Grace C. G. Yeoh is Partner and Head of Corporate/M&A and Energy, Natural Resources & Green Technology practices at Shearn Delamore & Co., one of Malaysia’s oldest and most distinguished law firms. In this interview with Asia Law Portal, she provides insight into how to build a successful law practice in Malaysia, with advice for law students on their future careers – as well as providing insights on Malaysia’s M&A deal-making environment, and what opportunities the country holds for foreign investors.
You’re Head of Shearn Delamore & Co’s Corporate/M&A and Energy, Natural Resources and Green Technology practices. You are also a member of the firm’s Private Wealth and Family Business Practice. How would you describe your practice and that of the firm in general?
Our firm is one of the oldest firms in Malaysia and has been around for more than a century. Shearn Delamore is a full service law firm with the exception of criminal, syariah and divorce work. We are quite unique among the large law firms. We have a long institutional memory as we have been able to retain many of our senior lawyers and don’t see many departures from the partnership apart from the usual retirements. Some of our clients have been with us for more than 50 years and we have lawyers who have worked with some clients through their internal restructurings and staff movements.
We recognise the need to be nimble and agile. Over the years, our practice areas have evolved with the requirements of society. Hence, we now have departments handling private wealth, family office, data protection, competition and IT, areas of practice which were either non-existent in Malaysia or very limited 10 to 15 years ago.
Shearn Delamore believes in a sustainable career path and that’s why half our partners today are women, many with young children. Even the men get paternity leave. It does not have to be a choice between a high flying legal career and a happy domestic background.
I, myself, believe in lifelong learning and constantly being challenged. That’s why my diverse areas of practice. I started off as a litigation lawyer and then moved on to corporate work and the other areas thereafter. I have a bit of financial background as well, having a certified financial planner qualification and sitting on the boards of a bank as well as the local stock exchange operator.
What opportunities and challenges exist in Malaysia for foreign and domestic companies?
Companies doing business in Malaysia these days face challenges that are both domestic and international. Witness the recent US/China relationship deterioration which affected many countries due to linkages with these two giants as well as the sabre rattling over Iran. These days, it’s impossible to ringfence one’s business domestically.
Apart from that, Malaysia had a change of government last year when the ruling political party was displaced after 60 years in power since Malaysia’s independence from Britain. It’s taking the new government some time to make their mark but there have been a number of initiatives put in place to have a more transparent government and be more business friendly. However, that has been weighed down by some legacy issues, financial and otherwise, resulting in delays in implementation.
We are moving in the right direction but both foreign and domestic companies are hampered by an inability to take a long-term view of the Malaysian domestic market. This has to some extent been exacerbated by the cancellation, renegotiation and postponement of some major government infrastructure and transportation project. Domestic companies are facing some difficulties in raising financing for business purposes. Exchange control restrictions have also led to some slowdown in foreign investments by domestic companies and to a certain extent, even inbound overseas investment funds.
Nonetheless, Malaysia abounds with potential opportunities for foreign investors. We have many well run local companies as well as new startups. It’s very cheap to set up and run businesses and offices in Malaysia. The people here are generally well educated and many are English speaking. Malaysia also has plenty of land for agriculture, with opportunities for investment from cultivation to export of processed foods. Agriculture is not glamorous but in my view, it is an underrated industry, particularly if the world will be facing food security issues in the future. Having an abundance of level fertile land, all year sunshine and good irrigation systems makes Malaysian an attractive proposition.
What landscape do you see in the future for M&A deal-making and private equity in Malaysia?
We have many well run companies which could benefit from injection of new capital and expertise. Some of them have subsidiaries operating in other parts of Asia and investing in these Malaysian companies will be a way to obtain access to other markets. The tech and agriculture space are big potential growth areas for investments. Property companies are undervalued and privatization and takeovers are possible options.
Our commercial laws are well developed as are our corporate governance infrastructure. PE ratios are reasonable.
Having said that, things were pretty much at a standstill for a year running up to the last elections and even after the election results were out. However, confidence has crept back and we see the M&A and private equity market more buoyant now.
The competitive climate in legal services in Malaysia is pronounced. How has Shearn Delamore & Co built a successful law practice in Malaysia?
We don’t try to compete in all areas of legal practice. For example, we do not do retail conveyancing as there are many, many firms running after the same work and the profit margins on these types of work have been compressed for many years.
Our forte is our ability to provide solid and consistent legal services to our clients. We are the go to firm for matters that require high level input. We are also able to handle complex deals as we have many lawyers who are at the top of their fields and we can also pull together custom made teams for specific transactions.
For many years, we have been members of some of the most respected legal organisations such as the World Law Group, World Services Group, Employment Law Alliance and various other specialised groupings. Our lawyers also attend many international conferences and this has resulted in our firm having a very large network of best friends internationally from which we receive work referrals and vice versa.
Another important hallmark of our firm is that we have a large and diverse client base which means that we are not dependent on any particular clients or affected too much if there is a slowdown in any sector or industry.
What advice do you have for law students looking to a future career in the law in Malaysia?
It is an extremely overcrowded space at the moment with thousands of graduates being produced every year of differing standards and abilities as there are various gateways by which one can qualify as an advocate and solicitor in Malaysia.
One must be prepared to compete and excel. It is also necessary to accept that you have to put in a few years of solid work before you can really count yourself as a fairly competent lawyer.
Most importantly, do not pigeon hole yourself early on in your career. In order to practice in any specialised area of law. a young lawyer needs to at least have some basic working knowledge of other areas of law. For example, an M&A lawyer should be able to recognise potential tax issues, understand financing documents and have some accounting knowledge.
Very early on in practice, most new lawyers will feel lost as there are many situations that they have not come across and everything, including drafting simple letters, feels complicated and difficult. Accept that as normal. Just work on it and after 2 to 3 years, everything will fall in place and you will feel a lot more comfortable.
Last but not least, strive to be a great lawyer and not just a good lawyer. What I mean by that is that you need to develop the ability not just to give perfect answers to your clients in your written opinions but to develop the ability to think laterally, find solutions for your clients and always go the extra mile. That can only come with working experience coupled with the determination to excel.