Jeffrey Jackson of Dallas, Texas passes rigorous Japanese bar exam to become one of only a handful of Westerners licensed to practice Japanese law
A U.S.-qualified lawyer passed Japan’s gyoseishoshi bar exam to become the only Westerner admitted to practice as a Japanese gyoseishoshi lawyer in Japan and likely the first and only Westerner to have ever passed the exam.
Jeffrey Jackson, originally from Dallas, Texas, first moved to Japan as an exchange student in the late 1990s and after roughly 10 years practicing as a U.S. lawyer, left a stable law firm position to achieve a long-standing goal - passing the gyoseishoshi bar exam, one of the notoriously difficult bar exams administered in Japan. He succeeded, passing the exam in November 2017 and went on the following year to become the only Westerner admitted to practice as a gyoseishoshi lawyer in Japan.
The Japanese gyoseishoshi bar does not provide information on the nationality of examinees or its members, but after careful examination of publicly available records, Jackson has confirmed that he is the only Westerner registered as a gyoseishoshi lawyer and, based on a number of off-the-record inquiries within the bar, is confident that he is also the first and only Westerner to have ever passed the gyoseishoshibar exam itself.
“Foreigners have practiced as gyoseishoshi lawyers for years now, but the lion’s share are Zainichi Koreans – Koreans whose families immigrated to Japan before or after the war and who were raised and educated in Japan. More recently, there has been an increase in the number of gyoseishoshi lawyers from other Asian countries, but Westerners have always been conspicuously unrepresented. The Westerners who do practice in Japan almost all practice as “gaiben,”or foreign attorneys, permitted only to advise on the laws of their home jurisdiction.”
Jackson said that before he embarked on his journey to pass the challenging exam, he had no illusions as to the difficulty of this feat.
“I had always toyed with the notion of becoming locally-qualified, but most old Japan hands dismissed the possibility outright,” Jackson said. “The word on the street was always that the Japanese bar exams were too hard for foreigners to pass, and most people just took that explanation as gospel.”
The gyoseishoshi bar exam was “difficult but fair,” Jackson said, noting that it wasn’t language that posed the biggest challenge but rather the requirement that examinees have an intimate, almost encyclopedic knowledge of the provisions of Japanese law. The exam is composed of two main sections: A legal section and a “general knowledge” section.
“The legal section requires you to get much more familiar with the precise wording of laws and cases than any of the state bar exams back in the U.S., requiring you, in some instances, to write out provisions of the law verbatim and grading you on your accuracy,” Jackson said. “The general knowledge section typically covers history, economics, society, technology, and information privacy, but there is no limit to its scope. The examiners can ask you the distance from the moon to the Earth in millimeters, if they are in the mood.”
“Failure to achieve a passing grade on either the main legal portion or the general knowledge section will result in a failing grade, so the average passage rate for the gyoseishoshi bar exam tends to be quite low – historically around 9% to 10%,” Jackson said.
While difficult to pass, the exam has no restrictions based on nationality, age, or educational background. For a candidate who passes the exam, the next step is to apply for admission to the gyoseishoshi bar.
Unlike the US, the Japanese legal system comprises a wide range of legal practitioners that perform the services typically performed by attorneys generally in the US. In Japan, gyoseishoshi lawyers are permitted to engage in a wide range of legal services, including corporate, employment, labor, immigration, and family law matters. The closest analog to the gyoseishoshi lawyer is probably the “solicitor” in commonwealth countries.
As a gyoseishoshi lawyer, Jackson joins a rare breed of Westerners permitted to advise clients on matters of Japanese law. Based on his research, only two other Westerners have been admitted to the Japanese bar – Douglas K. Freeman, as a bengoshi lawyer (a “barrister” or litigator), and Gary Thomas, as a zeirishi lawyer (or tax attorney).
Jackson became officially licensed as a gyoseishoshi lawyer in August 2018, and in April of this yearopened his own firm, Jackson Sogo, in Nagoya, where he now lives. He said his location in Nagoya offers easy access to Tokyo, where he was previously based, as well as other locations throughout Japan and globally.
“I, through Jackson Sogo, can set up companies and partnerships and also draft and review all manner of agreements and corporate documents as well as assist with business restructuring and corporate compliance,” Jackson said. “On the employment and labor side, I draft and review employment and termination agreements and provide step-by-step advice on how to properly onboard and exit employees – an area that is complicated by Japan’s strict labor laws protecting the rights of employees.”
Jackson said he also offers a full range of immigration services and services in family law, including marriage and divorce, as well as wills, trusts and estate planning.
When asked about the advantages of being a non-native gyoseishoshi lawyer, Jackson said there is a clear demand for lawyers with English language services. “Japan is changing, and we are seeing an increase in foreigners moving to Japan – on a long-term or even permanent basis. English-speaking Japanese attorneys can service some of this demand, but there is a tremendous need for services from native English speakers like me. I can only see this demand growing in the future.”
Another advantage, Jackson said, is his background as a U.S. lawyer at major global law firms. “My experience practicing law as a Westerner brings a level of practicality and an ability to provide real-world solutions in matters of Japanese law. This is not intuitive for many Japanese legal professionals, which makes my services particularly attractive to foreign companies in Japan.”
Jackson said he has a motto that helped inspire him when he was studying for the exam, and he still leans on it today: “Map out your life in reverse to minimize regrets.”
“Consider what you can look on most proudly during your final moments and work back from there,” Jackson said. “This will provide you direction when you find yourself waffling in the face of important life decisions.”