We live in changing times. The legal community in Singapore continues to grow, evolve and move forward. Things are different from five years ago, and things will no doubt be different again in another five years.
There were virtually no foreign lawyers working in Singapore 40 years ago, while today there are well over 150 of us, and the number grows almost weekly. There are now more than 60 offshore law firms represented in Singapore. When we first considered establishing an office here in the early 1990s, we understood the waiting period for a licence was well over a year. Today, the Attorney General here is extremely responsive and in line with the government’s policy of developing Singapore as a leading international financial centre in the region, the legal services sector finds that licences for further offshore firms are granted swiftly and individual employment passes for lawyers from outside Singapore come through very quickly.
This year has seen the long-awaited Legal Profession (Amendment) Act, which allows foreign firms to forge joint ventures – aimed at the finance and financial services sector, or alternatively looser associations – with Singapore law firms. Unlike the current exclusion of all lawyers (including Singapore-qualified lawyers) within offshore law firms from advising on Singapore law, lawyers within the joint ventures will be able to practise Singapore law.
Indications were that an initial five joint ventures would be allowed, and after a lot of talking and crystal ball gazing among the law firms here, there was a modest oversubscription of applications on the June 2000 closing date. The government increased the number of licences granted from five, and on 10 August announced that seven joint ventures would commence in the new year. Five were granted to UK firms (four of them magic circle) and two to US firms. Perhaps the unlucky one was Clifford Chance, one of the seven whose joint venture with the Wong Partnership almost immediately collapsed when Lee Suet Fern, one of Singapore’s leading corporate lawyers (believed to be the prime mover behind the plans), resigned from the Wong Partnership. In Australia, the Law Council expressed unhappiness that no Australian firms were granted licences – Freehills and Alban Tay Mahtani & de Silva applied for a joint venture and were turned down, but proceeded with a formal alliance.
So what will it all mean? Too early to say. The commitment of several of the larger Singapore law firms to exclusive joint venture arrangements cannot fail to change things. No doubt some of the joint ventures will be great successes, but one or two will probably end in tears. Some of the offshore and Singapore firms that opted to do nothing just yet will in due course feel that their decision was correct, while others will regret not having done something earlier.
Whatever happens, Singapore undoubtedly will continue to be a very interesting and stimulating business environment for the international firms to operate both in and from. The handful of extremely international Singapore companies continue to grow in influence and aggression, both regionally and internationally. There will be hiccups – Singapore Telecom has not had a particularly good year, with two significant setbacks to its strategy of regional expansion, particularly the embarrassing rejection of its bid for Cable and Wireless HKT in favour of Pacific Century CyberWorks, but a few months later that rejection does not look so unfortunate. Many people saw this setback as having a strong political dimension, with SingTel controlled by Temasek, the Singapore government’s investment company. But Singapore, both at government and corporate levels, will continue to be a quick learner and a pragmatic operator, and for the effective and fleet-footed law firms there will be plenty of opportunities, both in the powerful economy of Singapore and the recovering – but very varied – economies around it in South East Asia.
Nigel Thomas is managing partner of Watson Farley & Williams‘ Singapore office.