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Switching Careers from a Bank Clerk to a Lawyer

2018.07.12
Makoto Uehara



Makoto Uehara
Attorney, Uehara Makoto Law Office
Instructor of Legal Practice, Chuo University Law School
Areas of Specialization: practice of law, corporate law, and financial law

Switching Careers from a Bank Clerk to a Lawyer

Seventeen years have passed since submission of the Recommendations of the Justice System Reform Council [1] (hereinafter referred to as "Recommendations"). These Recommendations served as the basis for reforming our country's justice system and led to the introduction of the lay judge system. In addition, it has been almost 14 years since law schools were established as the core pillar for organizing a system to nurture the legal profession as a “process”[2], as stipulated in the Recommendations. The ensuing period has witnessed many experienced professionals from various backgrounds, including corporate and administrative positions, shifting into the legal profession. In this light, I’d like to present my own thoughts and experiences as a former bank clerk at a major bank for over 10 years who changed careers to become a lawyer.

The Situation Surrounding Law Schools

In the past, there have been up to 74 universities with law schools. In 2018, however, only 39 of them admitted students; the remaining 35 have withdrawn [3]. The admission quotas in 2005 was 5,825 across 74 universities, but in 2018, this has fallen to just 2,330 students, 40 percent of what it was [4]. Moreover, the number of students actually enrolled in 2005 was 5,544, compared to only 1,621 students in 2018, a sharp decline to 30 percent. As these statistics demonstrate, the number of students seeking to enter the legal profession by going through law school is plummeting. Looking just at Chuo University Law School as an example, admissions back in 2004 were set to 300 students, with 5,413 applicants, while in 2018, those numbers have dwindled to 200 admissions with only 1,012 applicants [5].

The Pass Rate for the Bar Examination

Even as the numbers of law schools and enrolled students decline, the pass rate for the bar examination as of now has barely shown signs of edging upward. This is perhaps due to the fact that there are still some of those who have graduated from law school but have not passed the bar examination. As of 2017, the figure stood stagnant at 25.9 percent [6]. It's thought that the number of those who pass the bar examination annually will stay at around 1,500 students. By looking at the number of students enrolled in law school today (1,621 students in 2018), the pass rate is expected to rise by a large margin. In addition, by observing the cumulative pass rate of law school graduates who take the bar exam [4], 16 universities have achieved a pass rate over 50 percent. Another 29 universities have achieved over 40 percent, with the universities attaining higher cumulative pass rates surviving while others withdraw. Furthermore, there are 12 universities with a cumulative pass rate exceeding 60 percent, with the top five universities scoring a pass rate that tops 70 percent. These universities are known as the top law schools. For reference, Chuo University stands at a 68.2% pass rate, putting us in the sixth place. Looking at these figures, we can surmise that the universities with higher cumulative pass rates can maintain a situation where they can admit a controlled number of students. And if those students aim to pass the bar exam after graduating from law school, a good percentage of them could do so and earn the qualification to practice law. This would finally help to cement in place the system to nurture the legal profession as a “process” after years of ups and downs.

Also, to qualify as a candidate for the bar exam, other than completing law school, you can also pass the preliminary examination. This leads many to aim to pass the exam without going through law school, due to the reputation of the preliminary exam for its higher pass rates [6] and the impression that it is a sort of shortcut. As the Recommendations explain, it's feared that this will entrench the harmful effects of exam prep schools and encourage prospective law professionals to circumvent the system to nurture the legal profession as a “process” altogether.

The Motivations to Pursue a Career in Law

Various statistics show results based on age, whether or not people were enrolled in a law faculty, and whether or not they were in a course for students with basic knowledge of the law. However, no data exists, however, on the presence or absence of their professional experience in other fields, nor by the number of years of experience. Therefore, for example, it's difficult to discern the figures for people who has over ten years of professional experience. Yet based on my own experience in law school, a law apprenticeship, and my career as an attorney, I assume that around 10 percent of law professionals have some amount of other professional experience. When asked about the motivations for transitions to the legal profession, many mention the specialization of expertise, contribution to society, detachment from an organization, or the opportunity to test their abilities. The greatest common divisor seems to lie in one's abilities to control one's own life. In other words, even if the motivations behind transitioning careers differ for each individual, to realize their aspirations, they must change of their own accord their place of work, social status, professional duties, personal relationships, and allocation of their time and financial resources. A common factor among these motivations is the element of striving to increase the degree of control over one's own life.

Professional Experience and Appointments as a Judge or Public Prosecutor

Although most with a certain number of years of professional experience can become lawyers, are there any paths for them to become judges or public prosecutors? There are no clear barriers such as age or other factors to become a judge or prosecutor. In practice, however, the bar is much higher for those professions. This is because in the judicial circles in general, including lawyers, your experience as a legal professional is ranked by the year of your training as a legal apprentice. So even with ten years of professional experience in another field under your belt, you're only treated as a first-year professional upon shifting to a career in law. When considering the wage structure that only scales with years of experience as a legal professional, and the fact that you need a certain number of years of experience to reach certain positions, the gap between those years as a legal professional and your age becomes a disadvantage. While there is a system that allows lawyers to be appointed as judges [7], the requirement for a certain number of years of experience as a lawyer remains the same. Even if you have the required training and expertise, the walls standing in the way for career changers are too high. I don't know of any legal professionals like myself who have over 10 years of professional experience being appointed as a judge—I wonder if there are any at all.

What I Think of Banks After Becoming a Lawyer

It's often said that the earnings environment in banks is rather severe. The profit margin of indirect finance has shrunk due to low interest rates. And even as banks aim for a business model that earns profits through handling charges, it seems difficult to make this conversion effectively, with community banks suffering an especially difficult situation. In these circumstances, I've heard stories from small to medium-sized businesses about conventional loans packaged with charges for arrangement collected at high prices, as well as stories from individuals who had been incessantly solicited for investment products such as mutual funds and insurance commodities, even when they weren't interested. During my time as a bank clerk, I'd always believed that clients and banks were working towards mutual interests, but from a contract law standpoint, it only appears as a confrontation between parties with opposing interests. I feel that being an agent as an attorney is as different as night and day. Today, it is a matter of course that the consumer buys what they want, when they want it, wherever they want to buy it, and at whatever price they want to buy it. Do financial products follow this model? It seems more like they are selling whatever they want to sell. Besides what I've mentioned, I have noticed for the first time many other problems after stepping outside the world of banking, such as the lack of trust accounts for civil trust funds, the inability to make progress in negotiations to rescind existing guarantees based on the Guidelines for Management Guarantee [8], and the solicitation of elderly people who are unfamiliar with investments in complex structured bonds. I did not become an attorney to antagonize banks. But as a lawyer with experience in banking, I aim not only to stand in opposition to banks unnecessarily, but also continue to make beneficial proposals.

Makoto Uehara
Attorney, Uehara Makoto Law Office
Instructor of Legal Practice, Chuo University Law School
Areas of Specialization: practice of law, corporate law, and financial law


Makoto Uehara was born in Chiba Prefecture in 1971. He graduated from the Economics Department of the Meiji University School of Political Science and Economics in 1994, and worked at Sumitomo Mitsui Banking Corporation (known as Sumitomo Bank at the time he began) from 1994 to 2007. Graduating from Chuo University Law School in 2011, he passed his bar exam and gained admission to the bar in 2013. After working at the Matsuda & Partners law firm, he started Uehara Makoto Law Office in Jimbocho in 2016. Since 2013, he has taught at Chuo University Law School as an instructor of legal practice and as an instructor at the Meiji University Legal Lab , and served as a management support advisor at the Organization for Small & Medium Enterprises and Regional Innovation since 2014. Major publications include the coauthored Shohisha Sodan Manual (Dai-3-Han) (Consumer Consultation Manual (Third Edition)) (Tokyo Bar Association Special Committee on Consumer Protection / Shojihomu), among others.