David Sneider is an accomplished lawyer who has built an impactful career by negotiating transactions between Japan and the United States. Before retiring in 2021, Sneider specialized in corporate law at the international firm Simpson Thacher & Bartlett LLP; he served for a period as a member of the firm’s Executive Committee and was responsible for developing its Tokyo office into a leading force in cross-border corporate law.
The son of an American Foreign Service officer, Sneider was born in Japan, and returned to the country with his family as a teenager. He studied Japanese language and history at Yale University, and found multiple opportunities to spend time in Japan throughout his education. After earning his law degree from Harvard University and gaining experience with a firm in New York, Sneider was recruited by Salomon Brothers to work in Japan; he was the investment bank’s first Director and Counsel to serve in their recently-opened Tokyo office. Similarly, in 1992, Sneider became the first Japanese-speaking American lawyer to work with Simpson Thacher & Bartlett, an American firm that had recently launched its own operations in Japan. Sneider led the firm’s Tokyo office for over two decades from 1994; the work he did for Japanese companies accessing international capital markets and for the financial institutions assisting them facilitated the transformation of corporate disclosure standards within the Japanese legal system.
Beyond his law career, Sneider is a talented artist with a background in traditional Japanese printmaking. He served until June 2022 on the Japan-United States Friendship Commission, where he promoted artistic and cultural exchange between the two countries.
NichiBei Connect recently spoke with Sneider about mentorship, the challenges of cross-border law, and the far-reaching benefits of international collaboration.
How did you first become interested in Japan?
My father was a career Foreign Service officer, and I was born in Japan during his first tour there. I don’t have any memory of that time because we moved back to Washington, DC when I was still very young, but I always knew I was born in Japan, and had this notion that I wanted to go back.
My family did go back to Japan for my father’s second tour when I was about twelve years old. I attended an American school outside Tokyo and started studying the Japanese language. I loved my time there.
What in particular made you fall in love with Japan?
We lived in Tokyo, but my school was about an hour outside the city, so I had to take multiple trains to get there and back. It was safe and I went all by myself—I had a lot of independence.
Beyond that, I liked all the people I met. I loved learning the language. I was very interested in studio art as a young person, and I started studying traditional printmaking in Japan. Beyond that, my father was quite senior in the Foreign Service at that point. He was the number-two person in the embassy, and we lived in an incredible house in the center of Tokyo that’s still occupied by the Deputy Chief of Mission. We traveled a lot. I went with my mother to visit artists. I learned to ski in Japan. I felt very connected with the culture.
It sounds like your parents played a big role in your connection there.
My parents always had a deep appreciation for Japanese culture. My mother liked to collect Japanese art and later became a dealer. My father had a long connection with Japan, even before he started with the Foreign Service—he was a Japanese language officer during World War II, which was his way of trying to avoid being an infantryman. My parents shared their deep appreciation for the country with me. It’s a magical place and I had tremendous fun there when I was young.
How did your interest in Japan continue once your father’s second tour ended?
We returned to Washington when I was in tenth grade and my parents wanted me to continue studying Japanese. They convinced my school to let me work with a tutor outside of the normal curriculum, so I was able to keep it up. I also got to spend one summer during high school exploring and hitchhiking around Japan.
When I went to college, I was interested in learning more of the Japanese language, and more about the country in general. I went to Yale, and all my prior Japanese language study only got me past the first year of college-level study. [Laughs.] I started at the second year and took Japanese history courses as well. During my junior year, I was fortunate to be admitted to a program called the Inter-University Center for Japanese Language Studies.
It’s an amazing, advanced language training program where you eat, drink, and sleep Japanese for nine months. It’s mostly geared towards graduate students—I was one of maybe four or five undergrads there. They focus on spoken Japanese more than on reading, so when I came out of that program, I was a proficient Japanese speaker.
After that, I returned to Yale for my senior year and did my thesis in modern Japanese history. Yale had a great Japanese language program and other Japanese studies curricula, so it really was a wonderful place for me. After Yale, I knew I wanted to do something Japan-related with my career and I explored lots of options.
I took the Foreign Service exam because my father encouraged me to—and I wanted to prove to him that I could get in—but I didn’t actually end up wanting to go in that direction. I interviewed with banks and thought about going into finance, but that didn’t end up being the right choice either. I ended up getting a scholarship to study Japanese history at Tokyo University and figured that I could postpone any further decision until after that was over.
When I was there, I started learning about the legal profession in Japan, which was for American lawyers in a very nascent stage at that time. American law firms were not allowed to open offices in Japan, and there were only a few American lawyers working there through a loophole that was open for a very short period of time. A small group of lawyers in my parents’ generation came over right after the occupation, and they were granted special status as associate members of the Japan Bar Association. They established practices in partnership with Japanese lawyers and basically created a monopoly. They were hugely successful—if American businesses like Coca-Cola or IBM wanted to do business in Japan, they needed help from American lawyers who could speak Japanese, had Japanese partners, and knew the Japanese legal system. Given how few American practices were allowed in Japan at the time, there didn’t seem to be many opportunities for young American lawyers to work there, but the possibility interested me all the same.
At the same time, a couple of my close friends from college had gone to Harvard Law School, and I got it into my head that maybe law would be a good professional avenue for me, and could enable me to be involved in Japan. So while I was in Japan, I decided to apply to law schools. The choices we make in life can be serendipitous—and this was not a very well thought-out decision [laughs]—but I ended up getting into both Columbia and Harvard. I entered Harvard Law in 1980.
How did you use your law education to continue connecting with Japan?
The summer after my first year, because I was able to speak Japanese, I got a job with a firm that allowed me to go back to Japan and meet more lawyers working there. The summer after my second year, I worked with a firm in Washington, DC that had Japanese clients, so that was a good opportunity to learn as well. And after graduating, I went to work for a very good firm called Paul Weiss in New York. While I was there, I worked with Mitsubishi and other Japanese clients, but also did normal U.S. corporate law transactions.
In the late 1980s, the doors to the legal world in Japan finally opened and the restrictions I mentioned earlier went away. U.S. firms were allowed to obtain a special license from the Japanese bar, open offices in Japan, and give Japanese clients advice on American law.
That sounds like a huge shift. How did that affect your career?
A big wave of top American firms set up shop in Tokyo. If I’d stayed at Paul Weiss, I probably would have eventually run their Tokyo office—but in 1987, I was approached by the American investment bank Salomon Brothers to be their first lawyer for Japan.
I was only in my third year out of law school and was still green, but it was a very exciting opportunity. I spent a year in New York getting trained and then went to Tokyo to basically be their general counsel in Japan. I worked at Salomon for about four-and-a-half years and spent a lot of time negotiating with the Ministry of Finance on various issues. I was very lucky to have ended up at a good firm in the U.S., then gotten this opportunity to go back to Japan working on something that was interesting, and a little outside the box.
What did you do after Salomon?
I was approached by a firm called Simpson Thacher & Bartlett, which had opened a Japan office in 1990, but didn’t have anyone in their ranks who spoke Japanese. They’d heard good things about me, and I went back to New York to work with them in 1992. It was a difficult transition back to the U.S., but I managed to adjust and made partner. My wife and I moved back to Tokyo in 1994. It was just me and one other person in the firm’s Tokyo office at first. Then I basically spent twenty-five years building that office into what has become quite a successful American law firm practice in Tokyo. I retired from Simpson Thacher at the end of 2021. It was a perfect place for me, and I was very lucky to have the opportunity to work for that firm.
Throughout your career, how difficult was it to negotiate between the legal systems of the United States and Japan?
It was certainly complex, but I really enjoyed the challenge of bridging those gaps—and the creativity that work involved. In the early stage of my practice, I focused on helping Japanese companies raise capital by issuing stocks and bonds internationally, and especially in the United States. If you’re a foreign company and you want to sell stock to American investors, you have to create a corporate disclosure document that shares important details about your company, and has to meet guidelines established by the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission. The problem was that the U.S. has the most stringent rules regarding the information companies must disclose to their investors—and when Japanese companies were just starting to do this in the ’90s, their standards were very different.
When I was advising Japanese companies who wanted to work with American investors, our English-language documents had to meet the rigorous U.S. standards. And of course, we couldn’t have American investors getting better information than our Japanese investors. So we had to get creative and figure out how to construct a combined disclosure that worked between those two very different legal systems. It was challenging work, but I found it really rewarding.
Because Japanese companies had to meet a more stringent standard to do business in the United States, that higher level of rigor started seeping into Japan’s standards themselves. As I worked on these deals all throughout the ’90s, it was great to see Japan’s own corporate disclosure rules just get better and better, and that positive change came about because Japanese companies had to find ways to harmonize the two countries’ systems.
Beyond the technical aspects of creating those disclosures, it was sometimes challenging to explain to non-lawyers why these more stringent disclosures were suddenly needed, when they had never been required before. But it felt very gratifying to know that my colleagues and I were having a positive influence on the development of the Japanese legal system. It felt like we were serving a social purpose, rather than just trying to get a deal done.
For aspiring international lawyers, how important are Japanese language skills?
I can’t stress enough the importance of Japanese language if you want to practice law in Japan. Even though it’s a very internationally-oriented country—and more and more Japanese lawyers are studying at American law schools—it can still be an insular place. When you are in Japan, people want to do business in Japanese. So, if you’re really serious about your career and want to do something substantial, language skills are critical. You must be willing to invest the time to become proficient.
When you were building your career, who were some of your key mentors?
One of my professors at Yale was named Jim Crowley, and he was amazing. He taught me how to write—and if you want to be a lawyer, you need to know how to write well. He did me a big favor by tearing my first papers apart. I also had a professor at Harvard named Jerome Cohen who was very important to me. He was Harvard’s first famous professor on Japanese and Chinese law. He later moved to Paul Weiss to form an Asia law group, and he helped me get my job there. A lawyer at Paul Weiss named Toby Myerson was also a real role model. He taught me a lot about being a good lawyer. There are many more—I’m very lucky to have had a lot of role models and mentors who were influential in my life.
How can young people best connect to mentors in the U.S.-Japan space?
The best way is to find people who are doing what you might want to do, proactively contact them, and try to have a phone call or meeting. If you reach out and show genuine interest, most people will be responsive. That’s what I did early on in my career, and it really helped me figure out what I wanted to do.
Young people should also read other NichiBei Connect mentorship interviews like this one. Students can learn about Samuel Morse’s work on Japanese art, or Ed Lincoln’s work on Japanese economics and use them as role models. Students should never be shy about contacting people like us. Connecting with mentors is how you learn. We all love Japan and want to encourage people to find ways to connect with the country.
How can people who are experienced in the world of U.S.-Japan relations give back as mentors?
I’m figuring that out for myself right now. [Laughs.] I’m newly back in the United States, and COVID has forced all of us to lead more insular lives over the last couple years. I’m starting to join Japan-related organizations in Chicago, where I live now, including an East Asian arts interest group. I’ve met people who teach at the University of Chicago and have offered to speak to their classes. It’s important for people who are accomplished in the world of Japan-U.S. relations to get out there, meet young people, and let them know that you’re available as a resource. Sometimes it can happen just through serendipity.
Can you share an example?
I’ve been taking studio art classes in Chicago, and started talking with one of my teachers about Japan. Her partner is an industrial designer who, interestingly enough, received one of the Creative Artists Fellowship we offer through the Japan-U.S. Friendship Commission, where I served as a commissioner. The two of them had spent time in Japan and were trying to get back there, so I’ve been mentoring them and giving them Japan-related advice.
There are all sorts of ways to discover people you might be able to help. Talking about Japan with people who are interested in the country is a great way to start, and Japan-related interest groups or classes can also help you find potential mentees.
What’s next for you?
Once I’m able to travel back to Japan, I hope I’ll find opportunities to consult or hold board positions there. I’ve lived in Japan for over sixty percent of my life and for me, it’s home, even though I live in the U.S. now. I want to continue to go back and forth and spend lots of time in Japan. I will always love that country, and I love being there.