MANY Japanese law firms in Tokyo returned to business this week, while others are relocating lawyers to Australia and other regional offices in a bid to keep lawyers out of risk.
The 9 magnitude earthquake, which originated Friday afternoon local time around 80 miles offshore of northwest Japan, spawned a devastating tsunami that washed away houses and cars in coastal areas close to the epicentre.
While Tokyo was not hit by the tsunami, the earthquake and aftershocks were strongly felt.
Blake Dawson, the only Australian law firm with a stand alone office in Japan, today confirmed it has relocated its Tokyo-based lawyers. Coincidently, the firm will hold a corporate group conference in Sydney this weekend that the lawyers would have attended, and the Tokyo lawyers are leaving for Sydney tonight.
Head of the firm's North Asia practice, Ian Williams, told The New Lawyer that since the team was due in Australia this weekend, and are now able to bring their families with them to Australia. "We've decided while the power plant is uncertain they can bring their families along with them. We're motoring the situation."
Those members of staff will continue to work remotely from the firm's Sydney or Melbourne office before returning to Tokyo. "Until the situation is clearer we think it is better for them to stay in Australia," Williams said.
Williams was in Tokyo when the earthquake shook Japan on Friday, while he was speaking in a seminar to 50 people. He said people living in Tokyo are used to similar-sized earthquakes, and that it was the tsunami that has caused the most shock and uncertainty.
"Everyone was inconvenienced by the trains, but there was no glass falling from the skyscrapers. The real problem is the tsunami. The buildings in Tokyo are designed to absorb the movement of the shock by swaying, so that happened. But everyone is fine. It's more a minor inconvenience of power blackouts, and transport is difficult. But the reactor is a concern to everyone in Japan," Williams said.
It took Williams eight hours to get to the Narita airport on Saturday, he said, but he was back in Australia by Sunday morning.
Blake Dawson has now diverted all communication from its Tokyo office to Australia. "Clients know who to call and it's business as usual," said Williams.
Global law firm Norton Rose, which has an office in Australia, has kept its Tokyo office open, running with a reduced staff who are working remotely. The firm told The New Lawyer, however, it has offered staff the option for temporary relocation to Australia or Hong Kong.
A spokesperson for Norton Rose said it is monitoring the situation and revisiting it on a daily basis. It confirmed everyone there is safe and well.
"The Tokyo office is open for business and some team members are working remotely from home in Tokyo. We've told staff they can relocate temporarily to other offices in the region, it's up to them. Some have already relocated to both the Hong Kong and Australia offices and are working remotely to support the Japan office. So we have a fully functioning Tokyo team."
Lawyers in high-rise Tokyo offices have described their buildings swaying in the skyline. Gary Wigmore, a project finance partner in the Tokyo office of UK firm Milbank, Tweed, Hadley & McCloy, said the twenty-first floor of his Tokyo Midtown office "was moving left and right and swaying several inches," he told The American Lawyer.
"It was like walking on the deck of a ship where you feel like falling and have to reach out to the wall to brace yourself," he said. "A number of people including myself felt nauseous."
Wigmore said he and other Milbank lawyers have been drilled on how to respond to earthquakes. They donned hard hats and walked down the 21 floors to a predesignated meeting point at a nearby park. Everyone was safe and accounted for, he said. After several hours, some went home and others returned to the office.
Subways and commuter trains in Tokyo were shut down after the earthquake, however, and may workers were advised to stay in their offices overnight where possible. Office workers faced walks of several hours to get home, and mobile phone connections were patchy.
UK law firm Ashurst is offering staff the chance to relocate to its bases in Hong Kong and Singapore amid fears that radiation from the stricken Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant could reach Tokyo. The firm has confirmed that everybody who works in the office is safe and accounted for.
Allen & Overy and Herbert Smith, meanwhile, have offered support to allow staff to return to the UK. Allen & Overy has indefinitely closed its Tokyo office.