Lee Suet Fern is everything you would expect from a member of the upper echelons of society. Immaculately dressed, attractive and petite with mountains of enthusiasm, first impressions are of an aristocrat rather than one who clinches multimillion pound deals. Her well-connected family background does not dispel the image either: her father was a respected economist, her mother-in-law a senior lawyer and her husband is chief executive officer of SingTel and the son of senior government minister Lee Kuan Yew.
But then Lee is not all that meets the eye. While nothing short of charming and accommodating throughout our meeting, when her family is mentioned, Lee is swift and to the point. Suggestions that her success has been partly due to her family are summarily dismissed.
Certainly, Lee has
had the talent to make it on her own. Most who know her agree she is a formidable lawyer – she established the corporate practice at the Wong Partnership, which until then had been a litigation specialist, and has built up an impressive array of clients. She is, for example, working on the multimillion pound redevelopment of Singapore's harbour for the PSA Corporation, a client that has followed her out of the Wong Partnership. In a country that owes much of its wealth and international standing to its port, a harbour redevelopment is one hell of an important piece of work. PSA is also planning to float this year.
Educated at Cambridge University (where she received a double first in law), Lee qualified as a UK barrister. Returning to her native Singapore, she qualified top of her class. After working at Norton Rose and then associated firm Lee & Lee, she quit after making partnership to set up her own firm, WYTL, in the early 1990s. This is turn merged with Wong Meng Meng's boutique litigation practice to create the Wong Partnership.
Norton Rose's senior partner, David Lewis, has fond memories of Lee. On her return to Singapore, she sent her former department a crate of Chinese jasmine tea. “It took us about two years to drink,” recalls Lewis. He adds: “She is extremely bright, very good and one of these very energetic ladies.”
When she left the Wong Partnership last year (The Lawyer, 9 October), there was intense speculation about where she would resurface. Clifford Chance was a particularly ardent suitor: its joint venture with the Wong Partnership rested largely on Lee and has since collapsed. Freshfields Bruckhaus Deringer was also thought to be in talks and local firms were also interested.
But for Lee there was only one choice: “If I had decided to go to Freshfields or Clifford Chance or Shearman & Sterling, I would not have had the ability to provide a full service under Singapore law. So I set up my own firm.” Stamford, Singapore's first limited liability corporation, came into being last December.
But it has not all been plain sailing. Lee's departure from the Wong Partnership is the subject of litigation and Lee is therefore restricted in what she can say. But she concedes: “[My departure] was very acrimonious and it is still. I did not expect to leave, I expected to be in a joint venture with Clifford Chance. But certain events made it impossible for me to stay. My resignation was a culmination of many things at the Wong Partnership.”
In fact, the case has most of Singapore either involved or simply gripped. Lee took lawyers with her from the Wong Partnership to form Stamford and a host of major league firms are now representing the various parties – Allen & Gledhill, Rajan & Tann and Drew & Napier to name a few. All of which adds to Lee's almost mythical standing in the small, gossipy world of Singapore.
But ultimately, Stamford will have to establish its own reputation based on the old-fashioned benchmarks of clients, profitability and workload. The firm will specialise in international finance and M&A. This has already proved a canny choice as it attracted the attentions of US firm Shearman & Sterling, which last week announced it had agreed on a joint venture with Stamford (The Lawyer, 12 February).
Incidentally, since its inception, Stamford's offices have been next door to Shearmans. So it is fair to say that the announcement of a joint venture is unlikely to come as a surprise to many.
On one level, Shearmans and Stamford make a pretty good match; one already has a sterling reputation in international finance and M&A and the other aims to be one step ahead of the domestic and global firms. Lee adds: “We are looking potentially at a very top tier corporate practice, a very international practice, with opportunities for training and expertise that you are not going to see in the UK firms.”
She intends to recruit aggressively but adds: “It is not my intention to be the biggest, my intention is to be the busiest and most profitable. We have already moved our charge out rates somewhat closer to those of international firms.”
But a senior Singapore source close to both firms believes there is another, more subtle, dimension to the link-up: “The authorities were keen to have a top Wall Street firm in a joint venture and were disappointed they did not get one. They thought the UK was well represented but felt we needed greater participation from a top tier New York firm.”
Although Stamford will centre on international work, Lee remains dedicated to the Singapore market. So dedicated, in fact, that she is embarking on something of a marketing campaign on behalf of the country. “There are a bunch of good technology companies that are looking to go to Hong Kong or Nasdaq,” she says. “We want to persuade them either to come to Singapore as an alternative or do a dual listing.”
One senior UK lawyer is in no doubt that Lee, once she sets her mind to it, can do anything, even tell companies where they should list. As he enthuses: “She is seriously high quality as a lawyer, it is a high quality product she produces and she cares.”
With Singapore already eating out of Lee's hand, and now with the might of Shearman & Sterling behind her, do not be surprised if the international market succumbs too. n