Bingham Aims for Top of Tokyo Pack
The Boston-based firm entered the Japanese market in 2007 through a merger with the firm of top insolvency lawyer Hideyuki Sakai. The firm now has a relatively large 81-lawyer Tokyo office, but most of its professionals are Japanese-qualified lawyers, or bengoshi. As a result, it’s rarely thought of as one of the top international firms in Japan; instead, it’s long been seen as more of a domestic practice, and a niche one at that.
Bingham now wants to change that perception.
“I think that in five years’ time there will be two giants in the market, and they will be Bingham and Morrison & Foerster,” says Tokyo mergers and acquisitions partner Steve Lewis. Morrison & Foerster is currently the largest international firm in Japan.
Lewis’s joining the firm last fall from Herbert Smith Freehills, where he had previously served ten years as Tokyo managing partner, was one of the first signs that Bingham was moving to broaden its Japan capabilities. In May, the firm recruited a seven-lawyer investment funds team from White & Case, led by partners Christopher Wells and Tomoko Fuminaga. Two months ago, former DLA Piper associate Chris Mizumoto joined Bingham as a Tokyo-based intellectual property and litigation partner.
The firm has also raised its profile in the market with its representation of Olympus Corp. throughout the $1.7 billion accounting scandal that rocked the company last year. Bingham advised the embattled electronics company on crisis management, corporate governance, claims litigation, and securities and financial regulatory issues, including working to keep the company’s stock from being delisted from the Tokyo Stock Exchange.
“That really is an example of a full-service representation,” says Tokyo partner Lisa Valentovish says.
But the biggest game in town for international law firms in recent years has been outbound M&A, which has boomed as Japanese companies seek growth abroad. There, Lewis acknowledges that Bingham is still well behind other firms in the market. Morrison & Foerster advised Softbank Corp. on its recent $20 billion takeover of Sprint Nextel Corp. Allen & Overy advised Bank of Tokyo–Mitsubishi UFJ on its $5.75 billion acquisition of a majority stake in a Thai bank. Last year, Davis Polk & Wardwell advised Osaka-based air conditioner maker Daikin Industries on its $3.7 billion acquisition of U.S. competitor Goodman Global.
Lewis, who was brought in to expand Bingham’s share of the outbound pie, says the firm may need to start off smaller in the face of such seasoned competition. “I don’t think Bingham has the name yet for the billion-dollar deals,” he says.
DLA Piper Japan managing partner Lance Miller says Bingham will be at a disadvantage competing for Japanese outbound work because it has fewer overseas offices, particularly in Asia. Many Japanese companies have targeted Southeast Asia in particular for growth and the past year or so has seen Tokyo’s Big Four corporate firms—Nishimura & Asahi, Anderson Mori & Tomotsune, Nagashima Ohno & Tsunematsu, and Mori Hamada & Matsumoto—as well as Morrison & Foerster open Singapore offices with that work in mind.