After 15 years in Japan, Catherine O’Connell decided to found and launch her New Law business model in Japan called, sensibly enough, Catherine O’Connell Law. It was a challenging prospect for any foreign lawyer, let alone a woman in a male-dominated profession, in a traditional, male-dominated nation.
“Being the first New Zealander and first non-Japanese female to open a solo-practitioner legal practice in Tokyo is something I am proud of accomplishing,” she says.
The launch, on 1 April this year, followed approvals from both the Japanese government and New Zealand Law Society (NZLS) regulators. And the business model is one that seems a neat fit for Japan’s own peculiar set of circumstances when it comes to a shortage of both in-house counsel expertise and foreign-attained legal knowledge.
O’Connell offers three types of service. “First, I am providing flexible secondments to in-house legal departments to backfill for legal staff out on maternity/parental or other types of leave, or to provide that extra pair of experienced legal hands to jump in for short-term capacity overflow and gaps, special projects, training and workshops,” she says.
“Second, I perform work collaboratively for other law firms, especially domestic Japanese firms, to help with expansion of their outbound business activities with English-speaking clients. And third, I provide ad-hoc advisory for small and maturing businesses, advising in my expertise areas: corporate, commercial, compliance and regulatory.”
The backdrop to the beginnings of her New Law model help explain the need for it. “The situation I found myself in was my last corporate role as head of legal in the Japan subsidiary of a US corporation where my only legal staff left, and I had no one to substitute to help me on a short-term flexible basis and bridge the gap while I looked for a replacement and continued to support day-to-day operations of the business,” she says.
“Aside from cost-preventative hiring of an expensive associate from a law firm unfamiliar with working in-house, in addition to the confidentiality and training obstacles associated with hiring a casual dispatched worker from a temp agency, this left me with no viable option to help me find the legal support I needed, so I battled on myself through a very tough period.”
She says the hardship endured sparked the idea for her to consider the kind of flexible lawyer business she is developing. “I have wanted to be a legal entrepreneur for a few years but on leaving corporate I decided the timing was right to ‘make a market’ for this legal service in Japan.
“The second reason for launching my own firm, as a Japan-based New Zealander for the past 15 or so years, is it has always been a passion for me to work more closely with businesses in both my native homeland and my second beloved homeland of Japan. Founding Catherine O’Connell Law has given me the opportunity to help promote commerce between New Zealand and Japan, and for me that is a wonderful honour. The disciplines of working in private practice in New Zealand, Japan and London, coupled with the overlay of extensive in-house experience and insights, have provided me with the ideal backdrop for launching this new model business in Japan.”
O’Connell, who is fluent in Japanese, already has a number of assignments “bridging” for large companies dealing with sudden departures of legal reps, and in one case preparing the way for a business to establish a legal function as it searches for its first GC.
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