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From Stay-at-home Mom to Lawyer and Mediation Commissioner

Yuko Ito/Lawyer

1. Before I became a lawyer

I used to be a stay-at-home mom after graduating from university, with my life revolving around my children. Throughout this time, however, I still wanted to contribute to society by working as an individual, rather than as a wife, mother, or daughter. This was when I heard that a new law school would be opening.

As I majored in law at university and there were some legal professionals around me, the occupation of lawyer was a familiar one to me. In addition, I heard, through everyday conversations with fellow moms, that it would take quite some courage to consult a lawyer even if they had family issues. Thinking that someone like me, who could feel the same as them, might be able to lower the mental barrier for people to consult a lawyer, I decided to take entrance examinations to law schools.

To my great surprise and delight, the Chuo Law School, which was one of the schools I applied to, offered me a 50% exemption from tuition fees, so I enrolled. During the three-year program for students who have not yet studied law, it was not easy for me (a woman in her 40s with declining memory and energy) to juggle study and family life. However, I managed to carry it through thanks to the kind support of friends and patient guidance of my professors.

Above all, it was my original goal of becoming involved with family-related legal matters and making it easier for people to consult a lawyer that enabled me to keep pushing through the hard work.

2. As a mediation commissioner

After passing the bar exam, I began to deal with civil and family cases as what they call a "machi-ben (small-town lawyer)." Then, in April 2020, I was appointed as a Domestic Relations Mediation Commissioner at the Tokyo Family Court. I remember how happy I was to receive this opportunity, since it was one of my initial goals to handle family cases as a mediation commissioner at a family court.

As I am still working as a regular lawyer as well, I usually handle about 10 mediation cases at once and am scheduled for about seven or eight days of mediation sessions each month. These are not the only times I turn up at the court; I visit it to read related records in advance, plan future proceedings, and so on. When any questions arise in the course of this, I will work to resolve it before the mediation session, such as by discussing it with another mediation commissioner or consulting the responsible judge or court clerk.

3. Family mediation

For technical information, please read some books on the subject. Below I am going to share my personal experience to give readers an idea of how family mediation is actually carried out.

 3-1. People involved in family mediation

Family mediation is run by a mediation board that usually consists of two mediation commissioners (one male and the other female) and a judge.

Mediation commissioners are divided into two types: general mediation commissioners and lawyer mediation commissioners. According to my experience, lawyer mediation commissioners are preferentially allocated to estate division cases, which often require taking care of legal disputes.

Besides them, family court probation officers and clerks also play important roles.

 3-2. Mediation proceedings

A mediation session is normally carried out by two mediation commissioners. It is not necessarily attended by the responsible judge, who has to handle many cases. When the need arises to consult the judge to make a decision, however, a deliberation (in which the mediation commissioners and judge discuss the case) is held so that the content and proceedings of the case can be carefully examined to properly mediate the case.

Mediation sessions last up to one hour and 45 minutes. At present, one session is held in the morning, and two in the afternoon.

It is unusual for both parties to sit with each other; we usually get them to take turns entering the mediation room to speak to us. Although joint-session mediation is common in some places, my understanding is that shuttle mediation is the norm in Japan. When only proxies for the two parties are present, however, it is often smoother to mediate the case with both of them being present in the same room. When this is the case, we can adopt joint-session mediation.

Shuttle mediation entails longer waiting times, as one party has to wait in another room while the other is speaking to us. Even so, this is a major advantage when a family case involves deep emotional conflict because meeting them separately allows them to feel more secure so they can speak with peace of mind.

 3-3. Changes caused by COVID-19

In the year I was appointed as a Domestic Relations Mediation Commissioner, COVID-19 caused many mediation sessions for ongoing cases to be cancelled, and there were long delays in scheduling sessions for new cases. Even after we finally resumed mediation proceedings, we had to go through repeated trial and error as we struggled to work out how to provide effective protection against infection.

The measures that have become part of our everyday life include increased time slots, more waiting rooms, disinfection of mediation rooms, and fan-based ventilation.

The greatest change was that we began to hold online meetings. Although we were far behind the private sector in terms of introducing information technology, COVID-19 triggered rapid progress. I have experienced online meetings for estate division mediation and find them extremely useful for the following reasons:

- As you can see each other's facial expressions, communication between the parties and mediation commissioners is as smooth as in in-person sessions.

- There is no risk of two parties in a deep emotional confrontation bumping into each other in the courthouse.

- You can attend online meetings even when you are not healthy enough to attend in-person meetings, which means no appointments wasted.

 3-4. Things I keep in mind as a mediation commissioner

Mediation commissioners must be on a neutral and fair ground. As such, I do my utmost to be as impartial as possible when listening to the parties.

In particular they usually attend their first mediation sessions with many different emotions (mostly negative ones, such as anger and sadness). This is why I make it a point to start by listening to their opinions and claims to the extent that time allows.

Even after mediation of family cases (particularly estate division cases), kinship relationships between the parties will endure. This is why I wish to provide mediation that convinces all involved parties, so ideally they can leave with smiles on their faces, saying things like, "We have exchanged concessions and I cannot complain."

I recall one person who shed tears and showed anger at mediation sessions. When the case was eventually mediated with success, the person smiled at me and said, "You were listening patiently to me without interrupting me, which helped me make up my mind to make this compromise. Thank you very much." There are moments when it seems appropriate to interrupt people who begin to speak about things that do not really relate to the matter under dispute from the perspective of early settlement, given the limited amounts of time allowed for our sessions. In such moments, however, I make it a point to remember these words.

I will continue to strive to help people to the best of my ability.

4. Until the end of my life

I entered a law school in my 40s and became a lawyer at 49.

"Can I really juggle family and study?" "Can I be admitted in the first place?" Although these worries swirled around in my mind, I paid more attention to my sense of excitement, which actually outweighed the anxiety and encouraged me to give it a try! Age has nothing to do with realizing dreams. I feel so from the bottom of my heart. You can do whatever you want to do whenever you want to do it. It is all up to yourself to shift from one phase of your life to another, starting a second life, third life, and more.

I think will keep making bold decisions myself until the end of my life, so I will never regret what I did not do.

Yuko Ito/Lawyer

Yuko Ito was born in Tokyo in 1967. After graduating from the Waseda University School of Law, she spent years as a full-time homemaker before enrolling with the Chuo Law School (program for students who have not yet studied law), from which she graduated in March 2014. She passed the (69th) bar exam in September 2015 and was employed by a law firm based in Tokyo. She has been working for Ando Sogo Law Office since November 2020.