Becoming a lawyer used to be the ultimate status symbol in Japan. Bar exams were extremely hard to pass, so hard that once they obtained the license, lawyers were pretty much guaranteed a successful life afterward.
Competition was almost zero, and there were just enough legal cases to earn a good living.
That changed in 2002, when the so-called judicial reform set in. Among a range of changes implemented by the government was the introduction of U.S.-style law schools, which aimed to increase the number of people passing the bar nearly threefold to 3,000 annually by 2010.
Behind the radical reform were expectations that demand would somehow surge. As it turned out, the supply of lawyers eclipsed demand, leading to an outcry from existing lawyers worried about excessive competition and law schools struggling to attract students. In June, the government scaled back the plan and said it aims to limit those who pass the exam to “1,500 or more” per year.
It was around that time, when these tectonic changes were engulfing the industry, that Taichiro Motoe passed the bar under the old standards — for which he had stoically studied from early in the morning to late at night every single day for a full year, even skipping lunch to maintain his concentration.
“I felt like I was hit with a hammer on my head,” recalled Motoe, the 39-year-old CEO of Bengo4.com, an IT company he set up in 2005. The firm offers a range of Web marketing services to connect lawyers with potential customers. “I was shocked to learn that, after I studied so hard to pass the test, the gate (to success) had opened up wide behind me.”
Motoe, who was born in Illinois but grew up in Kanagawa Prefecture, said the first time he found lawyers useful was when he had a car accident while a student at Keio University’s law department. Two weeks after buying a car, he rear-ended someone else’s vehicle. He had not joined the voluntary insurance scheme, which covers property damage. The insurance agent for the driver asked Motoe to shoulder the entire cost of the repairs, leaving him at a loss, he said.
Then Motoe’s mother told him to seek a quick consultation with a lawyer. The lawyer advised Motoe to tell the insurance agent that it is standard practice for two parties involved in car accidents to split the cost, no matter which side bears the greatest responsibility. He acted on the lawyer’s advice, and the insurance agent’s attitude changed completely. Motoe settled by paying for just 70 percent of the repairs, he said.
“Until then, a lawyer was someone distant to me,” he said. “If I had not gone to that legal consultation session, I could have been forced to pay the full cost. That’s when I realized lawyers can be of real use to other people — and it eventually led to coming up with the idea of Bengo4.com.”
After passing the bar exam in October 1999 and completing the mandatory 18-month judicial apprenticeship, he worked for a major law firm in Tokyo for three years, witnessing firsthand how international lawyers work on mergers, acquisitions and other business deals. He also dealt with some of the nation’s burgeoning ranks of Internet entrepreneurs as clients, whose energy and speed inspired him so much that he started fancying the idea of creating an IT venture himself — using his expertise as a lawyer.
In July 2005, Motoe set up Bengo4.com, which offers online matchmaking services for lawyers and people in need of legal advice. The first of its kind in Japan, the website has given lawyers a platform on which to advertise themselves, by registering on the site and answering questions from Internet users. For potential customers, the site is a venue through which they can seek advice on various issues they encounter in real life, such as marital disputes, sexual harassment and real estate troubles.
The website now has a detailed database of registered lawyers, allowing users to match their needs by location, specialty, office hours and other criteria, including payment and financing options.
However, his business initially struggled to take off. In the beginning, he had no choice but to offer the services for free, as Article 72 of the Lawyers’ Law bans Internet companies from charging for matchmaking fees.
It also took him a long time to convince lawyers of the need to register with the service. Motoe attributed this to a ban on advertising that lasted for more than half a decade until it was lifted in 2000.
“When I started my business, it was still the good old days for the legal profession,” Motoe said. “As such, a lot of existing lawyers were averse to the idea of publicizing their names on the Internet.”
At one seminar his firm held for lawyers, only one out of 10,000 contacted showed up.
He didn’t give up, and kept faxing the nation’s 35,000 lawyers every month, asking them to register as free members.
The site’s membership gradually grew, and it now boasts 8,450 members — a quarter of the entire lawyer population — with 1,850 paying monthly fees in the form of advertisements.
Last December, Bengo4.com was listed on the Mothers section of the Tokyo Stock Exchange, making Motoe the nation’s first practicing lawyer to run a listed company.
Bengo4.com grossed sales of ¥690 million in the year ended last March, up from ¥291 million the year before.
It’s obvious that the judicial reform has worked to his advantage. While it is often criticized as having deprived aspiring lawyers of the prospect of an easy, high-paying career by causing a job crunch and introducing new ranks of incompetent professionals, Motoe believes it has brought many positive changes for customers.
“Lawyers’ offices used to be like municipal government offices or even worse,” he said. “Now there are lawyers who keep their offices open until 9 p.m. or have call center operators around the clock.
“Lawyers’ offices used to be located near courts, because that was convenient for them. Now more and more offices are located near train terminals — closer to where users are. With moderate competition, lawyers have started to offer services closer to people’s needs.”
Wearing two hats as lawyer and entrepreneur, Motoe is now looking to enter new territory: politics. He said he plans to run for next year’s Upper House election on the Liberal Democratic Party ticket.
“I would be the first Internet company owner doubling as a Diet member — if elected,” he said with an air of confidence. “I’d like to keep pursuing my goal of bringing experts closer to people, and I believe there are areas where my knowledge and expertise would be useful in policymaking.”
Key events in Motoe’s life
1975 — Born in Illinois.
1998 — Graduates from Keio University law department.
1999 — Passes bar exam.
2001 — Joins Andersen Mori law office.
2005 — Launches private law firm Authense Legal Offices; sets up Bengo4.com.
2014 — Bengo4.com goes public on the Mothers section of the Tokyo Stock Exchange.
“Generational Change” is a series of interviews that appear on the first Monday of each month, profiling people in various fields who are taking a leading role in bringing about changes in society. Readers are encouraged to send ideas, questions and opinions to email@example.com
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