Two key initiatives set to create more options for lawyers

3 Jan2015
The Straits Times

Local legal eagles hope that two major initiatives aimed at strengthening Singapore’s status as a leading dispute resolution centre will provide more opportunities.

One is the proposed Singapore International Commercial Court (SICC), which is expected to begin operating this year.

Lawyers say it could help position Singapore as the Asian hub for cross-border cases that need to be settled in court, particularly once the Asean Economic Community (AEC) gets under way at the end of this year.

Rajah & Tann Singapore, one of the Big Four here, is among the law firms that have been growing their regional network to tap into opportunities for legal work they see increasing in the region.

Mr Patrick Ang, Rajah & Tann’s deputy managing partner, pointed to opportunities in areas including cross-border mergers and acquisitions, capital raising, projects and infrastructure, and arbitration.

The AEC should bode well for lawyers in South-east Asia, said Mr Andrew Lim, Allen & Gledhill’s partner and co-head for corporate mergers and acquisitions.

“However, we have to recognise the diversity of laws and legal heritage within the region, even as we work towards commonality,” he added.

“In the light of this, there will be an increasing demand for lawyers with cross-border regional experience in South-east Asia – in particular, lawyers who are familiar not only with relevant laws but also with local customs and practices.”

Lawyers looking for employment should increasingly have an Asean awareness, Mr Ang said, adding: “This means having an appreciation or understanding of the cultural, social, political and legal environments of the various Asean countries or cities that businesses and people operate in.

“Lawyers should also be prepared to travel the region and spend time on the ground interacting with lawyers, regulators and clients in the region.”

The industry also sees the Singapore International Mediation Centre (SIMC), which began operating last November, as a catalyst for employment.

Businesses entangled in cross-border commercial disputes will be able to settle their differences with the help of a mediator through the SIMC, which complements the arbitration sector as well as the existing Singapore International Arbitration Centre.

Ms Lee Suet Fern, managing partner of Stamford Law, told The Straits Times: “On most fronts, including the SIMC and SICC, it is far more likely that the hiring to meet new work demands will take place towards the latter part of 2015, rather than early 2015.

“Overall, with a cautious sentiment, and a general oversupply of young lawyers, it is likely that the legal salary market in Singapore will see a careful moderated approach.”

Senior Counsel Philip Jeyaretnam, managing partner of Rodyk & Davidson, noted that the competitive environment for legal work here and the region will moderate salary increases across the board.

Recruitment consultancy firm Robert Walters noted last year that when four international law firms were awarded licences to practise Singapore international law in 2013, a number of Singapore-qualified lawyers moved from local to international firms even though local firms increased basic salaries by as much as 25 per cent to compete.

The Qualifying Foreign Legal Practice (QFLP) firms bring in fresh work and clients and raise the bar but they also increase the competition for work and talent within the industry.

But Ms Lee said that she has had “a few ‘returnees'” – Singapore lawyers who worked for some time at QFLPs and have decided to continue to build their careers with her firm.

Still, with increasingly complex governance, compliance and regulatory requirements being imposed on banks and other financial institutions, demand for law professionals practising in these areas of specialisation, from law firms as well as in-house departments, is expected to increase.

Litigators, arbitration counsel and finance specialists, including those familiar with regulatory work, will likely continue to be in high demand.

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