Orrick, Herrington & Sutcliffe, the US law firm, is hiring two senior Japanese partners and four other lawyers from Mitsui, Yasuda, Wani & Maeda as international firms prepare for a seismic shift in Japan's market for legal services.

One of the partners is Masami Totani, a corporate transactional specialist and the firm's most senior lawyer after the four name partners. The other partner is yet to be announced. Joining them from Mitsui Yasuda will be three Japanese associates and a dual US/French-qualified associate. The firm is also hiring a Japanese associate from the Tokyo office of US rival Sidley, Austin, Brown & Wood and will relocate Mark Weeks, a corporate partner, from New York.

"We have developed a strong practice in our core areas of securitization, real estate finance and project finance, and now we're looking to build out into other practice areas," says Howard Goldwasser, head of the Tokyo office. The firm, which already hires three Japanese lawyers through an associated local firm, hopes to compete with Japanese firms for domestic work and plans to continue adding to its team of Japanese lawyers. "This is the second biggest economy in the world so there are opportunities to offer sophisticated transactional advice on domestic transactions," says Goldwasser. "The cross-border practice is really just the icing on the cake."

This raft of hires comes just a few weeks after Linklaters raided the same firm, poaching a team of almost 20 lawyers including top partners Mitsuhiro Yasuda and Akihiro Wani. The firm that once bore their name will cease to exist by the end of the year - an extraordinary fate for a firm that occupied, although relatively briefly, a place among Japan's elite firms. Mitsui will create his own firm and Maeda will join Nishimura, another top-tier firm.

Such upheaval is rare in Japan's legal market - even for one senior partner to switch firms is rare; for a whole firm to split up in this way is almost unheard of. The driving force behind the changing landscape is, in effect, the globalization of legal services.

Japanese lawmakers paved the way in 2003 for an end to the local monopoly on legal advice, which will allow the dozens of foreign law firms in Tokyo to hire Japanese bengoshi directly. At the moment the only way foreign firms can offer their clients opinions on Japanese law is to contract the work out to a local firm or create their own Japanese law firms within their offices - obstacles that few other industrialized economies impose.

However, lawyers in Japan, as in most countries, continue to enjoy a privileged degree of control over the regulation of their own industry and will have the final say in how the Diet's legislation is implemented, provoking some concern that the liberalization will be watered down and drawn out. Indeed, some foreign lawyers are even concerned that the nichibenren, the industry body for lawyers, is simply using the opportunity to replace the old obstacles with newer and more restrictive ones.

Machinations of the nichibenren aside, Japan's leading corporate law firms are increasingly being forced to contemplate a future in which their monopoly is broken apart and foreign law firms, predominantly from the US and UK, are allowed a slice of the considerable action.

The team of associates joining Totani in Orrick's Tokyo office are: Naomasa Nakagawa, Kenji Toyota and Chiharu Yamamoto. Totani will also be joined by Miyako Ikuta, a senior associate who is a Japanese national licensed to practice French and New York law. The associate from Sidley Austin is Teiko Shigezumi.