Not every firm can hire a full-time lawyer, but legal support is a must in today’s business world. Catherine O’Connell, Entrepreneur of the Year at the 2020 British Business Awards, founded a boutique law firm that is unique in the Japan market. She provides bilingual, commercially savvy and experienced in-house services—as well as flexible outside general counsel services—to small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) and corporates on a part-time or project basis. Working with Catherine O’Connell Law is like having a business lawyer in your back pocket for on-demand legal needs. What lies ahead in 2021? We asked how she is succeeding and what changes she sees on the legal landscape.
What are the entrepreneurial skills that sealed the BBA win for you?
Instrumental are ambition and vision; collaboration and listening; and systems and processes. Ambition helped me to visualise my targets and improve after each difficulty. Instincts serve me well, but I couldn’t have success without listening to clients, discovering what they expect of me and observing what other successful entrepreneurs do well. Most critical are my systems and processes. Law firms typically don’t have standard operating procedures, but I do—for my operations, accounting and e-invoicing, hiring and marketing. I also invest in constant learning and sharing and am further developing ways to do law differently and inspire others.
How are lawyers adapting their services to the pandemic?
Lawyers are renowned for being rooted in tradition and resistant to change. Since the onset of the Covid-19 pandemic, the legal industry has had its hand forced and is making shifts in response. It’s important for consumers of legal services to see the opportunities arising and understand unfolding trends as they plan their slate of legal milestones for this year.
What are the trends to watch for in 2021?
Circumstances remain largely uncertain, but here are 10 trends which I believe will shape delivery of legal services.
❶ Recalibrated fees and hybrid services
The 2020 Legal Trends Report, published by Clio, suggests people want flexibility and transparency in the pricing and cost of legal services. Reduced overheads for lawyers working remotely should have a positive knock-on for legal fees. Client expectations will also give rise to hybrid models where issues requiring bespoke solutions at hourly bread-and-butter billing rates will sit alongside bundled services—productised packaged services offered at a reasonable, capped price.
❷ Foreign lawyers in international arbitration cases
The easing last year of Japan’s registered foreign lawyer (gaiben) rules will allow gaiben to represent in international arbitration cases, where governing law is not Japan. If your contract is subject to the Laws of England and Wales and you face an arbitration, it is possible to hire a gaiben to help in 2021.
❸ Micro niches and cross-pollination
Clio data suggests that clients prefer targeted services, and there is a move—especially among the SME-sized law firms and solos—to micro niches, targeting an area of expertise to be the go-to specialist for specific client segments. Lawyers were forced to adapt to tech in 2020, and 2021 will be the year for micro-niches, demand for specialised legal services and collaboration among micro-niched lawyers.
❹ Use of AI, bots and non-lawyers
McKinsey reports an estimated 23% of a lawyer’s job can be automated, and Gartner is forecasting that 50% of legal transactional work will be automated by 2024. This year, we will see an increase in firms using their virtual personality (e.g., chatbots), utilising online intake forms, creating client payment portals, adopting legal process management for systematic workflows and creating voice search for potential clients doing research on the internet. Non-lawyers, such as specialist legal translators, are also leveraging artificial intelligence to offer services previously done exclusively inside the firm.
❺ Self-help portals and digitisation
This year will bring about implementation of dedicated online self-help client portals behind two-step authentications where clients can access digital documents.
The Japanese government has begun creating an agency tasked with promoting digitisation, so we can assume that the digital reform agenda of Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga will excel in 2021.
❻ Black sheep lawyers’ thought leadership
Standing out from the herd, “black sheep” lawyers—those who have a niche and share practical advice, thought leadership and life stories based on actual case studies—will rise in 2021. According to the American Bar Association’s 2016 Legal Technology Survey Report, more than 93% of lawyers use LinkedIn. If a black sheep crosses your path on LinkedIn—or through blogs and podcasts—follow, connect and interview them for prospective work, because they are interestingly different.
❼ Data privacy reforms in a post-Brexit UK
On 25 December, 2020, Japan’s Personal Information Protection Commission published the draft amendment to the Personal Information Protection Act, due to become law in 2022. Changes include:
- When and how organisations make data breach reports
- Broadening of rights to request cease
of use and erasure of data
- Increased fines
- Additional consent required before
cross-border transfer of data
Due to Brexit, the UK is now a “third country” under the European Union’s General Data Protection Regulation. Until the UK is granted an adequacy decision, it’s important that people seek legal advice to ensure compliance with relevant rules.
❽ Cybersecurity and governance for SMEs
Until the pandemic is brought fully under control, we can expect work from home to persist well into 2021. According to the chief information security officer at iManage LLC, a leading provider of work product management solutions for law firms: “The Fortune 10 have loads of resources to devote toward securing their IT infrastructures. The most vulnerable will be ‘the Fortune 490’ and small to mid-size businesses”. With more than 95% of businesses in Japan being SMEs, business owners should ensure that remote workers remain vigilant around security and governance measures, such as storing data in properly secured and governed document management systems, not on their local hard drive.
❾ Recent Antimonopoly Act (AMA) amendment
Changes to Japan’s AMA came into force on 25 December, 2020 and there are two parts:
- A new “reduction system” that lowers the rate of fines based on the degree of cooperation with Japan Fair Trade Commission investigations
- A new limited “Japanese attorney–client privilege” that, broadly, makes certain documents eligible for privilege
➓ Broader commitment—for ESG, D&I and lawyer wellbeing
As businesspeople increasingly concentrate on environmental, social, and corporate governance (ESG) as well as diversity and inclusion (D&I) on their suppliers’ scorecards, law firms’ commitment to ESG and D&I are not escaping attention. ESG law is a hot topic and a micro-niche area in which firms provide ESG risk assessment, primarily hiring non-lawyer sustainability consultants with which to partner. My personal hope is that we will see an increase in lawyers delivering law differently through flexible legal services and client-centricity this year, and for law firms to genuinely address the D&I gaps. It’s also my hope for law firm owners to look after their lawyers’ wellbeing. Clio says 75% of lawyers report always working outside business hours, and nearly 50% say this negatively affects their personal lives.
Hope for better times ahead
No one wishes for 2021 to be encumbered with the pandemic, but the challenges of 2020 provided opportunities for lawyers to innovate legal service delivery and to build back even better for consumers of legal services. Keeping an eye on potential trends can only help us to manage and survive whatever this year brings.