This month Catherine O'Connell, inspirational lawyer and Japanophile talks about her amazing journey from the corporate world to becoming her own boss.
Where do you originate from?
I was born in Christchurch New Zealand in February - that's summer time. So since coming to Japan all my birthdays have been winter. Christchurch is a small city of 450k. My dad was a drafting engineer and my mum called herself a homemaker on the 5-year census form. I had three brothers and was the only girl. I think this was formative for me in my growing up because I still like being around and working with males and can do a lot of boy stuff like change car tyres.
When did you last live in NZ?
I last lived there in 2002 up to November when I came to Japan on November 11 that year.
Tell us a bit about what brought you to Japan?
When I was 16 I was in my last year of school and didn't really feel like I wanted to go to university and had a feeling about the tourism industry but had no idea how to get into it.
I went off to the Christchurch Polytechnic and long story short I took a year doing part time Japanese while studying a travel diploma (IATA) to become a travel agent. I loved the Japanese and applied for the full time course and got in. I started with basically "this is a dog" kind of Japanese and ended up coming first in Japanese class both years. During the second year of that course I came to Japan to Kurumayama Kogen in Nagano Prefecture to participate in a "New Zealand Fair" with my classmates. That sealed the deal for me about my love for Japan.
After that I won a NZ-wide Speak Japanese competition and first prize was a trip to Japan and one week in Tokyo. It was fabulous. I finished my Japanese studies and became a tour guide for JTB, and during that time my customers asked me lots about NZ law and business. That got me studying more about the NZ legal system and with the help of a Japanese friend who had done law at Keio, and encouraged me, I left JTB and went to University finally to study law and teach Japanese to the first years.
Upon graduating I took up a job with a firm in Christchurch looking to expand into the Japanese market and was the first Japanese speaking lawyer in NZ in a law firm. During those years I got into anything Japanese I could, - the Japan Festival, the Sister City Committee with Kurashiki and I brought student groups and mayoral groups to Japan for friendship visits. After 7 years in the firm, my great friend Tania showed me an advert in a law magazine advertising for an in-house counsel in Japan and I applied for it and got that job. That is what got me here 15 years ago and I have stayed since!
So you worked in the corporate world for how many years?
I worked in NZ in a law firm for 7 years. In Japan I basically have been in-house lawyer for the 15 years I’ve been here except for 4 years when I worked for an international law firm and had one year with them in Tokyo and one in London and two on secondment to a corporate Japanese multinational.
It’s big step from working in the corporate world to entrepreneur. What were the reasons you decided to take a new direction?
During working in my last corporate role as Head of Legal, I was faced with what ended up being 8 months with no support person when my legal staff left the company. There was no service to hire a part time lawyer, and the only option was a very expensive associate from a large firm and there was no budget for that. This spurred an idea for me to one day provide a flexible lawyer service for short term secondments. I didn't know how I could do that but knew it was not available in the market and was a gap begging to be filled. After 5 years with this company in 2017 I was entitled to receive retirement so as I turned 50 in 2017 I decided to leave and make a go of running my own firm that can provide short term and flexible secondments. And that is where it is and so the plan has come true and is unfolding now as a real viable business.
Can you tell us about the services you offer and who your ideal clients are?
My expertise is in Commercial/business law, corporate, compliance and regulatory. I have three buckets of clients I love to look after. They are in-house legal teams, Japanese law firms and yes, entrepreneurs who are growing a maturing business or just set up and need legal structures in place.
First is as I alluded to above, working for legal departments in companies large or small as seconded in-house counsel to cover their gaps in staff, project work, maternity cover etc. So working for them anything from 1 hour a week to 1 day a week for legal needs. Those clients can be also on retainer.
Second is for Japanese law firms who need to expand overseas and don't want to hire a full-time head count but need a lawyer with Japanese and English on hand so I help them to strategise and work with their overseas clients, usually as a "secret weapon" in the background.
Three favourite places in Japan, your favourite season, the best cocktail bar.
Kurashiki, Naoshima and Miyajima. Favourite season is Autumn - the RELIEF when that humidity of summer has dropped away and the evening insects are singing away. The best cocktail bars are Apero or Crista- especially for Shiso martinis!!
Three best places for working lunches...us entrepreneurs gotta eat right?
Oh yes. I love going to Roti in Roppongi for lunch - you can have super healthy or burgers and nice wine there. I also like Zealander in Maru building. It serves,... you guessed it... NZ food like lamb and other delicious cuisine. Third, Longrain for Thai in Ebisu Garden Place.
What are your plans for the future of Catherine O’Connell Law? Any special projects you can tell us about?
Since I just kicked off 2.5 months ago it is all about building the brand and a book of clients. I have just got a secondment (which is terribly exciting) so that will take me a while to work through. I can see the business will ramp up faster than I thought so I am on the look out to hire part time lawyers who have in-house experience. I think this could end up being Japanese bengoshi (lawyer) women who have left full time work to have a baby and have not returned to the grind of big law firm work. They are brilliant and want to work, but not full time, so my next project is to build up a jinzai-bank of lady lawyers who want to work with me to disrupt the legal services market in Japan. The other thing I am working on doing is podcasts/interviews of general counsel and lawyers working in house in Japan.
How can we find out more about you and follow your updates?
You can read more about my backstory on my website www.catherineoconnelllaw.com.
I write a blog post every month so please check my blog on the website drop down menu. I also publish my posts on LinkedIn and Facebook.
For anyone receiving Tax Accountant Ms. Yasuko Mori's Community Newsletter, I am guest writer there every other month until Feb 2018.
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I'm Victoria, the founder, designer and creator at Bikudesigns, a vintage kimono accessories brand in Tokyo, Japan.