How a Christchurch native found success as a foreign lawyer in Japan

by Sol Dolor 04 Dec 2019

Catherine O’Connell has come a long way from the start of her professional life, which was as a tour guide for Japanese tourists in New Zealand, but in a sense, she hasn’t strayed far from that foundation.

The Christchurch native became the first foreign female lawyer to establish a solo law practice in Tokyo when she established Catherine O’Connell Law in April last year. Her practice is still, in a way, bridging New Zealand and Japan –  the two countries she calls home.

O’Connell says that she first started studying the law somewhat out of necessity, as tourists often asked her about New Zealand law-related topics. She built her tour-guide repertoire by her knowledge of the law. Then a Japanese mentor later told her that he believed she could be the Japanese-speaking lawyer that he knew New Zealand and the world needed.

“Encouragement can come from places you least expect it to come from,” O’Connell says.

After finishing her studies in Japanese and law, she commenced in private practice at Anderson Lloyd. She built her reputation as a Japanese-speaking lawyer and took the leap in 2002 to Japan to take up an in-house role. Nearly 17 years later, she has her own practice that focuses on providing legal services to maturing businesses, nurturing the Japan-New Zealand relationship through legal services and project managing commercial transactions, and offering flexible lawyering services.

O’Connell is a trailblazer in that NewLaw side of the practice, she says, as flex legal services are new in Japan. “I’m a pioneer in this field chipping away little by little at the way legal services are and can be delivered in Japan,” she says.

In this interview, O’Connell also talks about serendipity, finding confidence, her plans for her growing practice, insights on cross-border business, and her advice to lawyers interested in focusing on certain jurisdictions.


Image: Catherine O’Connell

What made you choose a career in law?

Law is my second career. My first career was as a tour guide in New Zealand for Japanese tourists. I was often asked by tourists I looked after about New Zealand law-related topics – and this drove me to study more about the law and how laws are the foundation of business, and then I used what I had studied about law to build my tour guide repertoire.

At the same time I was encouraged to do law by a male, Japanese mentor, who said, “New Zealand and the world needs a Japanese-speaking lawyer and I know you can do it!” Encouragement can come from places you least expect it to come from.

Was it always a goal for you to move to and be a lawyer working in Japan?

While I was working hard as a senior solicitor at my law firm in New Zealand, providing advice to Japanese corporate, business and private clients, I was concentrating on delivering that well and didn’t actively consider it was possible to take up work in Japan, let alone work as a lawyer there.

It was only when the opportunity presented itself in the form of an advertisement in LawTalk – where a role as in-house counsel in a multinational Japanese company was advertised – that started to stir in me the idea that working as a lawyer in Japan could be a real possibility.

I owe that introduction to my great friend, as the decision to come and work in Japan changed my life.

I often say to people now that you don’t find a job or career or following or what you are meant to do; the job, the career, the following and what you are meant to do actually finds you. I think this was an example of this for me.

What made you take the leap in 2002?

I had seven years under my belt in private practice and was well-established as a Japanese-speaking lawyer with a niche practice in New Zealand, but successfully going through the interview process for the in-house role I mentioned – which was a role that found me – it made me believe in myself that I was just as capable as anyone else to venture off to Japan, especially when I had Japanese language capability, and the vast majority of people coming here do not.

So I then thought that I could be even more successful as I had language as “secret weapon” as well as law credentials. So I took the leap to come here well-armed with belief in myself that I could do this.

Also, taking the plunge was a manageable risk as it was a one-year contract, so I figured that a year is not much time “out” of one’s career, and I knew I could always return to NZ after a year, and pick up where I left off or even better after the experience gained, so this also encouraged me to take the opportunity to pack up and come to Japan to give it a try.

Tell us more about Catherine O’Connell Law.

I am the first foreign female to set up a solo law practice in Tokyo. I help businesses who want to hire an experienced in-house lawyer on a flexible basis to work remotely or on-site projects, as an extension to an existing in-house legal team, or support a business with no legal function.

Lawyers who work with me are “flexible lawyers” who work in-house in various businesses, managing their work/life balance through part-time and project-based in-house roles.

As the only firm truly dedicated to New Zealand-Japan commercial relations on the ground in Japan, I also consult to businesses in New Zealand and Japan wanting to expand their commercial relations with each other through joint ventures, investment and distribution networks.

There are a growing number of Japanese businesses wanting inroads to New Zealand-based businesses because they want to leverage the strengths of New Zealand’s reputation for integrity in business, its resourcefulness and innovation.

For New Zealand, Japan is a wonderful although challenging market to be entering, especially in this year and 2020 with the Tokyo Olympics and Paralympics on the horizon.

What keeps you busy now? What are your near- and long-term goals for the firm?

I recently completed an eight-month locum-type bridging role, “helicoptering in” to a pharmaceutical business to become the GC after their head of legal left for another role. I was on the interview team to choose my incumbent and fully onboarded the successful candidate.

I’m busy working both in my business, performing several flexible lawyer roles, and working on my business, doing business development, taking on speaking engagements, and being asked to facilitate or be on panels.

Working in the business, for example, I work with a legacy client one day a week in their legal and compliance team onsite revamping their global compliance program and ethics hotline, and we are rolling out a trial in-house legal staff-specific legal English training course.

I’m the legal resource for two companies with no legal function in Japan, working onsite two days for one business, a low-cost carrier, and half a day for another, an alcoholic beverage manufacturer and distributor. Each morning, I’m busy remembering which laptop, security card and ID Card to pack in my bag each day, and which direction to take to which office!

I’m also working on the business as CEO on my “CEO Day,” which is Monday every week, developing an online solution for in-house legal departments which will scale my business to the next level.

I’m fully thrust into the hiring process for more lawyers to join me – lawyers who want to disrupt the provision of the legal servicers workspace in Japan, adopting the same vision I have for flexible lawyering.

What do you love the most about your job? On the flip side, if you could change anything about your job right now, what would it be?

I love the freedom of running my own practice and being in charge of my own destiny. I also enjoy being an outside general counsel providing in-house lawyer expertise for businesses across various industries and helping them solve their particular problems. I can actually see the results and see their pain eased.

I had a staff shortage in one of my previous corporate head-of-legal roles and could not, for love or money, find a part-time lawyer to come and help me a few days a week. It was actually this need that sparked my idea to start a hybrid flexible lawyering practice in Japan, so that I can help in-house counsel and businesses who find themselves in the same kind of predicament I was in – not wanting or able to afford a full time legal headcount but needing a lawyer for some of the time.

If I could change one thing it would be less of me in the business on the ground, and forging ahead with my CEO role, hiring and training in-house experienced lawyers to work alongside me, embracing the approach I have to flexible lawyering, and spending more time scaling up the business, through business development and hiring marketing and operations people to help me with that.

What do you love doing outside of work and why?

I get a lot of inspiration and satisfaction from volunteer activities in Tokyo.

I serve as vice chair of the Australian & New Zealand Chamber of Commerce in Japan. It’s a role I thoroughly love as it brings me close to New Zealand. It enables me to meet with visiting dignitaries, exporters, artists, performers and sports people from New Zealand and I can help those people develop relationships and connections with counterparts in Japan.

For example, I recently MC’d the Business Luncheon event for the Prime Minister of New Zealand Rt. Hon. Jacinda Ardern and sat next to her on the top table. I  have been hugely involved with the business events leveraging Rugby World Cup 2019 in Japan.

For another Japan-New Zealand group, each November festival, I don an apron, serving up lamb chops and wine promoting New Zealand.

Having my voice heard speaking to audiences who are eager to hear about flexible lawyering, women’s empowerment, and encouraging young lawyers to think about alternative legal career paths, is another activity I am engaged in. I am always on the search for women of law to empower through flexible working styles.

What is your advice to lawyers, who may be interested in focusing on a certain jurisdiction as their career progresses?

If you have the desire to work in another jurisdiction, don’t hold back. Set yourself a time limit such as one to two years, if that helps you feel comfortable with leaving your comfort zone. Ask yourself honestly, “What is the worst that can happen?”

Even if you come back after a year or so, you will have had an amazing experience and learnt a lot about yourself in the process and built overseas experience. That looks impressive on a CV. Better still, you stay overseas and make a niche legal services offering for yourself as I have done in Tokyo.

The world needs more NZ lawyers with their unique talents and way we have learnt and practiced the law, to engage in and with other jurisdictions and change the way people think about lawyers and the ways we can provide true value to businesses.

What is the best advice you’ve ever received?

“The only thing you have control of is your own attitude.” You can’t control anyone else and you can only control your own attitude – if you will make your day into a good day or a bad day, how you will react to negative feedback, or what you’ll do or say if you lose a client.  

How you react is completely up to you, and no one else is to blame for it. You are the one in control of what attitude you display. That was my friend Tania McKenzie, who is a partner in a firm in New Zealand. Oh, and she incidentally brought that LawTalk advertisement to my attention, so deserves credit for starting me on this Japan journey. Before I came here, she gave me a card with a verse about “attitude” on it which I still carry with me.

“Don’t run before you can walk.” As I set up my business, a Kiwi friend in Japan told me this. She was saying not to go full-power into ramping up the business, but rather, tread carefully and wisely and get ducks lined up first. There is no point in claiming you can do this and that, then find yourself too busy to be able to be of service. She said the worst thing is that you do so well that you can’t take on the work and people start saying, “She’s good but she’s never available.” So to avoid this, it was better to take time and build slowly but surely.

You’ve worked in major law firms and corporates in New Zealand and Japan for many years. What key insights have this extensive experience given you about cross-border business in general and the business of law in particular?

It is critical that there is a consistency in balancing a commercial mindset with legal advice. It is critical to consistently approach work as a lawyer here from the angle that we are here to help our commercial colleagues and management understand the law through a business lens, and not here to tell them what to do. If we aren’t aligned as “one” legal department, in synergy with business colleagues and management, then we are doing a disservice to the entire organization.

Fools rush in when conducting business in Japan. Rather than race through a deal, most Japanese employers value group consensus decision-making, and the same is true for creating contracts and finalizing negotiations with outside parties. After learning the basics of Japanese business etiquette, in-house counsel in the Japan ecosystem discover why patience truly is a virtue here.