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PROFESSIONAL SERVICES/LEGAL | Alpha Bierneza, Singapore
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Singapore's 25 largest law firms in 2017

Regional demand provides opportunities for law firms.

Notable changes happened in 2016, including the setting up of a unified One Judiciary IT Steering Committee and the Technology Blueprint for courts.

As 2016 unfolded, Singapore’s largest law firms saw their international clients shifting their focus on winning in Southeast Asia and the larger Asia Pacific region. Stuttering economic growth and surprising global events in the past year convinced more clients to seek cross-border advice from local firms, and leverage on the latter’s regional expertise to ride out the uncertainty.

“There was a greater demand for advice on cross-border debt restructuring as clients sought to deal with the economic headwinds,” says K Anparasan, partner at Withers
KhattarWong
. “Surprises presented by global events in the past year, such as the outcomes of the UK’s Brexit referendum and the US elections, also contributed to an increase in
demand for cross-border advice.” He adds, “Clients with investments overseas, or plans to invest overseas, are increasingly looking for international law firms with a strong local presence and expertise in the jurisdictions they are investing in.”

In response to a client landscape that placed greater value in regional prowess, KhattarWong grew two practices: Corporate and Hotels & Hospitality. The existing corporate team was expanded through the hires of well recognised partners Farhana Siddiqui and Mahesh Kumar in 2016. KhattarWong also expanded their presence in the region with the appointment of the Hotels & Hospitality team. In early 2016, the law firm began with the strategic hire of lawyers specialising in hotels and hospitality in Singapore and Australia, led by Asia Pacific Hotels & Hospitality leader Robert Williams.

Recent milestones for the practice include acting for Marriott International on its appointment to operate the first JW Marriott and EDITION hotels in Singapore. It also represented Pro-invest Hotels Group on its groundbreaking fund developing Holiday Inn Express branded hotels in Australia and New Zealand, which involved working with franchisor InterContinental Hotels Group’s Singapore regional head office.

“Despite the downturn in the global economy in 2016, the region continued to see large amounts of economic activity and, operating from the regional hub, Singapore’s legal sector is increasingly involved in regional work,” says Anparasan. 

“The expansion allows us to offer our clients advice from Singapore on cross-border investments involving many countries, including the United Kingdom, India, Indonesia, and other parts of Southeast Asia.”

Tremendous prospects
Falling commodity prices and China’s economic slowdown further dampened the outlook in 2016, but clients continued to see opportunities in the region and call for legal and professional services.

“There were tremendous prospects in the region as well as those arising from technology and socioeconomic changes,” says Azman Jaafar, deputy managing partner
at RHTLaw Taylor Wessing
. “Our active presence in ASEAN (Association of Southeast Asian Nations) kept us busy since the beginning of the year.”

He cites a few key themes in 2016: Chinese funds looking at mergers and acquisitions activities outside of China, Indonesia’s recent easing of foreign investment restrictions, and Vietnam’s emergence as one of the fastest-growing markets in the world. Amongst the sectors, life sciences, technology, and cleantech industries were teeming with opportunities. 

Keeping up with these deal trends, RHTLaw Taylor Wessing strengthened their regional crossborder practice through the merger with PBC PARTNERS & RHTLaw to form RHTLaw Taylor Wessing Vietnam, which was launched in June 2016. Jaafar reckons the merger was aligned with the ASEAN Economic Community Blueprint 2025, which aims to develop a a cohesive ASEAN community integrated with the global economy.

The law firm also boosted their presence in Hong Kong and Greater China through an official association with local firm H.M. Chan & Co in Hong Kong in July 2016. Jaafar says
the association with H.M. Chan & Co should create “unprecedented opportunities for cross-border collaboration between Hong Kong and Greater China, and the rest of our ASEAN offices.”

These recent moves to boost regional expertise further builds on the firm’s launch of the ASEAN Plus Group (APG) in 2014. The APG is made up of leading law firms from 12 lucrative markets in the region: Singapore, Cambodia, Hong Kong, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, Myanmar, Philippines, South Korea, Taiwan, Thailand, and Vietnam.

After a turbulent 2016 that brought regional opportunities into heightened focus, the next 12 months should steer Singapore’s largest law firms to assist clients in distress and
those that are on digital frontier of financial technology (fintech). 

“There may be increased activity in the insolvency-related practice areas due to continued stress in the oil & gas, real estate, and shipping sectors, says Amit Dhume, partner, funds and financial services at Colin Ng & Partners. “Fintech is gaining traction in Singapore as well, and areas of law linked to this sector will benefit.”

Thriving in 2017
This year will bring on robust demand for legal services pertaining to fintech, specifically in the development of ecommerce and eBanking, mobile payments, crowd investing, and other innovative payment solutions, says Sandra Seah, joint managing partner at Bird & Bird ATMD LLP. “Fintech will continue to be a hot topic,” says Seah. “Lawyers will be grappling with the same issues that the financial services industry is facing as a result of disruptive digital technologies emerging in a highly connected world.” With fintech’s

expected acceleration, the startup scene in Singapore and the rest of the region is also expected to remain active. Seah reckons angels, startups, research and development institutes, and technopreneurs will be rushing to seek legal advice on collaborations, protection of intellectual property, and fundraising regulations.

Philip Jeyaretnam, SC, global vice chair & CEO, Dentons Rodyk, cites technology as a means to improve the quality of legal services. “CJ Sundaresh Menon established
the Courts of the Future Taskforce to undertake a strategic study on harnessing technology to enhance the administration of justice. This has resulted in the setting up of a unified
One Judiciary IT Steering Committee and the Technology Blueprint for the courts over the next five years,” he says. In 2016, his firm finalised the merge with global law firm Dentons, transforming into Dentons Rodyk.

As for new regulation, Jeyaretnam says, “New Mediation Act will make international commercial settlements more enforceable. This could help draw more mediation to Singapore.”
Meanwhile Anparasan says the country is taking notable steps to become a more attractive arbitration venue, and serve as a boon for some law firms. The Singapore Arbitration Centre launched the sixth edition of its Arbitration Rules in August 2016, as well as its Investment Arbitration Rules, which took effect in January 2017. “The new and updated rules keep Singapore at the forefront of international standards,” says Anparasan.

When taken all together, these regional and sector opportunities present a chance for Singapore’s law firms to shake off the economic jitters and outrun the competition. “The legal profession needs to be nimble, cost-effective, and sympathetic to the challenges faced by the clients to earn its place as not just legal advisors but trusted business partners,” says Seah.

Still ranked number 1 in Singapore Business Review’s 25 Largest Law Firms is Allen & Gledhill LLP, with 372 legal professionals compared to 355 in 2015. Their previous chairman and senior partner, Lucien Wong, was appointed the Attorney-General of Singapore on 14 January 2017. Christina Ong and Penny Goh have taken over as cochairmen and senior partners.

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