Catherine O’Connell: Legal Business Development…in Japan!

In this episode, Steve Fretzin and Catherine O’Connell discuss:

  • Being your own brand in a solo firm.
  • Maneuvering through a list of contacts and utilizing organizational contacts.
  • Tips for handling meetings with Japanese clients.
  • Greetings and etiquette for leaving meetings.

Key Takeaways:

  • What is risky to one person, may not be considered a risk by other individuals.
  • In Japan, introductions are your gold medal door opener – don’t cold call, because the relationship matters more.
  • When you are working with different cultures, you have to understand the social context of what people are saying rather than the exact definition of the words being said.
  • Having a digital business card is becoming a new trend as the world learns to continue networking in a COVID and post-COVID world.

“Working in Japan, and being successful here, is all about the long game. You’ve really got to be here and invest in relationships. It will take a long time until you can actually build up enough rapport with somebody to have a business relationship with them.” —  Catherine O’Connell

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Show notes by Podcastologist Chelsea Taylor-Sturkie

Audio production by Turnkey Podcast Productions. You’re the expert. Your podcast will prove it.



japan, lawyer, people, japanese, business, tokyo, steve, bit, listening, new zealand, big, exchanging, thought, qualified, law, katherine, meeting, contract, relationships, negotiating


Catherine O’Connell, Narrator, Steve Fretzin


Catherine O’Connell  [00:01]

Working in Japan and being successful here is all about the long game. There’s no short quick dash around the block. You’ve really got to be here and invest in relationships. And it will take a long time to do that until you can actually build up enough rapport with somebody to have a business relationship with.


Narrator  [00:25]

You’re listening to be that lawyer, life changing strategies and resources for growing a successful law practice. Each episode, your host, author and lawyer coach, Steve Fretzin, will take a deeper dive, helping you grow your law practice in less time, greater results. Now, here’s your host, Steve Fretzin.


Steve Fretzin  [00:49]

Well, Konnichiwa everyone, how’s it going this morning, today, tonight? Whatever time you are, this is Steve Fretzin. How’s it going? Hope hopefully, you’re having a wonderful time and a wonderful day week and all that jazz. You know, listen, if you’re listening to this show, then you are someone who cares about growing your book of business, you’re someone who’s interested in checking out what the latest and greatest things are to do to build your law practice. And the reason that I started this morning with a little bit of Japanese is because I have a special guest today. It’s Catherine O’Connell. She’s the principal and founder of O’Connell law. And she’s also the first female solo in Tokyo. How’s it going, Catherine?


Catherine O’Connell  [01:28]

Hey, Steve, thank you so much. It’s such a pleasure to be here with you.


Steve Fretzin  [01:33]

Now, wait a second, that isn’t an American accent? What accent could that be?


Catherine O’Connell  [01:37]

Well, very perceptive of you. I am a new. I’m a New Zealander. Right, we often call ourselves kiwis, as you know, but New Zealand’s where I’m from.


Steve Fretzin  [01:47]

Wonderful, wonderful world. What a what a beautiful place. And so so why would you go from from from that land of beautiful of beautiful people and land to Tokyo where it’s horrible and terrible. Now, just kidding. To get to Tokyo? What what? How did you make that move?


Catherine O’Connell  [02:06]

Well, I picked up a an assignment in Japan, as in house legal counsel for Olympus Corporation. But that was nearly 20 years ago. So prior to that I had studied Japanese back in New Zealand, and I had a first career in tourism. So with the Japanese language, and then after that, going back to law school and doing law, that combination enabled me to sort of come over to Japan and do this one year contract. As I say it’s expanded into 20. Now with various, various other roles that I’ve done. So that’s kind of how I got


Steve Fretzin  [02:42]

here. Got it. Got it. And in what’s your background mean? So it sounds like some in house background and then going out on your own is as the first foreign female solo and Tokyo I mean, how did you make that transition?


Catherine O’Connell  [02:54]

Yeah, so after practicing and tourism, for several years, I went back to university did this double degree in law. I then graduated, became a barrister and solicitor in New Zealand worked seven years in New Zealand. And then this opportunity, as I said, came up for Olympus. So I moved from private practice into in house and I remember my first week being told don’t be an in house, don’t be a private practice lawyer, be an in house lawyer. So I had to sort of switch to being a more business orientated lawyer. After my one year was up here, I didn’t really want to just head on back to New Zealand and do the traditional route. So I stayed and I found another role as senior in house legal counsel for Panasonic Corporation. I moved to Osaka where they have a slightly different dialect of Japanese but that was very helpful and communicating with the people at Panasonic to be able to speak that lingo. And after that, I was brought back to Tokyo to work for Hogan Lovells law firm, and they sent me on secondment to Mitsubishi Motors legal department. So I did that. During that time at Mitsubishi, I also qualified for the UK bar. So England and Wales and I had a stint in London with Hogan Lovells came back. And there’s a bit of a Chicago connection here for you, Steve, I joined a US corporate subsidiary in Japan called Molex and they’re based in Lisle, Illinois, here we go. I worked for them for five years, they very famous for designing the Lightning connector for the iPhone, which we all rely on. And so I worked there for five years, and then I actually left and that’s when I started my own practice this boutique law firm that I have in 2018. So that’s kind of a really short 20 years of what’s happened so far for me.


Steve Fretzin  [04:42]

And what was the kind of shock of you know, going into private practice because that’s not something everyone can just do. Some people are built for it. Some people are not some people are have great courage and others, you know, they’re just more comfortable in a in a in a different dynamic. So how did Do you feel moving into that into that role?


Catherine O’Connell  [05:03]

You mean from when I was working as corporate counsel going into do my own firm? Yeah, yeah. Well, I think because it everything comes down to doing it yourself, and you are your own brand. You’re no longer relying on a on a corporate brand to carry you, you have to be your own brand and do your own thing. And, you know, doing the bills and getting those out the door. That was one of the biggest shocks for me. There, y’all. This is what happens. Right. So that was probably the first couple of things that I was a bit shocked about. But what made it easier, I suppose, for me was, you know, having a great network and having built that over the 20 years. And I know that was really quite a key to my success, and has been so far.


Steve Fretzin  [05:43]

So you, you took this network that you had established over the over the many years, and then you reached out to them and got together and did some networking and and they Yeah, you were able to get some business thrown your way.


Catherine O’Connell  [05:55]

Yeah, so I left the company, I was at the beginning of 2017, it actually took quite a little while to get all the paperwork lined up and qualify in Japan, because they need to check that you’ve got the right credentials, the experience, and all of that. And that really took about 10 months and total. So during that 10 months, while it was very frustrating waiting at the other the other end of it was that I had a really a really had the gift of time to be able to do something and explain to people what I was doing and get the word out. And while I couldn’t qualify officially as a lawyer, in my own practice, I could become a business consultant. So I use this sort of Persona, in order to still advise, and get income and build a practice and build people coming to me for business advice. And then once I got the piece of paper, I could then be a lawyer. So you know, it took a little bit of time. But that gift of time, as I just said, have enabled me to get out, get the word out into the public, the people that I already knew and loved and who knew me and tell them I was doing something different?


Steve Fretzin  [07:02]

Yeah. And that’s one of the things that lawyers that go solo, talk to me about his art. So how do I get started? Be You know, I’ve got this list of people, what do I do with the list? What do I say? What do I do? What am I you know, what am I you know, what am I trying to accomplish here? And obviously, it’s bringing business. However, you know, depending on the relationship, you might have to take something slower, and some things more quickly. So what how did you maneuver through that list of contacts? And eventually, you know, when you when you were able to practice law, get them in as clients or get them to refer you business? Yeah, I


Catherine O’Connell  [07:35]

think that’s a really, really good question. Because I’m naturally motivated by networking. But the first group of people were lawyers, I’d worked in house. So I knew a lot of external lawyers. I’d work also worked in private practice. So I knew a lot of general counsel’s and people working in businesses. So that was one big community that I could tap into and talk to. And I also use those people, or utilize those people gained the knowledge of what they were seeking in the market, right. So I provide flexible legal services, which are part time services for people or relief when people are a bridging between roles, companies are looking for lawyers and things like that. So I could tell from the people I was dealing with, that they needed that kind of service. And the second group were entrepreneurs and small business owners. And I had been working with them through various mastermind groups and other groups that I sort of joined. And so I had that error as well. So those people were also evangelists, for me in the end, too. And then the third group, I suppose, Steve, would be the chambers of commerce. And I’m not sure how busy they are in America, or other places. But in Japan, they’re really very big for the international community here. And so in particular, American Chamber of Commerce, and the Australian New Zealand Chamber of Commerce were places where I had immediate audience for people who were there listening, and I could approach and tell them what I was doing. So that’s sort of three really distinct areas where I could go in and tell them what I was up to, and what I plan to do and get some information from them.


Steve Fretzin  [09:11]

Yeah, that’s really great. So it’s a combination of, of the lawyers, the entrepreneurs, and then then the networking groups that had been established that you had, you know, could go in and build relationships or to, you know, just just, you know, be an active member.


Catherine O’Connell  [09:24]

Yeah, I had been an active member and also in the leadership, you know, Vice Chair of one, one group, and then a, you know, vice chair of a committee, a legal services committee, so I just sort of had that captured audience and it really made a difference that volunteer work, you know, could come back to me and be very helpful.


Steve Fretzin  [09:38]

And what’s the conversation so you know, someone at the Chamber, you’re a leader in that group, you know, that that individuals, a lawyer that might be in a position to refer you they’ve got an act of business. What do you do you sit down and have coffee, have lunch, have tea? What what’s Yeah,


Catherine O’Connell  [09:53]

those days where we could do that we still have a situation in Japan where we can’t do that at the moment but Yes, those were exactly the things that I did and just tell them what I’m doing and just see what their reaction was. And when they had a reaction that was, Oh, that’s interesting. Tell me more, tell them more. Or if it was something about really, you’re going on your own, that’s really risky, isn’t it? And finding out more about why they thought that and more often than not this answer that was about risk was usually about their risk perception that they had of themselves, that they probably wouldn’t do something like that themselves and sort of mirrored across the table to me. So every single meeting had information that was very, very useful.


Steve Fretzin  [10:37]

Everybody’s got their own, what I call head trash. And that, you know, their perception is it might be, you know, this is scary. And your perception is no, this is, this is opportunity. This is, you know, this is fun or enjoyable. But the risk that maybe that they were feeling or or sharing with you might have been that there were no fee, no female foreign solos in in Tokyo. So you’re doing something that no one else had done before. So wasn’t that risky, or scary for you at all?


Catherine O’Connell  [11:06]

Well, it’s very, very funny, but I actually didn’t have that as the beginning game. When I set out. It was only after I qualified, that a very good friend of mine, who is a legal recruiter, said to me, Hey, Katherine, do you know you are the first foreign female to do this? And I thought, really, am I? Why am I the only one? There’s been plenty of women out there before me who have been practicing law in Japan and Tokyo for a very long time? Why me? So I didn’t it wasn’t my motivator. At the beginning. It was something I found out later. And I think when people came to me and said, it was risky, it was really I think, coming from, you’re by yourself, you know, you don’t have a big law firm or other lawyers to go and talk to how are you going to cope? So again, it’s from the perception that What did you call it brain trash or head mind? That’s the one. Yeah. And I think therefore, they probably wouldn’t do that themselves. How on earth could I have the gumption to do that, and it didn’t really crossed my mind that that was a problem. And to be honest, it wasn’t really something I thought was risky. If it didn’t work, I could go back and be a law firm lawyer in a big practice. Or I could go and do another in house legal counsel job. It wasn’t the failing that really was something that made me think I shouldn’t do this.


Steve Fretzin  [12:28]

Right. And I know before we spoke today that you had send me this terrific handout, I’ve got it up in front of me tips for handling meetings with Japanese clients. And I know that there’s, you know, people listening to the show that say, you know, I’d love to work in Japan, or I’d love to work in a foreign country and get business there. And there’s IP attorneys and other attorneys that currently are and what are some of the cultural differences between doing business in the US or New Zealand and or in the UK versus in joke in Japan? Or Tokyo?


Catherine O’Connell  [13:02]

Right? Well, I’d say one of the first things is never cold call anybody here. Everything is really done through relationships and introductions, introductions are your gold middle door opener, and I’m saying gold medal because we’re recording this during certain Olympic event happening in Tokyo right now. So the other thing is that Japan, Japanese are very, very high context. So what seven words is really something that matters less than what is said through context, compared to say, the America which is very low context, I would say, with words, literally what people take is the genuine, you know, meaning of what’s being conveyed. The other thing would be I often hear Japanese say, That’s difficult. That’s difficult. That difficult, that’s difficult doesn’t mean it’s difficult. It means we can’t do it. It’s impossible. So you’ve got to know that there’s no point in going back and saying, Well, they said it was difficult. So let’s try and think of a way we can do it. It’s a difficult, difficult means it’s they’re trying to let you down very gently.


Steve Fretzin  [14:02]

Wow. So in the US, for example, the way that they do that is a that sounds really interesting. I’ll get back to you. Yeah, and they never do they then they ghost you. That’s what they do in the US like is saying, I’ll think about it. And I think about it is a no, but we don’t we think that’s great. They’re gonna think about it, they’re gonna give thought to it. Absolutely not. That’s a buyer trick that we came up with to distance ourselves from people. We don’t want to end up giving bad news to Well, there we


Catherine O’Connell  [14:28]

  1. That’s very, very interesting. So in Japan, they’re letting you down gently and saying something’s difficult. And then we also use it. So I use it quite often to say something is difficult. Because if it was Japanese, so I know that they know what I’m saying. Yeah. And you’ll often hear Japanese say a lot of you know, do a lot of head nodding and say yes, yes, yes. As you’re talking and being someone who’s lived here a long time as you’re talking, it’s very hard for me to not say yes or not will say Mm hmm. Or is that so as we’re talking, but Japanese will do that. And if they say yes during that kind of conversation They’re not actually agreeing with you. They’re just, Yes, I’m listening, right. And you know, some things, you shouldn’t just take things at face value. I remember when one of my very first occasions when I just started learning Japanese and I was on a, I remember was on a bus and tourists were on the bus Japanese tourists and they stood, I heard them say, she’s got a big nose. And I took offense at that, right. And so I’d started listening to their conversation. And then when I got off the bus before them, I sort of said something along the lines of Have a nice day and enjoy yourself. So they sort of knew that I knew enough. And I thought that they would be embarrassed by that comment. But in fact, they were just smiled. And so I Yeah, that’s great. So for me, it felt it was rude, but actually in Japanese, or in Japan culture, noses that stick out and more desirable. So in fact, I’m entering me wonderful. It took me a while to find out what that really was. And for a long time, I was caught up with that, but not to take things at face value or nose value, shall we say? So, you know, they weren’t being rude. And they were sort of, you know, I’d given them a nice greeting at the end. So they thought I understood what they were saying. And I didn’t really get the reaction I expected. So that was very interesting. So I think that’s probably something people can think about.


Steve Fretzin  [16:18]

So flip this exact conversation into business development, or their cultural this you mentioned, like no cold calling. Alright, that’s fine. No one wants to do that anyway. Most lawyers don’t or shouldn’t. But what are the then the the intricacies of the Japanese culture as it relates to business development may be different than in other other countries?


Catherine O’Connell  [16:42]

Yeah, well, I think one thing is a few are networking. And more often than not, these are online these days, you really need to do what you say and say what you’re going to do. So if you meet someone, maybe this is pretty basic across the across the whole spectrum. But for Japan, it’s very, very important that if you say you’re going to introduce them to somebody, or that you will contact them on Thursday, you do that, any slight deviation from that, what you promised you would do, will really let you down in their eyes. And so you know, you will lose the trust, immediately. So that’s one of the really, really big things.


Steve Fretzin  [17:18]

I would say, by the way, that’s that’s big here, too. But people don’t do it. People are constantly let down. That’s one of the reasons that networking is so frustrating for lawyers here in the US, because they feel like they’re going out and they’re getting promised things. And actually, just to share, if you don’t mind, I actually want in my networking handbook, I give out the three types of networkers. One is the taker that just as their to sell you, one is the real giver. And that’s what the Japanese would appreciate. And we all would appreciate someone that actually follows through and does it. The middle one is the tricky one, I call it the apparent giver. This is the person that gives that that constantly says all the right things. But when it comes time to execute, and actually follow through, generally fails. So they have this, they have this polished, you know, sort of look about them. And everybody sort of thinks they’re good, because they know a lot of people and they move around a lot. But at the end of the day, they’re not really making quality introductions, they’re either making terrible introductions, or they’re just, they’re just giving lip service, and then not following through. And that would not fly in Japan, it sounds like that’s true.


Catherine O’Connell  [18:22]

And you know, working in Japan, and being successful here is all about the long game. There’s no short, quick dash around the block, you’ve really got to be here and invest in relationships. And it will take a long time to do that until you can actually build up enough rapport with somebody to have a business relationship with. So those are a couple of key things I would say.


Steve Fretzin  [18:46]

Yeah, really interesting. So another thing that we had talked about is that whether you know, dealing with a client or dealing with a prospective client that might be might bring in that negotiating is also done differently. Can you explain a little bit about that? Hmm,


Catherine O’Connell  [19:01]

so negotiating, for example, with contracts, right? Japanese contracts, if you ever have actually have one. And in two cases today with two clients, they said we haven’t got a contract, we haven’t had one for 20 years, but the other side have thought about it. And they have been told by their head office in Europe, they need to have one. So not having a contract is quite normal. If you’ve got one, it’s usually quite short and very vague. And it will have things in there like using best endeavours to do something or we will try to reach an amicable arrangement or agreement if something goes wrong. So those things are one of those things as well. Those things are, shall we say quite common in Japan and they don’t translate into other laws. The other thing is that people hardly ever meet face to face. I remember, you know, the days of first being qualified and we would always be meeting lawyers on the other side of the table or on the Well, we didn’t have zoom at that time. But that’s showing my age. So was hardly ever face to face in Japan. So you will usually negotiate things over email. And maybe a phone call, but not often. So that’s quite interesting. And Japan is very centered on paper loves paper. So processes here are very much an exchange of documents over email, for example, and physically posting an email and posting, physically posting a contract, I should say, so that it is signed in person by somebody with waiting. So there’s sort of those kinds of things negotiating is very hard for Japanese, they really don’t like it. They’d rather you just accept something, or that you accept what they’ve said to you. So it’s just difficult. Negotiating.


Steve Fretzin  [20:51]

Got it. And I know that, you know, handshaking and bowing and things, you know, obviously, that’s kind of gone a little bit away. Is that what’s, what’s the, what’s the protocol for that, if you’re at a networking event? Or if things get back to in person? Or how do you deal with with greetings?


Catherine O’Connell  [21:10]

Yeah, so a handshake is acceptable, but it’s not very common, and especially now nobody’s doing it. And so the bowing aspect has actually been quite useful over COVID-19. And that is quite a big cultural thing, and that we are experiencing people at a distance, right. So you will always have a physical distance between you for that. So I think people are getting back to that. And even online, you know, people can’t see you and I now, but at the end of the call, if you are Japanese, I would bow my head to you. And as we leave the call, I will not leave immediately, I will give three seconds, 533 seconds, then I will cut out and especially you need to do that with something like teams, because that zaps off straightaway, right with Zoom, you’ve got leave this meeting, you’ve got another couple of seconds before you find that button. So in the same way that you would end a call in Japan and say goodbye, but leave three seconds before you click, you do that as well on meetings these days as well. So no handshakes still. And I think bowing will continue. And just be really careful when you end a meeting.


Steve Fretzin  [22:18]

I mean, if I’m being honest, I was hoping that Boeing would take off here in the US because I, I’m a bit of a germaphobe, and the handshaking is out of hand. It’s not when it’s in hand, but Right. Right. And, and so like, I would shake someone’s hand, and that’s fine. I’m not going to like, you know, shrink away from it. But then I would be thinking where, you know, how can I get to a bathroom? How can I get to a pure oil, because I don’t know where their hand has been, quite frankly. And now it’s on mine. So now that we’re at zoom, that that that’s all gone away. But now we get back. It’s amazing. I went to a networking event and I was hesitant to give my hand on it. People were throwing their hand in front of me right away. It’s like, like COVID never happened. And I guess we’re just kind of back to back to the first base here.


Catherine O’Connell  [23:04]

Yeah, well, the elbow thing, you know, the exchanging greetings, using elbows, it’s just a little bit awkward. And also, you probably know that business card exchanging here in Japan is very, very common. And so during COVID, 19, when we had the old the odd occasion where we weren’t in a state of emergency, and we could have an in person event, people were very hesitant to actually hand over a business card. And so a lot of that has actually gone digital. And so people are exchanging QR codes or LinkedIn details. And I think that’s been quite a good change, to move away from the business card, or to have a digital business card instead. That may come back. But I think people are very hesitant because of that, that germaphobe you talk about on the cards? Yeah.


Steve Fretzin  [23:47]

Okay. And let’s wrap up Catherine with how do attorneys in the US, Australia, UK, etc. They want to get into the Japanese or the Tokyo market, what’s what’s Any advice for them to if they if they want to do do business in Japan.


Catherine O’Connell  [24:05]

Again, as I said, Before, the long game long, don’t expect to come in and win and do a two hour or a two week meeting and think you’re you’re done and you’re going to get that customer, you’ve really got to work for the customer. And it’s often said that if you can make it in Japan, you can make it anywhere for your products and services. So having a long game being faithful and true. And trying to speak a bit of Japanese is useful. You don’t have to be a master of it. But being acceptable of that, and also of the customs and doing your homework, I mean finding out a little bit more through as I said those chambers of commerce, finding people online who know this stuff have been around for a while someone like me who can advise and help them and help you through that process. But coming in here was just the same expectation you might have for a Western country or indeed for another Asian country is probably not very useful for yourself, right? If you really want to be successful here.


Steve Fretzin  [25:09]

Maybe they can connect with you.


Catherine O’Connell  [25:10]

That’s very possible. That’s very possible. So


Steve Fretzin  [25:13]

if they wanted to connect with you, Katherine, how would they get in touch with you? What’s what’s the what’s the deal?


Catherine O’Connell  [25:18]

Yep. So the best way to get ahold of me is either through my website, you can see me also very prolific plea on LinkedIn. I am running a lawyer on our podcast. So you can see me posting about the podcast there. I think it would be very hard. If you didn’t search my name and cut that would wouldn’t come up. It would be very obvious for you, right? If you do searches, so please check me on the website or else on lawyer on a podcast on LinkedIn.


Steve Fretzin  [25:46]

And I want to tell you how much I appreciate not only you being on the show, but I’m we’re taking we’re taping this at 730 in the morning in Chicago, and I believe 930 at night for you, correct? Yeah, and usually


Catherine O’Connell  [25:56]

10 o’clock is my bedtime. So I’m doing pretty well. But I’m energized and I was looking very much forward to speaking with you as I’ve listened to your podcast for the last year out on my daily strolls with mask on so you’ve been an inspiration and I’ve really enjoyed this. Thank you so much.


Steve Fretzin  [26:13]

Well, thank you, and I appreciate you and appreciate what you do. And you’re sharing your wisdom with my with my audience. It’s, it’s it’s really been fun.


Catherine O’Connell  [26:21]

Thank you very much, Steve. Sure. And hey, everybody,


Steve Fretzin  [26:24]

thank you for spending a few few minutes with Katherine and myself today. You know, look whether you’re interested in getting into business in Japan or not, doesn’t matter. It’s it’s interesting to understand the cultural differences to understand the business development differences and and see how other people are doing business. So listen, you know, the goal is always to be that lawyer, someone who’s confident, organized in a skilled Rainmaker. Take care and be safe everybody be well.


Narrator  [26:57]

Thanks for listening to be that lawyer. Life changing strategies and resources for growing a successful law practice. Visit Steve’s website For additional information, and to stay up to date on the latest legal business development and marketing trends. For more information and important links about today’s episode, check out today’s show notes