Relocated staff or closed offices

Expatriate lawyers leave Tokyo as firms react to radiation threat

Expatriate lawyers have joined the exodus of foreigners from radiation-threatened Tokyo, and a number of international law firms have temporarily relocated staff or closed offices.

Six days after being rocked by a 9.0 magnitude earthquake and a devastating tsunami that killed several thousand people, Japan remains in a state of crisis over the potential release of high levels of radiation from critically damaged nuclear reactors.

The U.S. government Wednesday offered a tougher assessment of the radiation threat than the Japanese authorities, advising U.S. citizens to evacuate a 50-mile radius around the stricken plant in Fukushima, along Japan's northeastern coast. The Japanese government has so far only called for a 12-mile evacuation zone.

But fears that winds could send radiation 135 miles south to Tokyo have led a number of foreign businesses to evacuate staff from the Japanese capital. According to Bloomberg, private equity giant Blackstone Group has closed its Tokyo office for a week and offered to relocate its 28 employees and their families; BMW AG and BNP Paribas have taken similar steps.

Kenneth Siegel, the head of the Tokyo office for Morrison & Foerster, was at work Thursday morning, joining a teleconference with Hong Kong attended by a reporter and firm chairman Keith Wetmore, among others. But the office, one of the largest of any international firm, was otherwise at half its normal headcount of around 100 expatriate and Japanese lawyers. Morrison & Foerster relocated around 20 lawyers further south to the city of Nagoya, Siegel said, and many of the firm's Western lawyers decided to leave the country for a while.

"Most expats in town are gone," said Siegel.

Baker & McKenzie partner Alexander Jampel said via e-mail that he was still in Tokyo but that many Western partners at his firm had also left the country with their families. He said the situation was calm but there was definite concern about the Fukushima plants.

"Except for long lines at gas stations and planned rolling blackouts, things seem to be returning to normal in Tokyo," said Jampel, "but people are stressed about the situation with the nuclear reactors up north as you can imagine."

At many firms, the choice to relocate or leave the country seems to have been left to individual lawyers. A spokesman for Orrick, Herrington & Sutcliffe said the firm was not formally moving lawyers but that it was offering financial assistance to those who wanted to work from elsewhere. Likewise, a spokesman for K&L Gates said that most of the personnel in the firm's four-lawyer Tokyo office had relocated outside of Japan, "with the firm assisting where appropriate."

For those staying in Tokyo, blackouts and cutbacks in subway and train service, intended to conserve electricity, have made commuting difficult. In response, a number of international law firms have temporarily closed their offices. Among firms taking this step are: White & Case; Milbank, Tweed, Hadley & McCloy; Herbert Smith; Jones Day; and Clifford Chance. Those firms which remain open, like Morrison & Foerster and Linklaters, have given staff the option of working from home.

Siegel noted that the streets were much emptier than normal, and the famous neon lights around the Shinjuku and Shibuya entertainment districts were dark. Shortages were also becoming an issue.

"There's no gasoline, no rice, and no fuel oil," he said.

But, despite the disruptions, Siegel said there was little sense of panic in the city, even among departing expatriates. He noted that next week was spring break for children in international schools in Japan, so many Western families had already been planning to leave the country temporarily.

Ropes & Gray partner Maxwell Fox, who described the immediate aftermath of the earthquake from his office last Friday, also noted via email the calm of most Tokyo residents. "For example, I am writing this from a cab, and the driver could not be more relaxed," said Fox. "He and most other people I encounter take on a somber tone when discussing the recent events, but otherwise behave largely as if things were business as usual."

Fox himself was leaving Tokyo for NY Thursday afternoon but he said the trip was pre-planned and not a response to the crisis. He allowed that the timing was fortuitous though.

Siegel said he had no plans to leave Tokyo and noted that there was still plenty of work getting done.

"Japanese clients are still working," he said. "They're still there."

(Published by The Am Law Daily - March 17, 2011)

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