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Working as a Lawyer in a Rural Area

Shunsuke Watanabe

1. Introduction

I currently work at my two offices in Tsukubamirai City and Ishioka City, Ibaraki Prefecture.

I started working on January 1, 2015 and became independent in about 3 years.

Since I started working as a lawyer, I have had many new encounters and challenges, and every day has been very exciting as I struggle dealing with situations that make me nervous and things that I don't understand.

Based on my experience so far, I would like to introduce my own understanding of what it means to work as a lawyer in a rural region like Ibaraki Prefecture. I hope that readers will find this article to be helpful.

2. Ibaraki Prefecture and the Ibaraki Bar Association

Until just recently, Ibaraki Prefecture has been the sole occupant at the very bottom of rankings for the attractiveness of prefectures in Japan. The prefecture is viewed as rural countryside by everyone throughout Japan. Nevertheless, Tokyo can be reached from Ibaraki Prefecture by train from 30 minutes to about 1 hour. Due to the proximity of Tokyo, suburban agriculture is developing, there are many factories of large companies, and industry is surprisingly vibrant. Data for 2017 shows that Ibaraki Prefecture ranks 7th in Japan in terms of GDP per capita by prefecture. Hitachi Seaside Park, which is located close to Mito (the prefectural capital), has attracted a large amount of attention for hosting the outdoor music festival ROCK IN JAPAN. It is also famous for great Instagram pictures of nemophila and kokia flowers, and throngs of visitors from other prefectures descend on the area when flowers are in bloom. There are also many other unknown attractions in Ibaraki Prefecture; however, I am limited by the size of this article, so I will refrain from discussing that appeal. If you are interested, please refer to the following links.

・Ibaraki Prefecture as viewed from indices

・Famous places in Ibaraki Prefecture

・Special products of Ibaraki Prefecture

About a dozen years ago, the Ibaraki Bar Association did not have even 100 members. The number of members began to rise after the number of successful applicants increased due to judicial system reform. Currently, around 300 lawyers are registered with the Association. It is calculated that there is one lawyer for every 10,000 people in Ibaraki Prefecture. In particular, the number of lawyers is increasing in the southern area of the prefecture. This area is also the only area of Ibaraki Prefecture where the population is increasing.

Even though the number of lawyers has increased, the Ibaraki Bar Association is still a small organization. Since the committees must be run by the members who belong to them, each committee is often short-staffed. Personally, I fulfill an active role in five committees. The reality is that young lawyers like myself are often members of multiple committees.

There are various ways of thinking about affairs of the bar association. As long as I work as a lawyer, I believe that my duty goes beyond simply paying the bar association fee; instead, I feel the need to work and contribute to the community and the bar association. Therefore, I enthusiastically participate in committee activities. However, to be honest, I enjoy going out to eat and drink with my fellow lawyers after meetings. Furthermore, since each committee deals with the latest content in the respective field, there is an opportunity for practical learning. Of course, committee activities impose a certain burden. Even so, I can consult with senior lawyers about my problems in practicing law at social gatherings after committees, and such consultations are an opportunity to build trust, which may lead to referrals from other lawyers. Accordingly, I believe that actively engaging in committee meetings offers sufficient merits. In a small organization like the Ibaraki Bar Association, this kind of face-to-face interaction is often important.

3. Working as a lawyer in a rural area

I wanted to go independent and open my own office as soon as possible. Therefore, even upon joining a law office, I started my career as a nokiben--a Japanese term for lawyers who are responsible for finding their own clients and generating their own income. Of course, I was initially worried about my income. Fortunately, as mentioned above, there are not many lawyers in Ibaraki Prefecture. Consequently, there was a certain extent of cases assigned to lawyers of the bar association (legal advice, LAC, SME consultation, on-duty lawyers in criminal cases), cases from the Japan Legal Support Center (Houterasu), as well as cases from clients suddenly appearing at the office. As a result, I had enough income to survive. Additionally, exchange meetings with other professionals were held frequently, so there were many cases where clients were introduced by going out and becoming acquainted with people from other professions. By working hard to respond to the needs of every client whom I came into contact with, those client would return for further consultation and introduce other clients. Sooner or later, I was in a situation where I didn't have to worry too much about financial concerns. In a big city like Tokyo, there is fierce competition and I would most likely have had a more difficult time. However, even with the number of lawyers increasing, Ibaraki Prefecture is still a rural area, so I feel that a lawyer will never lose work as long as he or she treats each case and client decently.

Another characteristic of a rural area is that lawyers have the opportunity to handle a wide variety of tasks regardless of their years of experience. In regions like Ibaraki Prefecture--that is, regions where there are not many lawyers and the population density is low--it is difficult for law firms to attract customers by specializing in a certain field. As a result, most offices handle a variety of tasks, with lawyers handling a variety of work beside general civil affairs on a daily basis; for example, domestic affairs (divorce, inheritance, etc.), criminal cases, and debt consolidation cases. Not only does this variety keep me from getting bored, but I also feel like I'm learning new things every time that I take on a new job. Also, in Ibaraki Prefecture, lawyers registered as public defenders may be placed in charge of lay judge trials from their first year, and even young lawyers are dispatched from bar committees to third party committees of the local government. In this way, lawyers have an opportunity to perform various duties regardless of their number of years of experience.

Conversely, an unfortunate aspect of working as a lawyer in rural regions is that if you do not work professionally, the courts and other lawyers will perceive you as such. I have heard that in Tokyo it's rare to go against the same lawyer as an opponent in different cases; however, this is commonplace in Ibaraki Prefecture. Personally, I always ensure that I can be proud of my work if viewed by others. Nevertheless, I frequently receive requests for amendments from courts, so I still have room to improve.

4. Future prospects

In the first place, I decided to become a lawyer in a rural area because I wanted to be close to the community and offer consultation for various problems of local residents, regardless of whether those problems are big or small. Like a small-town doctor, I would like to manage an office where people feel free to consult when they are feeling uncertain or uneasy. I feel that I can fulfill this role even more effectively at my offices in Tsukubamirai City and Ishioka City, the areas where there were originally few lawyers. I hope residents will never hesitate to consult with my office, and I will strive to propose appropriate solutions. If I am unable to resolve matters on my own, I would like to work in cooperation with other experts and government agencies in order to address those problems.

In rural areas, being a lawyer is still a rare thing, and there are times when I receive disproportionally good treatment. Even in such a situation, I would like to humbly contribute to the community and become a down-to-earth lawyer viewed with absolute trust by my clients.

Shunsuke Watanabe/Lawyer

In 1985, Shunsuke Watanabe was born in Ibaraki Prefecture.
In 2009, he graduated from the College of Social Sciences, the University of Tsukuba.
In 2012, he graduated from Chuo Law School (course for undergraduate students in fields other than law).
In 2013, he passed the Bar Examination.
In 2015, he registered as a lawyer (Ibaraki Bar Association).
In 2018, he opened the Mirai Chuo Law Office.
In 2021, he established a legal corporation; opened the Tsukubamirai Head Office and Ishioka Office.