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Financial services emerge as top practice area for Singapore’s lawyers

The emergence of new technologies is forcing a ‘new age of lawyering,’ says expert.

Financial legal service is a big deal now in Singapore. Experts point to the city-state’s rise as a popular destination for high-net-worth families and the resurgence of asset management and private equity investment activity in Southeast Asia for spurring the need for legal advice in the financial services space.

“International capital continues to pour into the country, and businesses and investors seek a safe haven while the global economy faces ongoing uncertainty and disruption,” Prajakt Samant, Asia managing partner at Reed Smith, told the Singapore Business Review.

Joo Khin Ng, partner at Morgan, Lewis & Bockius LLP and director at Morgan Lewis Stamford LLC, shared the same observation, noting how investment funds practice continues to see increasing demand.

“We advise funds, managers, financial services firms, and institutional investors on the most important legal issues their businesses face, particularly on impact funds,” Ng said.

“Impact investing is a fast-growing movement seeking to channel capital and expertise to companies trying to solve some of the most urgent issues facing society. With a strong focus on emerging markets, we have represented funds investing in emerging geographies, like India, Latin America, Bangladesh, Indonesia and Africa.”

Samant, for his part, observed that many clients are seeking legal advice when investing in new energy sources and raw materials.

Similarly, Ng said ESG issues have also been of growing importance to his firm’s clients “as businesses and investors focus on incorporating sustainability principles into their operations and investments.”

In response to client demand in these practice areas, Reed Smith has hired a market-leading investment funds partner in the identity of Han Ming Ho and financial regulatory partner, Jill Wong.

Demand for legal services in the financial services sector also draws from Singapore’s status a regional financial hub. According to Ng, their clients from the sector often seek guidance on corporate structuring, mergers and acquisitions, financial regulation, and dispute resolution.

Dispute resolution

The financial service sector isn’t the only sector where demand for dispute resolution is growing.

“As global supply chains continue to fragment and trade wars little sign abating, we see more cross border conflict in a range of sectors,” Samant said.

“Our international arbitration teams have been kept busy in recent months; this is supported by the fact that Singapore has become a very popular venue for arbitration proceedings. In addition, legislation has allowed for third-party funding in Singapore, which has led to changes in the disputes market,” he said.

Dispute resolution services that have seen increasing demand include litigation, arbitration, and mediation. Mediation and international arbitrations have been hotbeds of activity for disputes in the transportation industry.

“The increasing complexity of legal matters and the preference for alternative dispute resolution methods contributed to this,” Ng said.

Tech and data

Disputes also rose in the area of “new technology” such as cryptocurrency, cryptocurrency exchanges, non-fungible tokens (NFTs), said Wendell Wong, director, Dispute Resolution at Drew & Napier LLC.

“High-profile criminal prosecutions relating to FTX, Binance and other key players in the industry have fuelled higher demand for legal services.  The rise of such new technology has meant that lawyers have had to acquire significant content knowledge in these areas in order to effectively advise on such matters,” Wong said.

“We are now seeing more legal practitioners pivot to specialising in such matters, whether in terms of corporate advisory or disputes work,” Wong added.

With growing need for legal expertise in technology, as well as data, Reed Smith hired Barbara Li to lead its Tech and Data practice in China.

“Many jurisdictions are introducing or strengthening their data protection and privacy regulations. Most notably, we have seen China introduce a slew of regulations in the last 12 months. With increased scrutiny on data protection and privacy, we have seen an increase in demand for advice in this space,” Samant said.

In Hong Kong, major consumers of legal services include technology, media, and telecommunications (TMT), as well as the life sciences and healthcare sectors. These industries have a critical need for data analytics and data management, and, consequently, a demand for legal services alongside the traditional financial services sector.

In relation to data, Wong noted that there has also been an increase in online scams and business fraud, resulting in an increased demand for legal work related to asset-tracing and recovery.

“The borderless nature of such nefarious and premeditated activities has also translated to a greater need for lawyers with expertise in cross border and multi-disciplinary forensic disputes work,” Wong said.

New age of lawyering

The emergence of new technologies will also force the legal workforce to “stay on its toes and adapt to a new age of lawyering,” as Wong put it.

“We need to be agile and skilled enough to pivot between legal advocacy through virtual means and in-person advocacy at physical hearings in physical courtrooms. This also means being able to embrace the continued digitisation of workflows and the increased proliferation of generative AI, whilst retaining the core essence of what it means to be a lawyer,” he said.

Reed Smith and Morgan Lewis have both embraced these new technologies in the way they do legal services.

“Most recently we have been trialling several generative AI providers for internal use and our technology subsidiary Gravity Stack, which provides end to end managed services in litigation, internal investigations, large scale contract management, and technology consulting, is an increasingly important asset for our clients,” Samant said.

Ng, meanwhile, said that Morgan Lewis has been using an AI-powered document analysis platform that helps manage large amounts of knowledge by automating document creation and analysis to identify trends, outliers, and market standards.

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