Louise Stoupe’s U.S. visa was set to expire. It was 2001 and she was working as an associate in Morrison & Foerster’s Palo Alto office. Someone suggested she move to the firm’s Tokyo office.

Fifteen years later, Stoupe is still in Japan. The office has grown from around 25 attorneys to more than 120 attorneys, including 50 Japanese attorneys.

She made partner around 2005 and is now the co-head of MoFo’s commercial litigation and trial practice group.

Born in Fiji, but having grown up in Hong Kong and New Zealand and later moving to the U.S., Stoupe has unique experience living between western and Asian cultures. As a mother of two, she also knows how to navigate a largely male-dominated profession.

We asked her about the opportunities for lawyers in Japan and how the country’s gender dynamics play out compared to the U.S. Below is a lightly edited transcript.

 

Big Law Business:  What exactly is your connection to Japan?

Stoupe:  I’m in the category of what I call ‘one of the randoms’.  I came out here with the intention to transfer back to the U.S. and never did. I found there were lots of things I enjoy. I think the main thing is it’s exciting. Asia generally is one of the expanding markets, and there’s lots of ways for people to develop your career. Here you make your own path a lot more.

Big Law Business:  What are some differences from practicing in the U.S.?

Stoupe:  Often in the U.S., the clients are in-house legal departments that can have hundreds of lawyers, which is great, but that’s a lot different here, where you actually work directly with the business team.

The team here that forms is outside business counsel, such as ourselves, and the business team — and the in-house legal team. But the in-house legal team here is often not qualified lawyers. So as outside counsel you have a function that is different. You sit in the business meetings a lot more, you get to develop the strategy, you just have much more contact with the business-decision makers. You integrate a lot more.

Big Law Business:  Some women might say there’s no gender parity in the U.S., but at least the culture is familiar. What’s it like to practice in Japan?

Stoupe:  I personally think there are advantages to being out here and practicing as a foreign woman. In the U.S., you may come across as young and feminine, which may not be what people associate with their lawyer. Here, I’m not on the young looking, feminine-end of the scale, which I find an advantage. Certainly relative to the female Japanese population, I don’t look particularly young. That just helps a little.

The other thing is your identity is so significantly tied to being a foreigner, that your identity as a woman is secondary. If a 500-pound gorilla walks into the room, you say, ‘Wow that’s a 500-pound gorilla.’ You don’t say, ‘is that a male or a female?’ That’s what it’s like.

Big Law Business:  How do the cultural differences come into play?

Stoupe:  It’s not female-specific. There is a strong culture of socializing and for instance, the team will often go out together and will be drinking. The business situations get a lot closer to celebratory and party-like than in the U.S. and that took a little bit of adjusting when I was more junior.

Big Law Business:  The stereotype is that it ends up in a strip club?

Stoupe:  It hasn’t happened, but it could have happened easily if I had carried out in the evening. There’s a name in Japanese for the second-party and third-party, and you have to use a little bit of judgment about whether you’re going to attend and where it is. The line between socializing and drinking and business is a just a lot more blurred. It hasn’t really been an issue because I don’t mind going out and enjoying myself with the client. And frankly there’s more of it, the more junior you are. The more senior you are, it’s more dinners, less drinking.

Big Law Business:  What kinds of changes are taking place in Japan generally?

Stoupe:  I see more and more women in senior, decision-making positions — women who clearly have talent and skill in the client-side. It’s people actually obtaining senior leadership positions, and being recognized.