Tamzin Hindmarch meets Field Fisher Waterhouse’s new corporate partner Teruo Kato, a one-time banker who fell in love with the law and is now the City’s only Japanese partner
When Teruo Kato left the land of the rising sun for a year abroad in the land of rain and clouds, the young economics student had no idea that after 14 years in banking, he would one day return to England to become the City’s only Japanese national partner.
Three weeks after leaving his consultancy post at Richards Butler to join Field Fisher Waterhouse’s corporate department (The Lawyer, 1 May) Kato recalls his experiences as a 21-year-old studying at the London School of Economics.
“I arrived in Britain in September and the weather on the first day was beautiful, but from the second day onwards it was so miserable and I did not understand what anybody was talking about,” he says.
After returning from London and graduating from Tokyo’s Hitotsubashi University, Kato spent 14 years at the Nippon Credit Bank where he trained and practised general banking.
But fate, under the guise of a transfer from Tokyo, brought him back to the UK to become senior manager at the bank’s London branch, specialising in property, real estate financing and foreign investment in Europe.
At that time, Japanese banks were going from strength to strength. He says: “It was a very exciting time to be working here and I made my name very quickly as a property financier.”
However, he adds: “Of course things did not go well all the time and sometimes it was very difficult trying to recover money which had been lent. In the process of lending money, as well as getting it back, I was increasingly coming into contact with lawyers.”
It was while Kato was carrying out research on behalf of Japanese customers wanting to set up offices in the UK that he first came into contact with Christopher Bond, now head of financial services at Field Fisher, and “a youngster” called Mark Abell, now head of intellectual property at the firm. At that time, more than a third of his work involved the firm. Abell says: “I first met Teruo 15 years ago when he was working in London for Nippon Credit Bank and we got on really well. I remember being struck by his very clear views on the way lawyers should service the needs of their international clients, his great sense of humour and his passion for motorcycles.”
Kato says: “When I had run out of excuses to stay at my London branch of the bank, I thought ‘I have worked for this bank for 14 years and I have put all the interests of the bank ahead of my own, perhaps now it’s time to start thinking about what I want to do with the rest of my life.’”
Kato left the bank to “see a bit more of the world”. But his travel plans were put on hold during the recession eight years ago as former bank clients began to ask him for advice.
“So many friends and ex-customers had been struggling with negative equity, and the banks were pressurising them. They did not know what to do.
“They came to me asking for help.They wanted to be given breathing space to recover their losses.”
Kato’s consultancy role soon became a lucrative business and seven years ago Richards Butler offered him a permanent post as an adviser.
He says: “Richards Butler had closed its Tokyo office but still wanted to show that despite this, the firm as a whole should be seen to be continuing with its Japanese projects.
“Soon the clients started asking me directly for my view and I had to tell them I couldn’t help as I was not a qualified lawyer.”
Increasingly fascinated by the legal profession, he decided to become a lawyer himself.
Kato attended evening classes at London Guildhall University to complete his Common Professional Examination (CPE) and his Legal Practice Course (LPC). During this time, he led a chaotic double life.
He says: “Because I was getting on a bit, I decided to take the full-time LPC course and continue to work full-time, too. So during the morning coffee breaks at 10am, I would nip to the loo and get out my mobile phone to see if there were any messages.
“If there were, I would ring the office to let them know, then slip back into class. As soon as my lectures had finished, I’d dash back to the firm and read my mail,” he says, laughing.
Kato remained at Richards Butler to complete his articles, qualifying as a solicitor in England and Wales in 1997. But he decided to jump ship to his current post at Field Fisher.
He says there were many reasons for moving: “Some 15 years ago, my perception of it [Field Fisher] was as just a few lawyers who had helped me, but its profile has become much larger recently and one day I realised how many of the clients operated in the fields I deal with and how best my clients could be served.”
He believes his existing contacts in Japan – both in banking and legal circles – will be of benefit to his new firm.
While Kato obviously maintains strong links with Japan through his work, he has no intention of returning to Tokyo to gain dual qualification.
“What I have done here is not unique, but many Japanese nationals tend to return to Tokyo where there is serious money to be made. It’s a pity because although the number of Japanese companies and business communities here may be smaller now, there is still a significant number who need help so I have said I will stay here.
“There is a certain perception in the banking world that you have to be young to do deals. But I know that what I have learned and experienced in the past can be passed on to other people through working for a City firm.”
Field Fisher Waterhouse