In honor of Sidley’s 40th anniversary in Asia Pacific, we sat down with Tomoki Ishiara and Daniel Lin, co-managing partners of Sidley’s Tokyo office. Tomoki Ishiara was named a “Best Lawyer” for Intellectual Property Law in the 2021 edition of The Best Lawyers in Japan, with practice areas including corporate and regulatory matters, compliance and investigations, data security and privacy law, and healthcare and IP litigation. Daniel Lin is a Chambers Global 2022 ranked lawyer in Projects & Energy: International, who regularly advises on Asia-based utilities, trading companies, EPC, and the development, acquisition, and disposal of energy and infrastructure-related projects.
What year did you join Sidley, and what first drew you to the firm?
I joined at the start of 2019. I was previously with another U.S. firm here in Tokyo. I think diversity in terms of practice is probably one of the key features that I found attractive about Sidley. In this day and age, the ability to execute and lead transactional work is a given, but our clients are facing more diverse issues, such as geopolitics and environmental shareholder activism. Another aspect of diversity is the people. Compared to a lot of firms, we have a fairly diverse range of partners, lawyers, and staff from different cultures, nationalities, and backgrounds. That aspect is actually quite helpful and appealing to me.
I joined Sidley in 2015. I started my career in 2000, but unfortunately due to the Lehman shock, the U.S. law firm market shrank in Japan. I started as a lawyer with a domestic law firm, but looked for openings to join a U.S. or UK firm because I wanted to be involved with cross-border transactions. When I got a chance to join Sidley in 2015, I felt very fortunate. As I expected, Sidley is a very global law firm, but works as a smaller firm in certain ways, providing me the opportunity to directly communicate with other offices of foreign lawyers. Since joining, I have truly enjoyed working with all of my colleagues.
What do you find interesting about the Tokyo office in terms of culture?
In terms of the Tokyo office, vis-à-vis other Sidley offices, our office is the smallest. We are fairly hands on, and all the lawyers, staff, paralegals, and accountants know each other. We work very efficiently because we’re a close-knit team. I think we do punch a bit above our weight in that. Tomoki and his team have had to cover the entire universe of Japanese law. That’s a huge ask. They are extremely versatile and flexible in ensuring that we can service the needs of the entire firm. We have to try and catch whatever comes through the door, whether internally or externally, while still seeking assistance when needed.
As Daniel mentioned, the Tokyo office is very small, but that’s why each person knows each other well — everyone’s favorite food, movie — that type of atmosphere in the firm is very good. When our colleagues come to the Tokyo office from the U.S. or European offices, our staff and lawyers are always welcoming and very kind. We always like to see our colleagues stop by the Tokyo office to meet with us and collaborate together.
In thinking about your practice, what most intrigues you about the work?
I joined Sidley because I wanted to be involved with global law and cross-border transactions. Since I joined, I have had many opportunities to be involved with life sciences-related practices. I started my career as a litigator in Japan, and my strongest practice areas include intellectual property and other commercial litigation. I want to expand my experience to additional aspects of life sciences and data privacy going forward, as I have the most interest in these growing industries.
I’m in the energy and infrastructure path, but I cover corporate and finance transactional and cross-border work also. What I find interesting is we’re at an energy crossroads given climate change, the war in Ukraine, and energy shortages. Electricity prices are rising everywhere. In the last five years, a seismic shift is happening toward green, renewable, carbon-related transactions. I’m personally glad to be seeing this shift as existing clients move toward more climate-friendly outcomes. There may be short-term pains along the way, but I do feel it’s moving in the right direction.
I believe the U.S. has probably done more hydrogen transactions, whereas here in Japan we’ve probably had more clients on offshore wind matters. The general trend of the firm as a whole is backing sustainability. Whether it’s ESG, shareholder activism, or the related transactional or environmental aspects, we have to stay ahead of the regulatory bodies, like the SEC, that are looking at potential penalization for corporations not complying with these standards.
How are we helping clients in the marketplace in Japan in a way that other firms aren’t?
I need to reiterate that, although the Tokyo office is small, we always dedicate all our resources to our clients, matter by matter, case by case. That’s why I believe our customer service reaches higher levels compared to our competitors. Foreign clients sometimes have a disparity in understanding not only Japanese law and regulation, but also how Japanese businesses process matters due to our culture. In such cases, we often advise foreign clients regarding the Japanese-specific cultural differences or why a Japanese company is responding in certain ways. It’s not only legal advice, but also a cultural perspective.
We’re very hands on, and for Japanese domestic and inbound matters, Tomoki plays a vital role in liaising or intermediating between our U.S. team and Japanese clients on many sensitive transactions. For example, we have a number of FDA-related cases or potential litigation where our U.S. team is advising on the work, but Tomoki goes in as an in-between — between our team and the client — to make sure that the work product can be properly digested by the clients here, who may have no idea about the SEC regulations or the FDA warnings. He plays a very important role in making sure that the advice that we give is adapted and can be easily consumed by clients.
It’s really reading in between the lines, because the client here may not have ever interacted with a foreign law firm before. You can’t just take what they say for granted or at face value, so Tomoki has really had to use his business and cultural acumen to try to interpret what the client actually means.
What are some of your must-have goals for the Tokyo office?
I’ve only been here for five years, three of which were during COVID. It’s been a fairly eventful five years for me. Goal-wise I think right now we have a small team, and hopefully we can gradually, strategically expand our team and work. When I say strategically, it’s a small office and we’re careful about adding headcount. We want to make sure increasing our size works from a business but also a cultural and team perspective. Hopefully, COVID will stabilize, and we will settle a bit more to better enable us to reach that goal.
I agree with Daniel. One thing I would like to add is my personal goal to expand the Tokyo office presence in the Tokyo market. I believe that we need more colleagues in Tokyo. At this moment, we are able to handle the amount of cases, but we want to continue to expand our services, which would require an increase in the members of our team.
Why is Sidley’s celebration of 40 years in Asia Pacific important to you?
Asia is a very diverse region, with many different countries, cultures, and economies. Everything’s interconnected. I think versatility to be able to adapt and cater to the changing needs of clients is crucial — whether it’s in Asia or elsewhere — to sustain and grow your practice. It’s great that we’ve been here for the last 40 years. Given that nothing stays constant, we’re still in a position to further expand and hopefully help our clients as the region shifts and grows in different ways.