Asia Pacific 150: Singapore: Magnetic south

Everyone wants in on bustling South East Asia, but the region’s top firms are hanging onto their independence for now

Singapore and the high-growth South East Asia region more widely has truly been at the centre of the attention of the international legal fraternity in the past few years. This is due both to Singapore’s further liberation of its legal sector and the region’s strong economic growth. 

At the beginning of last year Singapore took a series of measures to liberalise its legal services industry with the enactment of the Legal Professional Amendments Act. The new act gives foreign firms greater flexibility to collaborate with local counterparts and share profits, and allows a new round of Qualifying Foreign Law Practice (QFLP) licences to be granted. 

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A foot in the door

Following the regulatory changes, four international firms out of 23 applicants were awarded a QFLP licence in February. The new additions, Gibson Dunn & Crutcher, Jones Day, Linklaters and Sidley Austin, pushed the total number of QFLP licensees to 10.

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In addition, it has made it easier for foreign QCs to appear in Singaporean courts. This, together with Singapore’s growing status as a leading international arbitration seat, has attracted a number of London sets to expand into the city-state, including Stone Chambers, One Essex Court, 39 Essex Street, 20 Essex Street and Essex Court Chambers.

Firms that have missed out on the second round of QFLPs are quick to adopt a Plan B for their Singapore expansion. Stephenson Harwood, for example, has recently signed an exclusive referral association with Singapore’s Virtus Law.

Clifford Chance, one of the first six firms to obtain a QFLP in 2008, has also taken advantage of the new rules to establish a formal law alliance (FLA) with Singapore litigation boutique Cavenagh Law. 

Lone sharks

Although more foreign firms are coming into the market and being given wider scope to tap into the local and regional market, the leading Singaporean firms continue to increase their market shares.

Last year, two of the big four Singaporean firms attracted heavy-weight international suiters wanting a merger. But both ended without success. 

First, there was Allen & Overy’s failed gambit with the country’s largest law firm, Allen & Gledhill (A&G). The two announced their exploratory talks about a possible combination in November 2011 but called off the talks after failing to agree terms in March 2012. During the process A&G also ended its
decade-long joint law venture with Linklaters.

A&G has since appointed corporate partner Lee Kim Shin as managing partner, taking over from Lucien Wong, who has taken up a newly created role as chairman and senior partner. The firm says it will remain a leading independent Singapore law firm and maintain its longstanding relations with law firms worldwide. Most recently, it has revealed that it is developing a serious South East Asia practice and is looking at Myanmar as an important first step. 

WongPartnership is the second firm to have engaged in merger talks. The firm is said to have been in talks with King & Wood Mallesons for over a year. Just a week before the tie-up was about to be announced, WongPartnership walked away from the deal in February due to difficulties in agreeing financial terms. 

It is interesting to note that Clifford Chance and WongPartnership were in a joint law venture (JLV)
relationship for six years. The
arrangement terminated when Clifford Chance applied for a QFLP licence in 2009.

For now, it seems WongPartnership will pursue its regional strategy as an independent firm. In a bid to have a solid leadership structure for future growth it appointed Rachel Eng and corporate head Ng Wai King as joint managing partners in April 2013. This is the first time the firm has introduced joint managing partner roles.

In contrast to its two rivals, Rajah & Tann decided to remain independent from early on and has had a clear regional goal since 2009. The firm’s network covers Cambodia, China, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, Myanmar, Singapore, Thailand and Vietnam, giving it a presence in eight of the 10 member states of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN).

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 Singapore’s legal market at a glance

Number of foreign law firms: 


Number of foreign lawyers: 


Number of local law firms: 


Number of local lawyers: 


Total number of new cases handled by Singapore International Arbitration
Centre (2012): 


Total sum in disputes of new
cases handled by Singapore International Arbitration Centre (2012): 


Source: The Law Society of Singapore, Singapore International Arbitration Centre

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