Brief encounter: Watson Farley

A little more than two years ago, Watson Farley & Williams bought itself a chunk of the competitive Singapore legal market when it purchased Sinclair Roche & Temperley’s operation for an undisclosed, but “substantial” sum.

Although two years is a short time in today’s ever-churning legal profession, that purchase could well have been one of the shipping expert’s more canny moves. Since September 1998, it has bolstered the office with several significant lateral hires and is one of the most profitable of all the firm’s offices.

Sinclair Roche’s Singapore operation consisted of 10 lawyers: Neale Gregson, Steven Burkill and Stuart McAlpine joined as partners, with managing partner Stephen Fordham coming on board as a consultant.

International finance partner Nigel Thomas is the current Singapore head, joining the firm from Lazard Brothers. After making partner in 1988 he went to the now defunct Oslo office, before returning to London in 1993 and then heading off to Singapore in 1998.

In February this year, leading practitioner Barry Irwin joined from top Australian firm Allens Arthur Robinson to head the corporate practice. A month later, French firm Klein-Goddard’s Singapore office collapsed after its corporate practice, headed by partner Diane Mullenex, quit for Watson Farley.

This exercise in lawyer recruitment is a timely one. The Singapore legal market is benefiting from the region’s economic recovery and the market is opening up to overseas firms for the first time, permitting joint ventures between domestic and international practices. Watson Farley has not applied for a joint venture licence, but if it reconsiders its position, it could be an attractive proposition for any domestic firm looking to hook up with a foreign practice.

The office practises four main areas of law: project finance and syndicated lending; shipping and ship finance; litigation, arbitration and dispute resolution; and corporate finance and company commercial. It is one of five Watson Farley overseas offices, its other operations being in Paris, New York, Moscow and Piraeus, although it also has associated offices in Jeddah and Riyadh.

But Singapore has been particularly strong since it joined the Watson Farley fold. This year the firm reported profits per partner of £210,000 and a turnover of £42.5m – up £2m on the previous year. Insiders claim that the overseas offices were responsible for half of the firm’s total business, with Singapore being the jewel in the crown.

The office competes against other UK shipping specialists such as Clyde & Co, Holman Fenwick & Willan, Ince & Co, Norton Rose, Stephenson Harwood and Thomas Cooper & Stibbard, all of which have a Singapore base. But with six partners and a total of 28 lawyers, it is by far one of the biggest UK offices in the region.

The firm has a balanced shipping practice, acting for the banks, owners, shipyards and protection and indemnity (P&I) clubs. It has traded on this in Singapore, although it has also added a few unique touches, such as ship mortgage enforcement and pioneering private treaty sales as opposed to public auctions.