A former in-house counsel in Japan, Catherine O’Connell is originally from New Zealand. In 2018, she founded her own law firm focused on providing flexible legal services to businesses in Japan. In this interview with Asia Law Portal, O’Connell details the inspiration that led her to found her own firm, her practice focus, what impact technology has had on her practice, how she uniquely markets her firm, and her unique insights into what it’s like to practice law in Japan.
What inspired the founding of Catherine O’Connell Law?
Not every business can afford to hire a full time lawyer on the payroll. I identified that there was a gap in the Japan market for flexible legal services to support businesses that don’t a full time lawyer but still need help with the legal pieces of their commercial transactions and busy solo General Counsels also need help with overflow and business as usual so they can go on to do higher value work.
The idea first to devise a new approach to legal services, was born from my own struggles to find a part time lawyer to come and help me when I was in house. When my only staff member left for another job, I was left high and dry without an extra pair of hands to help out. I got overextended with business as usual and project work in the legal department. “If only I could bridge the gap with another pair of capable legal hands to help out on a temp basis or few mornings a week” I lamented. But the only option as a full-time secondment of an associate from a large law firm – they didn’t have the on-the-ground in-house experience and the costs were prohibitive as well.
Thus, the seed was planted to build my own solution to this problem. If I had this issue, surely other in house counsel did too? Market research proved I was right, and so, I launched my flexible secondment based law firm model as a pioneer in the Japan legal services market and in the process became the first foreign female to launch a law practice in Tokyo.
What areas of law do you specialize in and what is your client focus?
I “stick to my knitting” as they say. My expertise is in commercial law and compliance. I am now that very person who I wanted to have by my side back then – someone with deep in-house experience who can hit the ground running and who can be flexibly placed to help both in-house teams and APAC/solo general counsel with flexible secondments and ad-hoc, ongoing, project-based commercial advisory.
My clients are corporates with in-house legal teams and corporates without a legal resource inside their business. Solo General Counsels and APAC regional counsel are also my ideal clients. They will be in industries and sectors such as manufacturing, e-commerce and importing/selling and distributing their products and services into Japan.
My business model is validated in the market because I have been hired by the big end of town to support their legal projects and expansion in Japan. Fortune 500 companies sometimes don’t have a legal department or bilingual lawyer in Japan so I help even large companies as the legal department extension to their Japan commercial operations.
I would also like to add, that as a small business owner myself, I understand the plight of small and medium-sized businesses (SME’s) difficulties in accessing high-quality yet affordable legal advice so CEOs of SMEs and country managers hire me as their outside general counsel on retainer so they always have a commercially savvy lawyer in their back pocket to call on.
How has technology impacted your law practice?
Technology and automation has been a game changer for me in several ways. Pre-pandemic I was already operating a 70% virtual law firm with secondments on site to clients’ offices to work alongside them as their on-site lawyer as and where they needed, and the rest of the time online and using Zoom and other tech tools. Then when the pandemic hit I went 100% online and started to help my clients manage online platforms and communicate in that way. Now at 100% online I have tech for onboarding and for calendar management and booking system. It’s a breeze and I could not run my boutique law practice without these tools. My part time admin helped set them up. I also use automation for scheduling social media in two week batches and this is also a game changer and saves me so much time.
What is the role of marketing in your law practice?
I am the host of the Lawyer on Air podcast, the top legal podcast in Japan. Podcasting is proving to be a remarkably fun and unexpectedly successful marketing tool. I am Japan’s first lawyer to launch a podcast! You will hear stories about law and business in Japan so if you are interested in law and business in Japan I encourage readers to subscribe to hear the latest information.
One thing that the Lawyer on Air podcast has done for me is to generate a massive bundle of quality content for sharing in evergreen articles, and social media content particularly on LinkedIn and Instagram. The law advice is the yin and the podcast is my yang. I like to humanize lawyers through the podcast and this is a perfect way to build trust, and likability in marketing. The more you are out there showing your human side the more people get to know you and want to work with you as a lawyer.
I also have seen an upsurge in requests to appear in other the podcasts of other business development and marketing people, have been nominated for awards in law and business and received requests to write journal articles and features. This has come largely on my presence in the market stemming from hosting the podcast.
What’s it like to practice law in Japan?
Japan is highly regulated so it takes time and a fair amount of paperwork to be able to practice here as a Foreign Registered Lawyer (or “Gaiben”) as I am. Successful law practice here relies upon networks and relationships. Japan is a country where you cannot be an overnight success and need to appreciate being here for the “long game” and never underestimate the power of introductions by others to open doors that would remain shut if you tried to nudge them open yourself.
Many people have never used a lawyer before you so you need to be careful to explain a lot more about how people hire you in your engagement letter and be clear about what you can, and more importantly cannot do in your legal areas of work.
Japan is highly contextual country so you need to have a savvy awareness of the textures in communication styles and understand business customs well. You can be well rewarded by repeat clients and word of mouth referrals if you do work well and go the extra 20% to deliver more than anticipated.