The Kiwi lawyer leading the way in Japan's legal profession

When Catherine O’Connell started setting up her own law firm in Tokyo, she didn’t realise she would become a pioneer in more ways than one.

The Christchurch lawyer is not only the first lawyer from New Zealand to set up a law firm in Japan, but also the first non-Japanese female lawyer to do so in Tokyo.

With more than two decades of legal experience in both New Zealand and Japan, O’Connell started her own practice after realising there was a huge need for more “flexible lawyering”. This is a lawyers-on-demand concept, where in-house legal teams contract experienced lawyers to meet demands due to staffing gaps, budget constraints, project-based needs and more.

Prior to starting her own business, O’Connell worked for a subsidiary of an American company as the head of their legal department. The support staff member left and it took eight months for the company to hire someone new.

During that time, O’Connell says she tried to take on everything herself as there was nobody else available to help, the company did not have the money to hire someone from another law firm to assist and using a temp worker raised issues around confidentiality and ethics.

“That sparked the thought of, wouldn’t it be great if there was someone who could come help me? That planted a seed for me to think that perhaps I could do this kind of business myself."

On April 1, 2018, Catherine O’Connell Law was born. The firm provides general corporate and commercial compliance advice to international businesses in Japan and also helps businesses bridge staffing gaps.

O’Connell now employs two part-time contractors, with a goal to grow her team over the next year. She especially focuses on employing Japanese lawyers who have taken a break from the law to have families and who may find it difficult to return to full-time work.

“Having all that capacity go to waste seems a shame in this Japanese economy,” she says.

Kiwi layer in Japan

Catherine O'Connell is the first New Zealand lawyer to set up a law firm in Tokyo.

The journey into law

Despite being such a trailblazer in the legal profession in Japan, O’Connell’s career did not start in law.

After finishing school, she studied tourism at the Christchurch Polytechnic Institute of Technology. At the time, there was a boom in Japanese tourists visiting New Zealand so when someone from the institute suggested she learn Japanese as well, O’Connell gave it a go. She ended up acing her classes, setting the foundations for what was to come.

It was during her time working for Japanese travel agency JTB that O’Connell discovered her interest in the legal system as she did a lot of research about New Zealand’s legal system in order to answer questions from Japanese tourists. Her interest grew so much that she decided to study law, completing a double degree in law and Japanese.

After working for a law firm in Christchurch, O’Connell’s first job in Japan was as an in-house counsel for Olympus. She went on to work for Panasonic for four years and then Hogan Lovells, a United Kingdom-based law firm which placed her on secondment with the Mitsubishi Motors legal team. During that time, O’Connell also sat and passed the UK bar exam, which led her to work in the UK for two years before returning to Japan.

It was at this point that she began her final corporate legal job before ultimately setting out on her own.

The ups and downs of doing business in Japan

The first year of business has been busy, but exciting, O’Connell says, with a lot of lessons taken on about the ebbs and flows of the business world.

One of the first challenges she faced was the paperwork required to set up a business, or what O’Connell likes to call the “marathon endurance paper race”. There is a lot of focus in Japan on paperwork and doing things exactly to the letter. When O’Connell went to set up her law firm bank account, she says she had to spend four hours at the bank counter filling in forms due to various bank red tape.

One important thing she did not have to worry about was building a network, which she had already from so many years working in Japan. So far all of O’Connell’s work — which includes two major Japanese corporate clients — has come from her network and word of mouth.

It was also her network that helped her prior to starting Catherine O’Connell Law, as she turned to several Japanese and foreign sole practitioners in Japan for advice.

“They were amazing. Very giving of their time and advice, of course knowing that I’m potentially a competitor in the market,” she says.

Her time as a business owner has only just started, but already O’Connell is being recognised for her work — last year she was nominated for Entrepreneur of the Year in the British Chamber of Commerce British Business Awards.

As for the future, O’Connell says there is still some way to go before Japan’s highly regulated legal profession accepts flexible law practices. It will take more education, time and hard work to spread the word, but ultimately it will be worth the effort, she says.

“I would love to see other practices start [flexible lawyering] as well. If I can lead more people to do this as well, it would be amazing. I would see it as all of us slowly disrupting the Japanese market.”

5 tips for being a legally savvy business owner in Japan:

1. Get a will done in your home country and have it legalised in Japan. Next year, wills will become easier to register, with Japan making some rule changes. Set up your family and business partners to cope effectively when something happens to you.

2. Set up the key contract templates for your business and review through a legal health check every other year. Ensure your payment terms are clear and that you have exit plans if business relationships sour.

3. Set up indemnity insurance for product liability and for issues arising as a service provider (e.g. accidents at venues where you are coaching clients).

4. Be clear on your obligations around privacy — Japan and EU and other countries have strict rules on handling, access to and protection of people’s private data and you need to be able to demonstrate compliance at any time. Set up your terms and conditions of use on your website and also upload your privacy policy there.

5. Toe the line — pay your ward taxes, submit your tax returns and be a good citizen of Japan.

An earlier version of this article stated Catherine O'Connell was the first non-Japanese female lawyer to set up a solo legal practice in Japan. The first foreign woman to set up a solo legal practice in Japan was Annette Eddie-Callagain, who began her practice in Okinawa in 1999. O'Connell was the first foreign female in Tokyo with a solo practice, rather than Japan.

- Asia Media Centre