japanese legal market has also been undergoing repeated change, requiring international law firms to adapt their operational model.
Repositioning after the global financial crisis, the office focused more on projects and project finance and less on capital markets, and, under the leadership of Matthias and Scott Neilson, the team has continued to go from strength to strength, maintaining its No 1 slot in the market.
With corporate partner Nick Wall’s joining to work alongside partner Osamu Ito, the firm has also been developing a leading Corporate and M&A practice, now ranked as top tier by leading directories.
One relatively recent development is the growing competition from local law firms formed by bengoshi (Japanese lawyers) many of whom have trained with, and gained experience in, those same international law firms.
Overall, the market has become more sophisticated and is highly competitive.
To meet this challenge, Matthias says another focus in the coming years is growing a larger bengoshi team. “That fits squarely with the A&O strategy of combining our global network and capability with having the best local resources and knowledge, serving both our inbound and outbound practices,” she adds.
Onus on big firms
Teruma Naito is an A&O alumnus and now Head of Legal and Compliance, Nokia, Japan – and a client. “For businesses like ours, being able to pick and choose from more firms is good news,” he says. “It puts the onus on the big international firms, such as A&O, to demonstrate why and how they are better.”
Teruma trained with A&O in London and qualified as an English lawyer in 2004. He moved to Japan in 2006, where initially he worked as a consultant for the registration of a number of World Heritage sites in Japan. He returned to A&O in 2010 as a banking lawyer in the firm’s Tokyo offices before moving in 2018 to his current role where he heads the legal and compliance team and is part of the management at Nokia Japan.
As he says, moving in-house is a big change from private practice. “There is not the same support and infrastructure, but, against that, you have the involvement in the business decisions, the chance to see deals and matters through from start and finish, and the variety.”
Business acumen, he says, will be crucial for lawyers of the future. When Nokia recruits for its legal section, the candidates go through six interviews, including those within the business teams, to establish their business understanding.
In addition, Teruma looks for lawyers who are adaptable and willing to learn new areas of law. “I knew little about end-to-end mobile network and solutions before I moved to Nokia, but I have enjoyed mastering the laws and regulations surrounding that business,” he says. “The speed in which technology is being developed far outpaces the existing laws and regulations and you are faced with a huge range of different scenarios, often involving other laws. You have to be prepared to take them on, understand them quickly and then deliver clear, unequivocal advice to your internal clients.”
Successful law firms of the future will need to incorporate the power and potential of artificial intelligence (AI).
“AI offers huge scope for delivering legal services more efficiently and cost-effectively, and, with the constant pressure on us to keep our legal spend as low as we can, this is very important,” he says.
However, that technology needs to be harnessed and will never replace the knowledge, experience and judgment that humans bring. “The analogy I like to use is of the hybrid car – law firms need to combine the two sources of energy!”
Teruma says the A&O culture, which he has experienced both inside and outside the firm, is striking. “You feel that A&O wants to create a great place to work,” he says. “The core values of collegiality, teamwork and a non-hierarchical approach to dealing with one another exist in all the offices with which I have had dealings.”
He sees his former colleagues often, which is helped by the fact that his current office is just three floors above A&O’s office in Tokyo: “I often take the emergency stairs down three flights to share a meal or have a beer with the A&O people. It feels very natural, like I never left.”
‘One firm’ approach wins clients over
Differentiation from your competitors is important when many firms are chasing the same Asian business. A key point for A&O – and the offices – is the firm’s high level of integration. For example, the Tokyo and Seoul offices essentially operate as one, notes Matthias Voss, head of both the Tokyo and Seoul offices.
“We have a genuinely integrated global team in a global network that is without match,” he says. “Clients often comment that presenting them with one cohesive team really assists.”
Vicki Liu says A&O’s APAC offices are integrated to such an extent that people are encouraged to think of themselves as working not in one particular office but across the region.
- • Advised the lenders (including policy banks, commercial banks and export credit agencies) on the development and project financing of the Coral South Floating LNG (FLNG) project in Mozambique. The USD5 billion deal is the first project financing for an FLNG development anywhere in the world, Mozambique’s first LNG project, and Africa’s largest ever project financing. The Allen & Overy team was led by Ian Ingram-Johnson from Dubai, Scott Neilson from Tokyo and Jean Lee from Seoul.
- • Advised China Ping An Insurance Overseas, a member of the Ping An Insurance Group, on its USD90.9m co-investment in a fund sponsored by Vista Equity Partners as part of its acquisition of D+H Corp by Misys to create Finastra, one of the world’s largest fintech businesses.
- • Advised Kirin Holdings Company on the USD706m disposal of its wholly-owned Brazilian subsidiary, Brasil Kirin to Heineken subsidiary Bavaria S.A. This complex transaction enabled Kirin to successfully exit a complicated market that has suffered a prolonged recession. Additionally, A&O advised Asahi on its EUR2.55bn acquisition of Peroni, Grolsch and Meantime. These landmark deals illustrate the firm’s ability to successfully advise on all aspects of the M&A lifecycle.
- • Advised the joint lead managers on the first US-dollar bond issuance by the People’s Republic of China since 2004. The A&O team across Greater China, led by Agnes Tsang in Hong Kong and supported by Jane Jiang in Shanghai, advised Bank of China, Bank of Communications, Agricultural Bank of China, China Construction Bank, CICC, Citigroup, Deutsche Bank, HSBC, ICBC and Standard Chartered Bank.
- • Advised Morgan Stanley as the mandated lead arranger of the senior bonds on a bespoke real estate bond financing for a consortium of buyers through its special purpose vehicle, C.H.M.T. Peaceful Development Asia Property Limited. Proceeds of the bonds funded the landmark acquisition of The Center, one of Hong Kong’s prime commercial buildings located in the city’s business district. Stephen Miller and Roger Lui, who led the team, commented that the deal involved lawyers from the office’s Banking, Capital Markets, Derivatives and Structured Finance, Real Estate Finance and Regulatory practices.