Meet Catherine O’Connell, the “Lawpreneur” empowering women in law – Part 1

At kay me, we are always inspired by the amazing achievements and examples set by ambitious individuals who stand up to the challenge. In this series, we chat to International female entrepreneurs who are paving their own paths and leading the way for others in Japan, and hear their stories, advice and perspectives starting up their success.

Recently, we caught up with “Lawpreneur” from New Zealand, Catherine O’Connell, the first international woman to start up her own law firm in Tokyo, who is now empowering women in Japan to reach their potential. She shares her career story and networking advice with us.

Tell us about a little about your background

Born and raised in New Zealand, after leaving school and delving into an intense course of study of the Japanese language, I dived into a first career as a tour guide with JTB.

I then pivoted into law and became a lawyer working with Japanese businesspeople and ex-pat corporates. An opportunity arose to come to work in Japan for 1 year and, well, I’ve now been living and working in Japan for 18 years! 

After building experience as in-house legal counsel in big Japanese corporates and working in Tokyo and London for an international law firm, I became a “Lawpreneur” – a entrepreneurial lawyer – and launched my own boutique law firm in Tokyo. In 2020 I won an Entrepreneur of the Year Award which I am most proud of.

When I am off work, I love watching rugby, wine tasting, making jewelry as a pastime as well as taking walks which I call #soulstrolls.

Making the career jump: the road to establishing her law firm in Japan

Boldness is not a muscle you are born with; boldness is a muscle you can build and learn over time. After amassing experience in all four corners of the legal world (working in-house at headquarters; APAC head of legal in a US subsidiary; International law firm solicitor and several secondments) I had enough boldness to take a leap. I knew it was time to utilizing all this business law experience to give clients are truly practical business-based lawyer experience. I wanted more balance and flexibility in my professional life, and I wanted to disrupt the legal services industry and provide a fresh approach to legal services with a flexible lawyer option.

On International Women’s Day in March 2021, Japan’s first lawyer-led legal podcast program “Lawyer on Air” was launched. We talk to female lawyers working in Japan, all things law and entrepreneurship. I decided to launch this podcast so that I can shine a brilliant light on the extremely wonderful women lawyers who surround me, inspire me and support me as they excel in their work in Japan. I’m passionate about giving them a platform to share their stories and successes as a woman lawyer working in the Land of the Rising Sun.

If anyone knows someone who would be a wonderful guest on my show please let me know!

https://www.catherineoconnelllaw.com/podcast

The key to success is “Networking”

Networking was and still is absolutely central to my success. Without the extensive and deep network I have, I don’t think I would have had the courage to attempt to launch a law practice in Japan. It is our networks that sustain us – for information and advice, for directing potential clients to us and for keeping their ears open for us to share our voice through various speaking opportunities. For me networking means “building relationships” and because I had built relationships over many years I had the confidence to open my own business and be supported by these people I had built relationships with.

Catherine’s Three Tips for Networking

Tip 1: Every connection you make is a valuable one.

I had built a network of people over the last 20 plus years and so I would recommend anyone setting up in business that they have some finances and have an established network of people to call upon for the spectrum of support you need to run a successful business. I think the biggest challenge when I started was the initial setup, and the time it took to do the paperwork with the Ministry of Justice, and with the banks in Japan. The paperwork bottleneck is still a big problem for setting up business in Japan. Other than that, I really didn’t have many challenges, as I had savings to financially sustain me and many people, male and female reached out to help me and refer clients to me in my early days.

Tip 2: Build bridges that last. Don’t burn them.

Networking is a long-game play and not about what you can grab.  I also think it’s very important when you leave a workplace to go to new pastures, that you do not burn any bridges. It’s bound to be the case that in future roles, your path will cross over the network of people from your past. Keeping professional relationships is critical for strengthening your networks even more and a sour relationship will weaken your network.

Networking is a two-way street and I always have at the forefront of my mind what I can do for that person to help them, and usually they help me further down the track.

Tip 3: Asking for introductions is key

If you are a little bit shy, I would suggest you ask one person in every meeting you are in, to help introduce you to someone in their network. In order to do that, you need to be able to introduce yourself well and say what it is you do to help others. That way a person can easily introduce you to the right people who you can build relationships with.

Being the leader of a diverse network for female legal practitioners, “Women in Law Japan”

I love working with this group of fantastic lady lawyers and I am really proud of what insights and knowledge sharing we produce for the big network of lawyers and people working in the law in Japan. Our members are all full-time lawyers working in house or in private practice and they are super busy in their daily work. However somehow they all manage to come together in unison to create and curate all of the events and activities that we deliver to our 300-strong membership. I have to give big credit to the previous President, Rika Beppu, who set up things very nicely and efficiently so that I could walk into the role from January 2021 with ease.

In such a leadership role you have to be really well organized, prepare agendas, instigate and oversee the event planning, and build comradery so that the team work as one unit. I also take the time to guide so that others can take charge of different aspects of the organization such as social media channels, the website, specialist committees. I’ve learned a lot as the leader of this Not for Profit board.

I would like to provide full support to all female lawyers. The more people there are, the wider the network and the stronger and more empowered the community becomes.

Find our more about “Women In Law Japan” here:

https://womeninlawjapan.org/

In the next part, we take a closer look into the day of Catherine’s busy schedule, hear her inspirations and find out more on her style philosophy. Read Part Two.

For more beautiful kimono-inspired dresses made in Japan, see our selection below:

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