Clients the winners with liberalisation

The Singapore QFLP licence scheme offers significant opportunities for firms with a long-term view.

This year Norton Rose celebrates thirty years in Singapore. We were one of the first of six recipients of the first round of QFLPs awarded by the Ministry of Law in December 2008. We have been an active participant in the Singapore legal market in the last thirty years, and have witnessed, from 2000 onwards (when the Joint Law Venture (JLV) and Formal Law Alliance (FLA) schemes were introduced), the first steps taken by the government to liberalise the legal services sector.

A second round of QFLP licences brings Singapore further down the road of being a one of a handful of significant global hubs for international legal services. The QFLP scheme is a two-way street which brings Singapore lawyers further into global practice, as well as international lawyers deeper into Singapore practice.The move is further evidence of the government’s policy of continued liberalisation of the legal services sector.

The move also shows that Singapore is capitalising on a major trend in the global legal industry, which is moving from a bi-polar world dominated by London and New York, to a multi-polar world, where success now depends on having significant presence in several key legal hubs across the globe – there are a number of growing “Global Giants”, firms which have significant presence in key legal hubs around the world. In Asia, Singapore is well positioned to be one of a handful of these key legal hubs.

The Norton Rose experience with the QFLP is that it has allowed us the opportunity to provide an enhanced service to our key clients by broadening the range of expertise on offer. In the short term however, this second round of QFLP licences are being issued into an already saturated legal market, so new entrants will have to take a long-term view on the returns from their entry into Singapore.

At a personal level, I joined the Singapore office of Norton Rose in 1999. At that time, the Singapore office was mostly English-qualified lawyers, with only two Singapore-qualified lawyers in the entire office. Today, the ratio is trending towards 50:50 between foreign-qualified lawyers and Singapore-qualified lawyers. Conversely, many Singapore law firms today employ a large number of foreign-qualified lawyers.

There seems to be a convergence between international law firms and Singapore law firms in the sense that both now have lawyers from a mix of nationalities and qualifications in multiple jurisdictions. With the progressive increase in the number of QFLP licence holders, this trend will be more pronounced. Fortunately, anecdotal evidence suggests that the integration of foreign-qualified lawyers into Singapore firms and vice-versa has been relatively smooth.

This convergence will present interesting opportunities for lawyers of junior to middle seniority in Singapore, particularly those who are dual-qualified. These young lawyers will have career options not even in the contemplation of those who graduated just 10 years ago.

KC Lye is a partner in Norton Rose’s Singapore office