Meet our next leading lawyer and entrepreneur: Karen Yamamoto, Co-Founder of Executive Counsel Group. Read on for Karen's journey in law and some excellent advice for new lawyers at the beginning of their careers (well really for any lawyer!)
1. Tell me a little about your practice or business.
I started my business with a colleague twelve years ago with the desire to help small to medium sized businesses who had all the typical legal issues that companies encounter but could not afford to hire full time legal counsel or the senior level external counsel fees. We wanted to fill that gap by offering senior level, flexible and cost-effective legal services. Over the past 12 years, I have helped companies of all sizes, in English, French and Japanese, as temporary on or off-site legal counsel or as their ad-hoc advisor in commercial law (specializing in privacy and technology). I’m called to the Ontario and Quebec bars and have been fortunate in the first half of my career to have worked in a wide variety of companies and industries in both Toronto and Montreal. I’ve worked at multi-national law firms, the multi-disciplinary law firm of Donahue Ernst and Young, innovative start up tech companies as well as large pharmaceutical companies. The variety kept me nimble and adaptable to different industries, work cultures, personalities and mandates. I didn’t realize it at the time but it prepared me well for the kind of services I offer today.
2. Why did you go to law school?
When I was in my last year of the physiology program at McGill University, the faculty of law visited our faculty to tell us about how the world needed lawyers with science backgrounds. After completing my science degree and a year off to travel and live in Japan, I realized that the world of law appealed to me more than the sciences. As an immigrant who did not speak English or French when I first arrived in Canada, I experienced and abhorred injustice and discrimination. The idea of being able to somehow combine my interest in science, the power of words, sense of justice and the ability to make a real and positive difference greatly appealed to me and I applied for law school during my year in Japan.
3. How did you get to where you are today? Design? Chance? Both?
Both. If the faculty of law had not made the presentation to the science students that day, I likely would have looked at alternative careers in science. Chance put people on my life path who influenced and/or supported me towards my career path - family, friends, community and business colleagues. But starting my own business was definitely by design so that I could have the type of practice and clients I wanted, charge the fees I wanted and have the flexibility I craved.
4. What is your most significant achievement? What are you proud of?
Since I am part of the first generation to have attended university on my father’s side, I am proud of having become a lawyer and having worked at top tier firms and companies. However, I am most proud of having launched my own business on my own terms while remaining a very involved parent. There were a lot of naysayers who said my business model would not work and that I shouldn’t leave my “secure” job. I took a leap of faith despite my risk-averse nature and I am so glad that I did. It is incredibly rewarding to be able to contribute even in a small way to the success of a company whether the client is a 3 person company or a multinational organization. For example, I’ve helped multinational companies build robust privacy programs from conception to launch and also helped a young female entrepreneur successfully launch her technology platform in the male-dominated world of tech. I feel very invested in and loyal to my clients and feel the same from my long-time clients.
5. What are some key challenges, and more importantly, opportunities for women in law?
I experienced gender discrimination earlier in my career when I worked in big law firms. I believe the issues that women face in big law firms tend to be more entrenched. Since I started my own business, gender discrimination is extremely rare and more times than not, I find being a woman has probably contributed to my success. My clients are looking for results and appreciate me for my collaborative and creative approach.
Work life balance remains my biggest challenge but I find it gets easier as I (and the children) get older. It’s interesting to see that the majority of people volunteering at my children’s schools are women despite their full time careers. I have found over the years that the traits that I and a lot of my female friends and colleagues have are advantageous traits to have as a lawyer: community-minded, caring, reliable, collaborative, consensus building, multitasking and engaged. The majority of my clients are repeat, loyal and respectful clients. I strongly believe that these traits contribute greatly to strong, trusting and enduring relationships with clients.
6. What advice would you give a woman starting her legal career?
Thank you Karen for sharing your story and for your valuable advice and takeaway tips.
I started this blog series because I was tired of hearing about women leaving law and wanted to hear about women leading in law. The "Women Leading in Law" series focuses on good news stories and highlights amazing women succeeding in the legal profession. Each post includes the profiled lawyer's answers to six questions. Prepare to be inspired!
ICYMI - previous posts profiled the following amazing lawyers: Victoria Crewe-Nelson, Lynne Vicars, Kemi Oduwole, Anne-Marie McElroy, Jennifer Gold, Jordana Goldlist, Megan Keenberg, Yadesha Satheaswaran, France Mahon, Sarah Molyneaux, Richa Sandill, Vivene Salmon, Kim Whaley, Alisia Grenville, Frances Wood, Maggie Wente, Anita Szigeti, Neha Chugh, Christy Allen & Nancy Houle, Suzie Seo, Kim Gale, Alexi Wood, Melissa McBain, Erin Best, Gillian Hnatiw, Melanie Sharman Rowand, Meg Chinelo Egbunonu, Lisa Jean Helps, Nathalie Godbout Q.C., Laurie Livingstone, Renatta Austin, Janis Criger, May Cheng, Nicole Chrolavicius, Charlene Theodore, Dyanoosh Youssefi, Shannon Salter, Bindu Cudjoe, Elliot Spears, Jessica Prince, Anu K. Sandhu, Claire Hatcher, Esi Codjoe, Kate Dewhirst, Jennifer Taylor, Rebecca Durcan, Atrisha Lewis, Vandana Sood, Kathryn Manning, Kim Hawkins, Kyla Lee, and Eva Chan.
Erin C. Cowling is a freelance litigator, researcher & writer at Cowling Legal Freelance and President and Founder of Flex Legal Network Inc., a network of freelance lawyers.