Ken Siegel is a world-renowned lawyer based in Japan. The Financial Times recently named him the “Most Innovative Legal Practitioner in the Asia-Pacific region,” and he has received similar accolades from publications including Chambers Global, The American Lawyer, and Asian Legal Business.

Siegel serves as managing partner for the Tokyo office of Morrison Foerster, the international firm where he has spent his entire legal career. He oversees a team of fifty lawyers and focuses on helping Japanese technology companies acquire other businesses around the world. In addition to negotiating multi-billion-dollar deals, he has spoken about Japanese law on CNBC and PBS. Siegel became a member of the Japan-United States Friendship Commission (JUSFC) in 2022.

He grew up in Ohio, attended Amherst College, and first traveled to Japan with his father at age nineteen. After teaching English in Japan and studying international affairs through Johns Hopkins University in Italy, he decided to pursue a legal career and enrolled in the University of Chicago Law School. Siegel joined Morrison Foerster in 1987, and soon helped establish the firm’s office in Japan. Over more than thirty years with the firm, he has negotiated landmark deals with companies that include Softbank (including it’s acquisition of Sprint and the merger of Sprint with T-Mobile, Hitachi, Fujitsu, and Toshiba.

Nichi Bei Connect recently spoke with Siegel about the intricacies of international law, his strategies for closing major deals in Japan, and how connecting with the right mentors can help you launch a momentous career of your own.


When did you first visit Japan?

My father was a professor at Ohio State University, and he loved to travel. Since he had summers off from teaching, my family sometimes took “north-south-east-west” trips, where we picked a direction and drove to see what we could discover. When I was nineteen, my father wanted to visit Japan. I think my mother was sick of travel at that point, and he couldn’t drag her out of the house. [Laughs.] I went with him instead.


What was the experience like?

It was a trip organized by the Sierra Club. I think the average age of other people on the tour must have been sixty. Even though I was the only young person there, it was a great experience. We traveled all over Japan and came to appreciate the dynamism of places like Tokyo and Osaka. We also got to explore places that were far more rural and remote, and see the contrast between those areas and the big cities.

It was a fascinating time to visit Japan. There was a vibrant, fast-growing dynamic that was so different than anything I’d experienced elsewhere. I was very excited to see cities that were deeply engaged in development, but still very traditional at the same time.


After that initial visit, how did you next connect with Japan?

I studied at Amherst College and met my wife there. She was born and raised in Kyoto, and came to Amherst on exchange from Doshisha University. We met over the summer and had a great time together.

When I graduated in 1981, I didn’t have a job—or any plan at all for postgraduate life—so I spent the summer working in Amherst food service until they politely told me I had to leave. They didn’t want incoming freshman to see graduated seniors serving food. [Laughs.] After that, I got a position teaching English in Japan through Princeton in Asia. I spent a year working in a Japanese government training lab for international students and business people. I became more and more involved in Japanese culture during that time.

Next, I spent a year in Italy with Johns Hopkins University, became engaged, and decided to start law school at the University of Chicago. My wife and I got married before I graduated in 1986. After I got my degree, we started splitting our lives going back and forth between the U.S. and Japan.


How did that work in terms of building a law career?

It worked out well. I got a job with a firm called Morrison Foerster and spent a couple years in Japan setting up their offices before returning to the U.S. Then my wife and I went back to Japan after I made partner in 1994. We’ve been based in Tokyo ever since, and I’m still with Morrison Foerster today. Spending my entire career with the same firm kind of makes me a dinosaur. [Laughs.]


What inspired you to pursue a career in law in the first place?

It’s a great profession because it’s all about analytical thinking. When I was first learning about law, I found it extremely interesting to try to understand how legal issues develop, and how to get ahead of them. When I started actually working as a lawyer, I found practicing law to be even more interesting than studying it. It’s a truly fascinating career.


What areas do you specialize in?

I mainly work in mergers and acquisitions, enabling Japanese companies to buy other businesses based around the world. I help my Japanese clients manage the process, negotiate terms and conditions, and then execute deals so they can achieve their business goals.


When it comes to acquiring new companies, what countries are your Japanese clients most interested in?

Japanese companies are always very interested in acquiring U.S. companies, because of the U.S. market’s stability and fast growth. In the ’90s, Japanese companies also focused on Southeast Asia—and in the 2000s and 2010s, the focus shifted to acquiring companies in China, much more than other Asian jurisdictions. At present, interest in China has waned due to current geopolitics, but we are also seeing interest in acquisitions in the UK and the Middle East. The dynamic changes based on the global economic environment, and what individual Japanese companies need to grow their businesses.


How do you approach negotiating complex deals across multiple countries?

I find it endlessly fascinating to practice law in an international environment because of the differences between legal systems. Not only do you have to figure out which rules from which countries are going to apply to any given deal, you also have to keep in mind what everyone expects to achieve during your negotiations.

Complex international deals often hinge on questions of risk. I always consider environmental rules, compliance with government regulations, and many other matters—and I have to weigh these factors across multiple jurisdictions and countries, while assessing how much risk each issue presents to my client’s and the other side’s goals.

It can be a challenge to meld all of that together in a way that ends up being constructive for our clients, but doesn’t leave the other side feeling damaged. But that’s what needs to happen in order for a transaction to get done.


In order to work internationally, do lawyers like you have to pass local bars in the U.S., Japan, and other countries they deal with?

If you’re an established American lawyer, you don’t need full certification, that is, to pass the Japanese bar, to practice in Japan. In fact, I only know one American lawyer who’s passed the Japanese bar—the exam is in Japanese and requires an extraordinary amount of memorization, so it can be very difficult for non-native speakers to pass. Most American lawyers practice U.S. law in Japan as “registered foreign attorney,” and that designation is sufficient.

If you’re representing a Japanese company doing business in countries or jurisdictions where you are not personally certified, you can use other members of your firm if there’s a local office. Otherwise, you can collaborate with other local counsel to advise on country-specific issues.


Can you name one deal that you’ve particularly enjoyed working on?

I’ve loved much of my career, and there are many deals I’ve really liked working on. I represented Hitachi when the company was acquiring IBM’s hard drive business in the early 2000s. That took almost three years to complete. It was an extraordinarily interesting deal that required a very large legal team, because it involved such complex issues. We had to negotiate questions related to acquiring each and every asset the business owned. There were also a lot of regulatory overview issues we had to think about. It was certainly a lot of fun to do. More recently, I worked on SoftBank’s acquisition of Sprint, which was also a fascinating deal to be part of.


What’s your favorite aspect of practicing law?

In my practice at least, the work is always changing. You never do the same thing more than once, and you rarely face the same issue twice. That kind of dynamic allows you to evolve your personal practice to the areas that most interest you, instead of just repeating the same tasks again and again.


What skills should young people reading this article develop if they want to build a career like yours?

There’s always demand for bright, broadly-skilled, ambitious people who are truly internationalized—meaning, they can speak English and Japanese and are experienced in both cultures. Whether you’re an American or Japanese young person interested in an international legal career, your strategy should be the same. Spend time in the other country to learn about the language, culture, and people, then work hard and do your best to get into a great law school in either country—or study in both countries, if you’re able to make it happen.


Have mentors made a big difference in your career?

I’m lucky to have had great mentors throughout my career. A man named Billy Schwartz was a more senior associate in my firm’s Japanese office when we first opened. He was a great mentor who taught me to be precise and helped me learn key legal skills. I’ve learned from many other people over the years, both as partners and colleagues, and each of them has helped me develop different aspects of my work. Mentorship is a critical aspect of practicing law—good role models help you become successful.


How can young people connect with the right mentor in the U.S.-Japan space?

Look around in your chosen business areas, see who is heavily engaged in the relationship between the U.S. and Japan, and consider whether you have access points to spend time with them or work with them. There’s a bunch of very senior lawyers in Japan who have been working in international law for decades, for example, and if you want to learn the practices and traditions, do your best to get into one of their offices. In law at least, it’s a straightforward path to success—study hard, go to a great law school, do well, get into a good firm, learn from senior partners, and grow your relationships within the business.


Can you elaborate on the importance of good relationships?

The world is one big “people business,” so in general, you never want to burn bridges. In law in particular, it’s always important to maintain positive connections, even when you need to complete difficult negotiations. One key skill lawyers need to develop is how to negotiate without alienating anyone. That’s especially true in Japan, much more so than in the U.S. Japanese businesses generally take a very long-term perspective on relationships, which can make it challenging when you end up in negotiations where you’re expected to get very good results for your client, but not burn the other side too much. Being able to master that dynamic is key to having a successful longterm career in the Japanese legal environment.


That sounds like it can be a difficult balance to achieve.

It’s basic in one sense, but challenging in other ways. You have to figure out how to be constructive while still getting results. It certainly can be difficult knowing exactly where the optimal balance lies between those two goals.


What advice could you offer to U.S.-Japan professionals who want to give back as mentors?

Keep relationships open within your communities, and don’t put up obstacles that prevent people from seeking your help. Make it as easy as possible for members of your community to work with you and learn from you, and start with people whom you already know. Help them be successful and introduce them to as many useful connections and resources as you can. My firm tries to do that by engaging in pro bono work with non-profits and schools in Tokyo—and if students are looking for ways to get into the legal profession, we help them try to find internship opportunities.


What do you hope to accomplish during your time with the JUSFC?

Since most of my fellow Commissioners are based in the U.S. and I live in Japan, I’d like to use my perspective to help make sure that we provide balanced cultural support for projects and ideas that come from both countries. I’m also very interested in finding ways to support Japanese craftsmanship—that very precise focus on creating something beautiful, whatever you’re working on, rather than just doing it fast. I’d like to  see if there are ways I can help give traditional Japanese crafts greater visibility.


Can you name one aspect of Japanese culture that you love, but that people who don’t live in Japan might not know about?

I love that Japan is culturally independent from the rest of the world. For whatever reason, Japanese culture has never felt the need to fully assimilate into modern capitalism and commercialism, and I don’t think it ever will. There’s always been a traditional, uniquely Japanese way to approach problem-solving that’s proven durable, even in the face of Japan’s commercial success as a capitalist economy. I find that extraordinary.