After a lengthy collaboration and formal alliance between Withers LLP and the former KhattarWong LLP, Withers KhattarWong LLP came into being in early 2019. The alliance has created the second largest law firm in Singapore, offering a full range of legal services to corporations, institutions and successful individuals, including some of the biggest companies and leading families in Singapore.
In this interview with Asia Law Portal, Withers KhattarWong LLP Managing Partner Deborah Barker explains the firm’s strategy of full financial integration, how the recent merger has created international synergies, the firm’s place in Singapore’s legal market and how it is adapting to the local ultra-competitive legal services environment, and the dispute resolution landscape for multinational companies in the Asia-Pacific region in general and Singapore in particular.
Many international law firms when expanding choose a non-financially integrated model (Swiss Verein). Withers KhattarWong LLP has chosen a fully integrated model. What was the strategy behind a fully integrated firm versus a Swiss Verein structure?
Withers LLP and the former KhattarWong LLP (now Withers KhattarWong LLP) collaborated since the early 2000s and a strong trust and relationship developed between the partners and lawyers of both firms. In 2015, both firms agreed to form a Formal Law Alliance (FLA) during which KhattarWong partners became partners of Withers Worldwide. Hence, it was natural that the partners of Withers and KhattarWong decided to combine the practices of KhattarWong LLP and Withers LLP (Singapore Branch) into a fully integrated law firm in Singapore (Withers KhattarWong LLP) early this year.
Operating as a fully integrated firm underscores our commitment to Singapore and the region, and our strong belief in the immense opportunities arising from the growing wealth and business environment in Asia Pacific.
As an integrated practice, we can work more coherently across our offices, manage any commercial conflicts on a global basis, invest more globally and in the long term, and share knowledge across jurisdictions, with every lawyer acting as a united front. This benefits not just the firm as a whole, but our clients the world over.
How has the recent internationalization of the firm benefited the Singapore practice? And how has the Singapore practice been an asset to the firm’s other international offices?
Since the FLA in 2015, the combined practice in Singapore has grown via strategic hires and by strengthening key practices such as restructuring and insolvency, commercial litigation and arbitration, international tax, funds, real estate, banking and finance, technology, hotels and hospitality as well as private client. The international platform, that we are part of, allows us to attract a wider range of talented senior lawyers in Singapore and the region.
Being part of an international law firm gives us more opportunities to work on global mandates from Singapore, leveraging our expertise globally. For instance, we were the global lead counsel for PT Bumi in Southeast Asia’s largest debt restructuring deal in 2017; and we have assisted numerous successful clients on their estate planning and family office activities globally. In recent years, the firm has conducted numerous high-profile litigation matters. We expect this positive development to continue in our integrated practice.
Most recently, our corporate team in Singapore worked with the team in our New York office to advise on the acquisition of a Singapore-based fitness app by a US company. In an increasingly globalised business climate, the internationalisation of our Singapore practice ensures we are well-placed to act in more cross-border matters, either stemming from Singapore or those looking in.
Withers KhattarWong LLP focuses on private capital clients in Singapore. Can you elaborate on this focus and the firm’s unique capabilities in this realm in the Singapore legal market?
Our focus on private capital is not limited to Singapore, but also across our Asian offices.
The growth of private capital in Singapore was one of the major drivers for us to launch the Withers Asia Regional Funds Centre. We observed that a confluence of factors is propelling Singapore to the forefront of both institutional as well as private capital management. The dramatic wealth generation in Asia in recent decades, increased regulatory and compliance scrutiny on traditional ‘tax havens’ and the attractiveness of the Asia-Pacific region as an investment destination have all thrust Singapore onto the radar of fund managers and family offices looking to establish or beef up their Asian presence and operations.
To that end, we grew significantly through the hires of investment funds partners in Withers’ Tokyo and Hong Kong offices, and most recently, Daniel Yong in our Singapore office. The lawyers in these teams have more than 20 years of experience working in Asia, assisting clients with fund formation and regulatory matters and structuring cross-border investments in the Asia-Pacific region.
The growth of the firm’s funds capabilities in Asia reflects the evolving asset and wealth management landscape in Singapore, as well as the rising trend of private capital participation in significant investment transactions through fund structures.
Singapore’s legal market is widely known to be both highly competitive and one where many firms are adopting technology and other strategic business practices to deliver legal services more efficiently and effectively. How is Withers KhattarWong LLP seeking to advance into the future amid this competitive and changing local legal services dynamic?
Our firm has upgraded both our baseline and advanced technology solutions to ensure that our lawyers perform their daily tasks more efficiently in this competitive landscape. For instance, we are currently undergoing a two-year project to upgrade our practice management system which will give us the opportunity to transform the way we work in areas, such as billing and client onboarding. Partners and staff are key in helping design the system to give us the most benefit and help our lawyers, their assistants and secretaries do their jobs better and more efficiently.
Also, many international firms recognise that the most efficient way to upskill lawyers would be to train and evaluate results against a set of core competencies. To overcome this challenge, the Legal Technology Core Competencies Certification Coalition (LTC4) formed a coalition of like-minded firms to produce industry standard legal technology core competencies. Withers, and by extension, Withers KhattarWong LLP has membership to LTC4. Our lawyers and allied legal professionals can achieve individual LTC4 accreditation. To this end, we will soon be rolling out learning paths for my colleagues in Singapore for managing documents and emails, and contact relationship management (CRM).
Finally, as many of our lawyers advise on cross-border legal matters, the need for mobile or agile working is extremely important. As such, we have made significant investments in hardware and software fronts (including a strong focus on cybersecurity and data privacy) to ensure that our lawyers and allied legal professionals are equipped to assess information quickly, globally and in a secured manner.
Your practice focus is litigation and arbitration. What distinguishes Singapore as a regional locale for alternative dispute resolution at present and looking ahead to the future? And what should multinational corporations operating in the region keep in mind most about disputes when doing business regionally?
Singapore has been ramping up its efforts to establish itself as a hub for international dispute resolution. It has done so through the introduction of infrastructure to support international dispute resolution and the implementation of new frameworks and dispute resolution mechanisms.
The Singapore International Arbitration Centre, launched in 1991, the Singapore International Commercial Court, launched in 2005, the Singapore Mediation Centre, launched in 1997, and the Singapore International Mediation Centre, launched in 2014, have been successful in handling numerous international commercial disputes since their respective introductions. Maxwell Chambers Suite, Singapore’s dedicated dispute resolution complex, completed its expansion in April this year to meet the growing demand for dispute resolution cases in Singapore.
As a firm, we have also benefited from these successes in the growing number of commercial disputes that are being handled by our Singapore office.
This year, as an acknowledgement of our country’s capabilities in alternative dispute resolution, the Singapore Mediation Convention was signed here, with 46 countries, including USA and China, signing the convention on the first day.
In terms of new frameworks, the Singapore Ministry of Law and High Court have, in recent years, introduced different measures to support and take into consideration the evolving nature of dispute resolution.
In 2018, the Ministry of Law introduced a new omnibus debt restructuring bill. The new bill works to consolidate the personal and corporate insolvency and restructuring laws, which currently exist as two separate statues: The Bankruptcy Act and The Companies Act.
Third party funding is now permitted in relation to arbitration. Justice Chua Lee Ming of the Singapore High Court took this one step further by making a decision to permit a third-party litigation fund to fund investigations and potential claims, in the context of a corporate collapse affecting Singaporean retail investors. This could have broader implications for the funding of commercial litigation in Singapore, outside of the insolvency context.
Then, at the opening of the expanded Maxwell Chambers on 8 October 2019, the Minister of Law, Mr K. Shanmugam announced that the authorities were looking into conditional fee arrangements which would be permitted going forward in certain specified areas. All these developments herald changes in the handling of international disputes in Singapore.
For MNCs looking to do business regionally, they should realise that disputes are simply unavoidable. They could stem from difficulties and divergences in communication, expectations and understanding. What is most important for them to note is that they must be managed properly, as they could be expensive, time-consuming and even destroy the value of the business, should they become protracted.
Beyond resolving a dispute, all parties should ideally look for a resolution that is as amicable as possible. Having advised many clients on numerous disputes, we have seen many escalate to lengthy court battles. Simple steps, such as choosing the right representative for the other parties to interact with, a mediation clause or even arranging a Without Prejudice meeting, could go a long way in ensuring disputes are resolved fairly and amicably.