Article: Eventful year for S’pore legal system – Singapore Business Times

Worth a quick read. We especially think so as it looks as though 2013 will be the year that Singapore really pulls away from the rest of Asia’s legal systems / industries and becomes the hub for the practice of commercial law in Asia



Here’s the piece and link

From scandals that brought notoriety to Shaw family scion Howard Shaw after it emerged that he, along with 50 other men, was charged for paid sex with the same underaged hooker to sex-for-business contract charges fiercely fought by lawyers for former Central Narcotics Bureau chief Ng Boon Gay, there was much to keep the general public talking.

Then there was the X-File – a very public and acrimonious battle that erupted between lawyer M Ravi, the Law Society and Wong Siew Hong of Eldan Law LLP after Mr Wong, of his own accord, showed up in court with a letter from Mr Ravi’s psychiatrist Calvin Fones saying Mr Ravi was having a relapse of his bipolar disorder and was unfit to practise. Mr Ravi has since dropped his defamation lawsuits against them.

Many of the topics that dominated discussions in boardrooms and at water coolers across the island in 2012 will likely continue to make headlines in 2013. Case in point: Former Singapore Civil Defence Force chief Peter Lim Sin Pang’s sex-for-contracts trial starting on Jan 14 promises a new round of steamy water cooler fodder after Ng’s trial, which is scheduled to end after oral submissions are made on Jan 28.

Last year saw significant changes to the Legal Profession Act (LPA), the Casino Control Act, as well as the mandatory death penalty.

While the mandatory death penalty remains a pivotal part of Singapore’s criminal justice system, the government clarified conditions under which the courts will have discretion on whether it will apply for drug trafficking. For many criminal lawyers including Wendell Wong, director of Drew & Napier LLC, mandatory death penalty reforms for certain murder and drug offences were “undoubtedly the No 1 highlight of 2012”.

“Many lawyers did not think that they would ever see such reforms,” he said.

The Casino Control Act was tweaked to ensure that the integrated resorts aren’t just focused on maximising gaming profits but also committing resources to responsible gambling and voluntary social safeguard programmes.

Aimed at further liberalising the legal sector and strengthening Singapore’s position as a global legal hub, the changes in the LPA facilitated the creation of the first Formal Law Alliance (FLA) between top UK law firm Clifford Chance and Cavenagh Law LLP.

Singapore also made several key appointment changes in the upper echelons of its legal system – among them, the appointment of former attorney-general (A-G) Sundaresh Menon as a judge of appeal, and then later as Chief Justice, following the retirement of Chan Sek Keong. Other key appointments are that of Judge Steven Chong as A-G and senior counsel Vinodh Sabesan Coomaraswamy as a judicial commissioner.

“The new Chief Justice is expected to set new benchmarks, directions and priorities for the legal profession, and for the litigation and arbitration practitioners particularly. These will no doubt aim to raise standards and capabilities all round and to cement Singapore’s reputation as the dispute resolution hub for the region and Asia,” Senior Counsel Lee Eng Beng, managing partner of Rajah & Tann LLP, said.

Alvin Yeo, Senior Counsel and senior partner of WongPartnership LLP, said: “2013 sees the first full year of service by our new CJ, A-G and the Senior Minister of State for Law and Education Indranee Rajah. I expect them to take a fresh look, perhaps with a different perspective from the predecessors, with respect to legislative reform, criminal prosecution and regulation of the legal sector. So one might see further changes in criminal trial procedure, or perhaps greater opening up of the legal sector.”

On liberalisation, Mr Lee said 2012 saw many foreign firms opening up offices and beefing up their presence in Singapore, and more international firms are expected to become Qualifying Foreign Law Practices (QFLPs).

At the close of submissions on Aug 31, the Ministry of Law said 23 firms had filed applications for a second round of QFLP licences that would allow them to practise Singapore corporate law and hire local lawyers. But the number of licences to be awarded will depend on the quality of applications received, MinLaw said.

“Our system is inevitably opening up to foreign law firms and lawyers, and this will create both advantages and challenges for our local practitioners. 2013 will reveal where all this is going – Is the pie going to grow fast enough? Will the pros outweigh the cons? Are the foreign law firms interested in becoming local law practices and able to do so? What do the local law firms have to do to remain in contention? Will there be mergers of the major local law firms with foreign law firms?” Mr Lee said.

Stefanie Yuen-Thio, joint managing director of TSMP Law Corp, sees the new round of QFLP licences issued as a “a positive development for the legal industry in the medium- to long-term”.

“Hopefully, this means that Singapore will become a hub for more of the interesting and big-ticket work,” she said. “But local practices may feel some short-term pain from lawyer movements as international firms tee up their teams.”

Law firms that practise in the areas that the international firms are interested in – notably international finance, project finance and international arbitration – may find international firms selectively poaching their mid-level partners and associates with three to six years’ experience to populate their teams, Ms Yuen-Thio said.

But the international firms have tended to cherry-pick in the past and so there is unlikely to be a mass exodus, she added.

While the drain of legal talent to the foreign firms has not been dramatic, that may pick up steam in the coming years, Mr Lee noted. “The big foreign firms may have greater resources, better branding and a more extensive network than the local firms,” he said. “However, some of our best legal talent may still wish to stay in the local firms, where they can become the key partners and the core management team in an Asian firm.”

With the two local law schools and a bumper crop of law graduates coming back to Singapore from overseas universities, in particular, the UK universities, there has been very stiff competition among young lawyers for the best opportunities in the local market, he said.

“They have to secure and complete training contracts from the local law firms in order to be admitted to the Singapore Bar. This year saw a surge of young lawyers entering the market and the remnants of the pent-up demand built over the previous years (when supply was more controlled) was cleared. 2013 may be the year when law graduates realise that acquiring a recognised law degree does not guarantee them a training contract with a Singapore law firm,” Mr Lee said.

Ms Yuen-Thio agreed. “Law graduates need to be more realistic. The shortage of lawyers in the past has resulted in very high starting pay for law graduates but with the supply of lawyers increasing, I think this will change.”

She also sees “an increasing polarisation in the remuneration of lawyers engaged in ‘Wall Street’ work, which commands higher professional fees, and those in ‘High Street’ firms that handle legal work of businesses and the retail public”.

She refers to Wall Street work as the type of financial services and complex transactional work that is done by the international firms and several large boutique law firms in Singapore.

She added that she does not expect the advent of international firms to have much impact on “High Street” firms because of their different areas of practice and the different markets they cater to.

As the Singapore economy matures and Asia comes increasingly into focus, we will probably see more merger and acquisition (M&A) activity and, on the disputes front, litigation around shareholder activism and more sophisticated financial matters, Ms Yuen- Thio said. The number of arbitration cases should also increase, she added.

2012 has also been an exciting year for corporate and capital market lawyers in Singapore in light of two of the largest takeovers in Asia taking place in Singapore – Dutch brewer Heineken’s takeover of Asia Pacific Breweries (APB) and the takeover of F&N, which is currently subject of a bidding war between Thai billionaire Charoen Sirivadhanabhakdi and a consortium led by Overseas Union Enterprise (OUE).

“As more businesses look to Asia for new growth areas, one of their modes of entry will be through acquisitions, and I believe that they have already started looking at expanding into Singapore in this way. This may spawn more M&As,” Ms Yuen-Thio said.

Corporate lawyers who advise Singapore and foreign clients in jurisdictions like China (who may want to undertake M&As in Europe through Singapore) will have a field day advising on an influx of investment deals in the European Union, senior corporate lawyer Robson Lee said.

“While Europe may presently be in recession, companies with good reserves will be in a vantage position to capitalise on business opportunities to buy into European companies and businesses with strong brand reputations and goodwill at very competitive valuations,” he said.