"Firms would pile into Singapore when the market was good, and the next crash would send them packing," said Kenneth Culotta, the Houston-based leader of the global transactions practice group at King & Spalding, which came to Singapore in 2010.
Firms are more committed to Singapore now, in part because of their interest in the countries at its doorstep.
"You're in Singapore not necessarily to access the Singapore market but to access 10 different markets, and not everybody has the same strategy," said Barsky of Jones Day.
An office in Singapore positions firms for business in Indonesia's growing economy and also gives them access to Australia, where the market for legal services recently opened up, Hildebrandt noted. Plus, many firms serve Indian clients from Singapore as they cannot open offices in the country.
The tiny city-state supports a variety of practice groups, particularly finance, M&A, dispute resolution and energy, Hildebrandt said. King & Spalding's 11 lawyers stay busy working on energy transactions and arbitration in Singapore, whose sophisticated legal system makes it an attractive place to resolve disputes in Southeast Asia, Culotta noted. The Singapore office is the firm's first and only outpost in Asia.
"We had been trying for years to figure out how to get into Asia and not lose money," Culotta said.
But lawyers face considerable fee pressure from clients in Southeast Asia, who are sometimes unaccustomed to paying high rates for legal services and have plenty of foreign firms to choose from, McWilliams noted.
"Firms that have been successful out here are the ones that focus on high-end work such as capital markets and M&A," he said. "You can get the rates you're used to."
And the influx of firms in the region has heightened the competition for talent. After deciding to expand its Singapore office, Jones Day spent a few years looking for the right lateral hires, Barsky said. O'Melveny has launched internship programs with local universities to forge relationships with young lawyers in the region, Makarechian said.
But Hildebrandt does not expect the Singapore marketplace to stay this crowded forever.
"There are some firms that are going there because everyone else is," he said. "You have to have a reason to be there. You have to have clients that need that location."