Singapore firms flex regional muscle

UK firms such as Olswang, Taylor Wessing and Withers may have been making a splash in Singapore, but a number of the city-state’s domestic players are also unveiling their pan-Asia ambitions.

Lee Eng Beng
Lee Eng Beng

‘Big Four’ Singapore firm Rajah & Tann is a case in point, having recently expanded into Vietnam and Thailand with the launch of offices in Ho Chi Minh City and Bangkok. The firm now has more than 320 lawyers, including 101 partners, across Bangkok, Ho Chi Minh City, Kuala Lumpur, Shanghai, Singapore and Vientiane (Laos).

Rajah & Tann managing partner Lee Eng Beng revealed that Cambodia and Indonesia are next on the firm’s expansionist hit list.

“This part of the world has experienced phenomenal growth over the past two years while Western economies are facing some real issues,” said Lee. “We took the decision two years ago to build up our presence across Asia and to create an Asian brand that can compete with the international names that are making their way to the world’s fastest growing region.”

The growing scale, wealth and investment needs of Asia-based corporations have created a significant amount of work and mandates for Singaporean firms. The increasing volume of intra-Asian transactions, and contentious matters in particular, is widely cited as the main driver behind ­Singaporean firms’ regional push.

“Prior to the global financial crisis the markets and deals were mainly fuelled by funds coming from the West. But now we’ve seen a surge in intra-Asian investments and transactions,” said Lee, who has witnessed more Japanese, Chinese and ­Korean companies investing in Vietnam, Indonesia, India and even the Middle East. “Clients in some of the emerging parts of Asia are underserved by ­international firms. We can carve a niche in these markets.”

Revenue from regional and international work makes up about 25 per cent of Rajah & Tann’s total ­revenue, but that is expected to double in five years if the regional expansion strategy goes to plan.

Shook Lin & Bok senior counsel and partner Vinodh Coomaraswamy echoes Lee on the growing level of intra-Asian opportunities for Singaporean firms, but takes a different approach when it comes to developing a pan-Asia practice. The model mainly involves bringing experienced lawyers from other Asian jurisdictions to work out of Singapore.

The firm, which is Singapore’s sixth largest, has a total of 85 lawyers including 36 partners. In its single Singapore office there are established Association of Southeast Asian Nations, China, India and English practice groups.

In August the firm appointed veteran China-qualified corporate lawyer Henry Tang from Yingke. He joined as a partner and relocated from China to ­Singapore. In addition, Shook Lin & Bok is in the early stages of negotiating an alliance with a Chinese law firm and setting up desks for Vietnam and Indonesia practices.

“We’re expanding our regional practices because of the growing strength and wealth of Asia-based ­companies and investors,” said Coomaraswamy. “For example, Singapore is ­Vietnam’s number-one source of ­foreign direct investment, but the money isn’t always from Singapore.

“Asian and international companies are increasingly using Singapore as an investment platform for ­the rest of Asia. In many ways it’s easier to capture top-tier Vietnamese work in Singapore than in Hanoi or Ho Chi Minh City.”

The recent expansion is also considered to be local firms’ response to increased competition from foreign outfits. Currently 100 ­foreign firms have a presence in Singapore and six global firms have a license to practise Singapore law.

“Major Singapore firms like us are pushing out into the region in anticipation of increased domestic competition from international firms,” said Coomaraswamy.

Lee is also mindful of the competition, but he believes strongly that Singaporean firms’ lower cost base and international firm quality, combined with home ­advantage, will facilitate their growth in the region.

“Being a regional brand in Asia is appealing to many Asian clients,” he said. “It just shows everyone that this part of the world is our ­primary and most important market, and this is where we can offer a ­better value proposition to both clients and lawyers.”