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The JOINT venture between Clifford Chance and the Singapore-based Wong Partnership is hanging in the balance after the resignation of a key senior corporate partner.
Suet Fern Lee, who heads a 30-strong corporate department at the Wong Partnership, resigned on 4 October after six years at the firm.
Her departure threatens the joint venture between the UK and Far East firms, which was due to launch under the name of Clifford Chance Wong on 1 November.
Lee was said to have been a key factor in attracting the UK firm to form the partnership.
Lee refuses to comment on her reasons for leaving but confirms she has given notice at the Wong Partnership.
Sources close to Lee say she may be considering moving to Clifford Chance. It is also understood that Freshfields has already shown an interest in Lee.
However, she may be prevented from practising local law under Singapore regulations should she join a foreign practice.
The more likely route would be for Lee to start her own practice, with a view to later entering into a joint venture with one of a number of foreign firms.
John East, managing partner of Clifford Chance Asia, remained tight-lipped concerning Lee's departure, stating only that the firm was closely considering the effects of the resignation.
He says: "She obviously has a number of options open to her."
While still refusing to comment on her future plans, Lee says: "I think Clifford Chance is an absolutely top-rate firm."
The joint venture had been approved by the Singapore attorney general, which had previously turned down a proposal for a full merger of the two law firms.
The Wong Partnership is highly regarded for its litigation capabilities, an area in which Clifford Chance already has expertise.
But the firm is also well known for its corporate and capital markets experience, formerly provided by Lee, which would be a valuable asset to Clifford Chance as it presently lacks strength in that area.
Clifford Chance and the Wong Partnership were approved for a joint venture licence in August along with a number of other firms including Linklaters & Alliance, which is hoping to link up with Allen & Gledhill.
The attorney general's office held five of the licences that nine UK and US law firms applied for (The Lawyer, 17 July). The licences will allow foreign firms to link up with local firms to practise Singapore law.
Lee first joined the Wong Partnership when she merged her own firm, Lee & Lee, into the practice in 1994.
Her major deals have included the $500m (£344m) international placement of Neptune Orient Line and a $1bn (£0.7bn) Singapore government bond issue.