An interview with Isaac Uchiyama, EY Law Japan’s Head of Business Development and Operations, on how he seamlessly went from being a BD professional to also overseeing the operations

What led you to a career in professional services business development?

I was born in Japan but grew up in the US. After finishing college in Israel, my first full-time job back in the US was as a paralegal in a family law practice in northern Virginia just outside of Washington D.C. At 28 years old I “returned” to Japan and found work as Foreign Client Relations Manager for a boutique domestic law firm assisting overseas clients entering the Japan market.

Unfortunately, this was right after the GFC, so the inbound market was severely slow, but it allowed me the opportunity to learn Japanese business etiquette and legal vocabulary over a few years. In 2012 I joined Baker McKenzie in Tokyo and got my first taste of international law firm business development and marketing. Needless to say, I was utterly clueless and the learning curve was very steep. I certainly frustrated my fair share of partners as I learned on the job, but the hardship proved to be solid training and experience as over the next decade I was able to gain new opportunities and step up each time (BM, HSF, A&O and now EY).

You are currently Head of Business Development and Operations (Japan) for EY Law Japan. Tell us about what your responsibilities are in this role.

Prior to joining EY Law, I was at Allen & Overy in Tokyo for over 5 years as a Senior BD & Communications Manager. The primary mandate for BDs at a firm like A&O is to maintain excellence and top-tier status. While they sought to innovate and stay ahead of the market the primary objective is to maintain the status quo of being the crème-de-la-crème. I mention this to draw a contrast with my mandate at EY Law and the reason I chose to leave A&O for a new challenge at EY Law.

As Head of BD at a firm (in Tokyo) that has not had a BD function historically (we just hit the 10-year mark actually) the primary mandate is to raise the profile of EY Law in Japan from low-visibility (e.g., unranked) to highly recognized alongside other major firms.

With some timely CVs coming in / luck we were able to quickly build a BD team and begin organizing the systems and processes consistent with a robust BD function within an international law firm. With the development of the BD infrastructure, we are now focusing on client relation development that is the lifeblood private practice in Japan. Within a massive entity like EY (located in over 150 countries) the internal BD network is of critical importance as it is a great source of referral work.

However, all clients are being wooed by other law firms and EY needs to be equally going to market with our offering and capabilities. To this end we focus on profile raising through strategic event sponsorships. And involve the best third-party organizations and groups to platform what EY Law can offer the clients. The traditional law firms in Japan will soon, if not already, see how serious EY Law is about becoming the most preferred professional services advisor in the market.

Wearing my Head of Operations hat (actually, it often feels like I have two heads but one heart), it has been about taking a law firm that in some respects still hadn’t matured out of the startup phase when EY Law was established in 2013 . It was initially a Tax law practice but then re-branded as a Transactional law practice in 2017 when Junzaburo Kiuchi joined and became MP, coming across from Freshfields in Tokyo.

When I met Junzaburo in 2021 and he presented his vision to grow the firm significantly and quickly I became very excited. One of the main reasons I wanted to transition or rather integrate my career with operations was the people factor. The people are what makes a law firm what it is (at least until AI start replacing all of us) and the opportunity to hire and develop talented individuals to push the firm into the next phase of development really excited me.

In short order we restructured and overhauled the support function and brought in a lot of great talent to equip the lawyers to succeed and be able to focus on client relationship development and delivery of legal services. We now have six Operation Support Team members, three Business Development and Legal coordinators, and three Executive Assistants (when I joined there were only 3 executive assistants) to support over 30 fee-earners in EY Law Japan.

Overseeing the BD and Operations in tandem has its challenges but provides me and the MP with a comprehensive view of where we are and where we are going. It’s really the most fulfilling and interesting role I’ve ever had.

How are legal services from a Big4 firm in Japan similar or different to legal services offered by a traditional partnership law firm in Japan?

A multi-disciplined firm like EY can offer full-service legal advisory, legal function consulting (the only one of the Big4 firms providing such service led by lawyers with in-house legal experience) and legal managed services combined with an unmatched holistic understanding of the client’s business. Our differentiator from traditional law firms is based on the knowledge and insights gained from relationships across all the other service lines of EY including Tax, Consulting, Strategy, Technology, People and Workforce, Transaction and Corporate Finance, Sustainability and Assurance to name a few. It is rare for EY Law to engage with a client without some involvement or nexus with other EY service lines.

Besides the obvious convenience for the client to have all their professional service needs handled by one firm, the greater benefit is having fingertip access to the full breadth of expertise offered by our professionals across many different disciplines. Traditional law firms are mostly limit themself to legal expertise with peripheral, above-average knowledge of certain industry and commercial aspects which may be relevant to a lawyer’s practice area of focus. They often brand themselves as “experts” in “xyz industry” but it’s usually quite a stretch. Of course, there are indeed lawyers with higher degrees in specific learnings outside of law and I don’t mean to question their expertise by any means! At EY we walk across the hall (figuratively) and knock on the door of an actual expert or dedicated relationship manager to either bring them into the project or simply to gain their insights.

You have said that soon we will begin to see more senior BD professionals transition into roles which support the whole business much like a COO or Director of Operations. Why do you see this happening?

In the legal business there is a clear dichotomy which has existed since law firms came to be. There are lawyers and non-lawyers. The lawyers do the fee-earning and the non-lawyers do everything else related to running the business. Many of us know someone who was formerly a lawyer that made the switch to BD or some other management role and generally, these people are really excellent at what they do because they very astutely know how to meet the needs of the key stakeholders of the business (i.e. the partners) because of their common background. However, for every one of those excellent individuals there are many more people without legal sector management experience into operational management of law firms around the world. They are qualified in their own right but they usually lack law firm and legal sector expertise.

The reason I believe that BD professionals (specifically non-legal trained ones) will increasingly become more relevant to the overall operation of law firms is because they have the benefit of working in proximity to the deals, the partners’ business and practice objectives.

For example, most BDs spend a lot of time (especially in their early years) drafting and preparing proposals in response to RFPs for partners. BDs have to sell the expertise of the lawyers and will be part of the discussions around which team members to include in the pitch based on busyness and relevant experience.

They know who has what type of experience and how the market and clients may regard that because BDs are constantly working on credentials and CVs. Now imagine if someone with BD experience is reviewing a candidate CV instead of a traditional HR or operations manager – I would venture to say that the BD is more suited to make an assessment on whether the candidate is worth recommending through to the partners.

Another example might be when it comes to grasping the operational needs of a law firm. The needs are usually the types of core practice areas bringing in the main revenue for the firm. BDs, through experience gain an understanding of the life cycle of deals/matters which the firm takes on. The more advanced BDs will understand lawyer utilization and the economics of a deal including rates and margins etc. Such knowledge can play a significant factor in calculating and fulfilling the support required to execute the deals and continue bringing in new ones.

Other BDs will be Client Relationship Management specialists and play an integral role of ensuring that the partners are across the ever-changing business needs of the client as well as facilitating opportunities for the partners to interact with the client on a regular basis. Good BDs have to “get” the partners and stay motivated with them.

It’s not uncommon for the operational side to be the one-hand that doesn’t really know what the other-hand, the delivery side, is doing. However, if a seasoned BD person is on the one-hand then they will most certainly know what the other hand is doing. A Director of Operations or COO with BD experience is one who is well equipped to “get” what the business needs to grow and “gets” the objectives of the partners and “gets” the life-cycle and mechanics of deals and “gets” the clients – who they are servicing. 

What if anything is unique to the legal business development role in Japan?

BD in Japan is all about relationships. This is not unique to Japan but I believe there is a greater emphasis on relationships when it comes deciding who your advisors will be. Wining and dining clients privately is a bit of an old school approach which still has relevance in some contexts, but my impression is that it has been un-trending over the past few years (also affected by the pandemic of course). In the west it may take only one or two interactions before being invited to pitch or approached with an opportunity.

In Japan if there isn’t an established connection or a line of relationships (referral basis) then it’s highly unlikely that you will be approached. A Japanese GC will usually appreciate overtures of being pursued by a particular firm but when so many firms are pursuing you it makes for a very difficult choice when the time comes. In the end, it still comes down to the relationship and who they trust and has much less to do with the firm or pursuit partner’s pedigree and impressive CV.

What is your overall business development philosophy? And what works best? What doesn’t work best?

Get acquainted then get close. In my view, a BD’s primary objective is to create opportunities for the key stakeholders of the firm (i.e. partners and other senior lawyers) to meet and become acquainted with potential clients and then keep them for the long-haul. This is where sponsorship of legal industry events plays a role for the first part of connecting. You have to be strategic about which events to sponsor and not only look at the raw numbers or who is on the delegate list but target the right client/potential client within that event.

Scatter wide and pray for rain is fine for basic profile-raising purposes but what I have found to be the most effective use of BD spend and lawyer’s time has been to sponsor panels and bring in the panelists of your choice. These panelists are considered experts on the given topic alongside yourself so immediately you are establishing a collegiate relationship. When you focus on the panelist it doesn’t matter who is actually in the audience at the end of the day. The panelists who is an expert in their own right, works closely with you in the build up to the event and sees up close how knowledgeable, organized and professional you are / the firm is.

Posted by Asia Law Portal

A forum for discussion of news, information & opportunity in the Asia-Pacific legal markets.

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