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The party’s on and the invitations have gone out — welcome to the world of Singapore’s joint law venture licenses. Top international law firms have now entered one of the world’s most exciting markets, energized by the rapid growth in new technology industries. But not everyone can come to the party. Only seven have been admitted to the new elite group. All of the U.K. magic circle firms have been invited — with the exception of the ever-cautious, London-based Slaughter and May — and London-based Lovells, too, has come on board. San Francisco-based Orrick, Herrington & Sutcliffe and New York-based White & Case are the U.S. pioneers in the deregulated market. Until now, foreign firms have had near-zero opportunities to share in onshore business. Says Roger Dyer, managing partner of Freshfields Bruckhaus Deringer’s Singapore office, “There are very strict regulations for the market. “Before this change we weren’t even allowed to view domestic legal documents. We’ve been operating in Singapore, but not as part of Singapore.” It was not until 1992 that Singapore first opened up its borders to foreign law firms and allowed their offices to open. Their role was strictly limited to advice on international and foreign jurisdictional matters. Those restrictions are now being undone, as the Legal Profession (Amendment) Act comes into force. The granting of the licences marks the first step in a process of gradual change. Domestic law elements will continue to be handled by Singaporean lawyers. There is provision for foreign lawyers to practice domestic law, but the details are yet to be settled; an announcement is expected soon. Qualifications for conversion are not expected to be onerous. For the moment, the lucky seven are looking to pass on the benefits of the new arrangements to their clients. Explains Dyer, “Freshfields’ linkup with Drew and Napier (Singapore’s number three firm) allows us to combine international strength with local product. “Now we can join together on corporate finance and capital markets. We can also utilize Drew and Napier’s expertise in such areas as IP and IT.” Drew and Napier spokeswoman Christina Chan echoes Dyer’s sentiments. “This is the culmination of years of work together. The move will be to our mutual advantage: foreign lawyers will now be able to operate here, while our own people can get invaluable international experience.” Of course, those who have failed to win the golden tickets are crying “restrictive practice.” Australian lawyers in particular are less than thrilled with their exclusion in an area of geographically natural interest. Few firms will feel more disappointed than Australia’s Freehills, said to have applied for a joint venture license to extend their relationship with Singapore’s Alban Tay Mahtani & De Silva. Global firm Baker & McKenzie also missed out because the firm’s Singapore managing partner — Kien Keong Wong — is also a partner at domestic firm Wong & Leow. This contravenes the license conditions required for the joint venture alliance of the two firms, and the move is stalled until his situation is resolved. Frustration with the limited number of licences is understandable. Yet, Iain Black, partner at Masons with longstanding experience of Singapore since the ’70s, sees a design to the Government’s plan. “The manner in which the changes are being introduced is very indicative of the Singapore government’s style, it’s very controlled,” says Black. “They want to make sure the domestic market isn’t destroyed with foreign firms flooding in and taking over. They’re testing the market. We’ll see how successfully things go before matters go further.” REASONED CONSERVATISM This reasoned conservatism has forced some firms to rein in their immediate ambitions. Clifford Chance and the Wong Partnership’s original application included a planned merger within three years; the license request was rejected. However, the revised application has been accepted. Senior partner Wong Meng Meng envisages an open future. “We wouldn’t exclude a merger at some point to come, even if at the moment we are limited to the joint venture agreement,” says Wong. “What’s important now is the opening up of the Singapore legal market with the new regulations. It’s part and parcel of our general growing globalization.” Wong believes the human approach will overcome cross-border and firm culture clashes. “You could say we’ve taken pre-emptive steps. Senior partners have met up in London, Asia, and New York and teleconferenced in Frankfurt. “We’re continually exchanging visits. The key is to get to know one another.” Of course, many foreign firms will happily continue to operate outside those areas for which joint venture licences are required. Earlier this year Masons entered into a formal agreement with Cooma Lau & Loh. As Black explains, the construction specialist U.K. firm currently sees no need to go further. “Our presence in Singapore has been based on logistical reasons rather than looking to exploit the domestic market; it’s a nice place to be while we are looking after major projects throughout the region, rather than focusing on Singapore’s onshore market. “We’ve got no competition worries regarding the joint venture licences of other foreign firms. We’re known for certain skills in construction, IT, and e-commerce. Our clients know our reputation.” For those who have taken advantage of the change in regulations, the present move, if successful, seems to be a natural precursor to further integration. They also hope to extend joint ventures beyond the present corporate, banking, and finance remit. Philip Pillai is managing partner of Malaysia’s Shook Lin & Bok, which has been given the go-ahead for its license agreement with London-based Allen & Overy. Pillai, who sat on the Singapore Attorney General’s review committee which led to the amendment, considers further changes likely. “This is a transitionary area; we’ll have to wait three to five years to see how it all works out. If things have gone well the government could well allow full-scale mergers to go forward. “We had to review the situation with particular regard to the market. Client needs for an international one-stop shop weren’t being satisfied. The joint venture moves should remedy that situation.”

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