Singapore opens doors to foreign firm joint ventures

The legal market in the Far East is set to boom following a new proposal by Singapore's Attorney General to allow foreign law firms to enter into joint ventures with local lawyers.

His report, due out in the next few weeks, is expected to allow the joint ventures to practise all areas of law.

Singapore started on the path to liberalising the legal profession in September 1997, when a committee, chaired by the Attorney General, was appointed by the government to look into the matter.

Proposed joint ventures will have to submit business plans and approval will be based on a list of criteria, including a commitment to promote Singapore law and to transfer technology and skills to local lawyers.

Foreign lawyers will continue to be barred from acting in litigation, although they can conduct arbitration in Singapore if the matter is concerned with any law other than Singapore law.

The report is being welcomed by foreign lawyers in Singapore, although their enthusiasm is tempered by suggestions that the number of firms to be allowed to enter into joint ventures is likely to be very limited.

Denton Hall's international managing partner David Moroney complains that issuing a limited number of licences “hardly represents free-market competition”.

A survey conducted by a local newspaper found that 60 per cent of Singapore lawyers were not worried that foreign lawyers would take work away from them.

This shows a radical shift in the mind-set of local lawyers. In 1997, many feared direct competition with foreign lawyers would affect their incomes.

One local lawyer says: “The regional crisis has really opened up our eyes. In order to survive, we cannot remain in a shell.”

George Crozer, White & Case's Hong Kong executive partner, says: “Many Asian firms in the market are beginning to think in the same way as German and other European firms. If they don't become part of a global network, they run the risk of being marginalised.”

Coudert Brothers has poached the managing counsel of Rogers & Wells'

Singapore office, Servane Bonnet-Esculier.

See analysis, page 12-13>