Small is GREAT XV | Law and Disorder with Catherine O’Connell

Written by Sam

Written by Sam

Tips for entrepreneurs at Small is GREAT XV

BCCJ member Catherine O’Connell established her own legal practice in Tokyo a mere 15 months ago but the business is thriving, thanks to its innovative, on-demand corporate, compliance and regulatory legal services.

With 20 years’ legal experience spanning three continents, O’Connell says her career to date has been her “chrysalis.” Now, as a business owner working with clients in offices across Tokyo according to their particular needs, she likens herself to a “butterfly.”

At the BCCJ’s latest Small is GREAT event, designed for small business owners as well as budding entrepreneurs, she shared the ups and downs of her entrepreneurial journey.

The chrysalis

Hailing from Christchurch, New Zealand, O’Connell grew up with two working parents and three brothers: an environment that she said taught her anything is possible, irrespective of gender.

Looking back on essays from high school days she discovered that, as young as 13, she had expressed an interest in the law. But that interest was not to come into fruition until later. After finishing high school, she set her sights on a career in the travel industry.

She completed a travel diploma and Japanese language course at college before taking a role as a tour guide for JTB. As more and more of her Japanese clients asked about New Zealand’s way of life, including its laws, her interest in law was piqued again and she returned to education.

“There were a lot of naysayers when I left JTB at 23 to go back to university to do law,” she recalled. “You will have those naysayers in your life. When they say those things to you, it’s about themselves, not you; it’s an expression of their risk appetite.”

Undeterred, O’Connell completed her law degree and, after working in New Zealand for seven years, decided she wanted to “live and breathe Japan”. She accepted a role as an in-house counsel in a company in Tokyo, only to find herself in the more remote Hachioji, but she soon got settled.

She later moved to Osaka, becoming the first non-Japanese woman to work for Matsushita Denki (not Panasonic), before returning to Tokyo to work for Hogan Lovells International Law Firm, which saw her on secondment to Mitsubishi Motors Legal Department and then in the London office of Hogan Lovells for a brief period in 2010.

In 2012, she joined Molex where she headed up the legal department and built their legal department from scratch over five years, a process she describes as “a good leap” from practicing as a lawyer in-house to setting up her own firm.

The butterfly

In April 2018, following an eight-month wait for successful approvals from both Japan and New Zealand to practice as a foreign-registered attorney in Tokyo, she launched Catherine O’Connell Law. The business concept is “flexible lawyering,” which allows O’Connell to visit various organisations in Japan to help them with their legal needs and to support other lawyers wanting to work in the same way on flexible assignments.

For O’Connell, the move was the culmination of thinking about her long-term career goals and retirement. 

“I was 48 or 49 at the time [of setting up the business]. I thought, what am I going to do with the rest of my life? Am I going to be put out the door at 65 or will I make the decision to leave? … I thought it was better to start doing something,” she said. “People don’t [start their own business] because they have a confliction between fear and faith.”

O’Connell, however, was willing to give the business a try; even if it didn’t eventually work out, at least she would have given it a go, she explained. Becoming a business owner, she added, “is about having the faith to back yourself.” Now, she says she is doing what strengthens and engages her, what she loves.

Entrepreneurs vs employees

Though she admits setting up the practice has been challenging, she finds security in being master of her destiny as opposed to being at the mercy of an employer.

She believes both employees and entrepreneurs want the same things from their work: to put in serious effort, to get income and to have support. Shifting from being an employee to an entrepreneur, however, requires a real “mindset change.”

“It’s about feeling the fear and going ahead anyway,” she said, adding that employees see scarcity of possible income from having a business while entrepreneurs see plentiful opportunities. “I thought, if I get even a smidgen of the wealth and interesting people to work with in Tokyo, isn’t that enough to keep me going?”  

She called on budding entrepreneurs to listen to their own voice and the voices of their supporters in order to succeed.

“Don’t underestimate your community. Trust in them to support you. People allowed me to think more positively about taking the next step,” she said.

Setting an example

Since setting up her business last year, O’Connell has attracted attention from former colleagues and clients eager to learn from her story. Now she gives consultations on how they might make the leap to running their own business and aims to set an example for them.

“I can tell people what it’s like doing entrepreneurial work, but they don’t know how it feels unless they do it. It makes me feel remarkable, so I just have to get out there and show them by example,” she said.

But she warned against people seeking quick or easy answers. “A lot of people want to be a butterfly but are not prepared to do the chrysalis part: the hard stuff,” she said, adding that this is not possible. She had to wait for paperwork, increase her savings and curb spending even before she developed her business plan.

Now, in her second year as a business owner, she continues to work hard in the hope of growing the business.

“I work as much if not a little more than before, but I’m doing it for myself,” she said. “I promise to deliver so I just do it. I’m pretty motivated and driven. And, after work, I always feel I’ve done a good job—and on my own terms.”

Produced by Sterling Content for the BCCJ