BBA 2020 Winner Profile: Entrepreneur of the Year – Catherine O’Connell Law

Written by Sanae Samata
November 13, 2020


Photo credit: Calderwood Images in partnership with Sterling Content

Written by Sanae Samata
November 13, 2020

Catherine O’Connell has expressed her wish to encourage fellow budding businesspeople as a “brilliant beam of light” after being named Entrepreneur of the Year at the British Chamber of Commerce in Japan’s 2020 British Business Awards (BBA) on November 5.

O’Connell was one of six winners to be recognised at the 13th annual gala celebrating UK–Japan ties, which was held online for the first time due to the pandemic. Six esteemed, independent judges hailing from business, trade, government and the not-for-profit sector awarded the New Zealand lawyer a coveted marble BBA trophy for her ad-hoc, advisory-based legal services.

“I’m ecstatic to win this award,” she says, adding that she sees the symbolism in its material. “The word ‘marble’ derives from the Ancient Greek ‘shining stone’; that’s what I want to be: sparkling, solid and well-rooted … to help others to succeed.”

For O’Connell, a bilingual (English and Japanese) lawyer licensed in New Zealand, the UK and Japan, the BBA is validation of her groundbreaking law practice Catherine O’Connell Law. Established in January 2018, her firm provides flexible lawyering on demand to support the changing needs of in-house legal teams and law firms as well as new and maturing businesses.

“My theory was that a flexible lawyer model could work so I niched down to deliver it, harnessing my courage and adopting innovation to deliver these legal services,” she says of creating her business model.

O’Connell believes her story is evidence that innovation is possible even in the relatively strict confines of legal services.

“We can change what can done in the legal world in Japan. We should not expect change from the outside, but instead make change come from within. Of course, we must keep within regulatory rules, but there is so much you can do within law if you are more entrepreneurial,” she says.


Filling a gap in the market

Now in her third year of operations, O’Connell has expanded her client base to include a wide range of firms—both large and small—as well as start-ups and not-for-profit organisations, each seeking to leverage her legal expertise and services for their specific needs.

In 2019, the sales of Catherine O’Connell Law were double that of 2018, prompting the hire of a part-time contract lawyer for additional support. In the same year, the firm added seven corporates and two Fortune 500 companies to its clientele, which O’Connell says, “endorses the business model as acceptable for even the biggest end of town.” Even with the ongoing impact of the COVID-19 crisis, the business remains robust; 2020 sales will not reach O’Connell’s pre-pandemic forecast but will not fall below last year’s sales.

Feedback from clients has been extremely encouraging for her, with comments that include: “Your firm fills a need for businesses like ours” and “You were our safety blanket and we felt safe in your hands.” One client noted that O’Connell went “above and beyond expectations” to even think about future scenarios and their legal implications. Such comments show that flexi-lawyering has social proof, according to O’Connell, who hopes others can follow in her footsteps.

“I might be the first foreign female to set up her own practice in Tokyo, but I don’t want to be the last,” she says.


Entrepreneurial spirit

O’Connell focused on three key themes in 2019 to drive her business: ambition and vision, collaboration and learning, and systems and processes. Visualising targets, she says, allows her to overcome each difficulty, while listening to clients allows her to better understand what is expected of her. Unlike most law firms, she has also developed a full set of standard operating procedures for everything from accounting and e-invoicing to hiring staff and marketing.

Learning from others is also another practice that O’Connell attributes to her success. She observes what other successful entrepreneurs do and how they operate and has regular consultations with an executive coach to aid her personal growth.

At the start of the year, she chose the words “next level” to shape her actions in 2020. When the pandemic hit, she considered what she could do for her community and began getting involved in webinars for various chambers of commerce in Japan, collaborating with other legal specialists to deliver insights on legal topics that could be useful for people in the midst of a pandemic, for example labour law, supply chain continuity and contract enforcement (force majeure) considerations.

“People needed that information. I don’t know all the information, but I have access to it in my wide network of legal professionals. I thought, I’ve got to be a rooted tree for others in difficulty, to be a guide and steady hand,” she says, adding that supporting the business community is high on her priorities as an entrepreneur.


Looking to the future 

Law firms in Japan tend to invest mostly in legal education for their teams due to the mandatory requirement than legal practitioners remain up to date with current laws, but O’Connell believes investment is also required in the development of soft skills. Last year she developed an online course in legal communications for lawyers and legal staff working in businesses in Japan and hopes to expand her work in this area. Plans include online legal solutions such as guided DIY contracts.

She also hopes to continue to break down the barriers to seeking out legal services, such as concerns on cost and legalese, by making law more accessible and easier to understand.

Another goal is to build on the success of her BBA win. She plans to explore ways to recognise others in the legal profession who are doing innovative work and to support budding entrepreneurs via mentorship. She hopes the BBA will help her secure speaking opportunities and a non-executive director position on a company board, which is one of her aims for 2021.

“The [goal of achieving a] BBA has been amazing at driving me forward and giving me something to work for,” she says, adding that she would encourage entrepreneurs to nominate themselves and other entrepreneurs in their ecosystem next year. “The spirit of the BBA is endeavour, innovation and recognition of what you have done.”