Shearmans' Singapore split challenged in court

Shearman & Sterling's former Singapore joint venture firm went to the extraordinary length of applying for a High Court injunction in order to stop the US firm withdrawing from the partnership unilaterally

The Singapore joint venture between Shearmans and local law firm Stamford was formally terminated last week after months of wrangling and Stamford's last-ditch court action.
Shearmans issued an official statement on 31 July concerning the split . It read: “Both parties have concluded their respective strategic objectives can be more effectively achieved as independent firms.”
The year-old joint venture has been troubled almost since its inception. The issue came to a head three weeks ago when Stamford applied to the Singapore High Court for an injunction to restrain Shearmans from unilaterally terminating the joint venture. Both parties filed affidavits and attended a hearing last week.
The case was adjourned when Shearmans gave an undertaking to enter into out-of-court negotiations to terminate the joint venture. Stamford and Shearmans then agreed to terminate the joint venture in a confidential out-of-court settlement and withdrew their affidavits.
The profile of Stamford's senior partner Lee Suet Fern has ensured that the debacle has been played out under the full glare of the press in Singapore. Sources close to the High Court case speak of “a well-managed, professional PR campaign by Stamford”. Shearmans' decision last year to cut its Singapore capital markets practice and transfer lawyers back to the US did not endear the firm to the local press.
Lee is married to the head of SingTel Lee Hsien Yang. Stamford sources said that her connections have brought in far more work for the joint venture than Shearmans' global brand. One Stamford source told The Lawyer: “Shearmans wanted to bypass termination provisions in the joint venture that they drafted. There were costs involved they didn't want.”
However, a source at Shearmans indicated that neither side of the joint venture had generated much work amid the current economic climate. The source said: “There is very little overlap of the practice. The unwinding process is not very complicated and, frankly, will not take long.”
Shearmans' Asia managing partner Whitney Pidot stuck to the line of mutual incompatibility.
He told The Lawyer: “This is a strategic matter. The joint venture structure isn't consistent with Shear-mans' culture and simply wasn't working.”
Pidot reaffirmed Shear-mans' commitment to the region and it is understood that the firm is still keen to locate its Asian arbitration practice in Singapore, despite restrictions on foreign law firms that have led many firms to base arbitration in Hong Kong.
Stamford lawyers said it will be business as usual for the firm.