Earlier this year, Shamila Nair co-founded Peter Ong & Nair, a law firm with a focus on trans-border Malaysia-Singapore legal issues for businesses and individuals. In this interview with Asia Law Portal, Shamila explains what inspired the founding of the firm, her practice specialisms, her interest in environmental law and preservation, and how the firm is adapting to the competitive legal market.
What inspired you to found Peter Ong & Nair?
I founded Peter Ong & Nair because I saw the potential for a Malaysian law firm and Malaysian lawyers to be relevant and vital in the transborder legal market between Malaysia and Singapore.
Since my call to the Malaysian Bar 5 years ago, I envisioned a liberalized legal journey. I wanted to apply my legal knowledge and skills on a broader spectrum despite obtaining my degree and training only in Malaysia. At 26, I firmly believe that my decision to move to Singapore would help me understand the legal market between the two countries and test my qualifications’ full potential.
After my move to Singapore, I joined the Malaysian Association in Singapore, which exposed me to Malaysian business owners and residents and observed statistics of Malaysians living in Singapore. Further, through my first work experience in Singapore as a Legal Executive, it was facile to note the growing demand of Singaporeans and Singapore businesses venturing into personal and business dealings in Malaysia that required legal assistance from a Malaysian law firm or a Malaysia qualified lawyer. Many of these clients and persons I have met would express difficulties in managing legal matters in Malaysia while residing in Malaysia or Singapore. If this was not for this, it was the issue of familiarity and convenience.
This prompted me to set up a firm in Malaysia that could cater to this specific clientele. My qualifications in Malaysia proved fundamental and valuable to achieve it, while my license as a Registered Foreign Lawyer makes it possible.
I want Peter Ong & Nair to be an avenue for Malaysian, Singaporean, and international clients located in Singapore and a bridge for clients in Malaysia seeking legal assistance in Singapore. On a different level, I hope for the firm to inspire young lawyers in Malaysia to move towards a globalised legal practice and influence Malaysia’s legal industry’s modernization.
What is Peter Ong & Nair’s key practice areas and to whom do you provide them?
Our key practice areas are Criminal Defense, Corporate and Commercial law, Estate Planning Law, Family Law, and Litigation.
Our target clients for Criminal Defense and Family Law are predominantly clients based in Malaysia. We help clients defend against all criminal offences, including drug offences, sexual offences, driving violations, violent offences, and white-collar crimes. Further, we are trained and experienced to assist clients in divorce, annulment of marriage, domestic violence, child and spousal maintenance, and issue of custody.
Meanwhile, our clients for other key areas mentioned range from local and international clients, mainly clients based in Singapore, with established businesses and Malaysia assets.
Tell us more about the Singapore Blue Plan 2018.
The Blue Plan is essentially a proposal that discusses the conservation of Singapore’s marine ecosystems prepared by members of the public, including non-governmental environmental organisations, scientists, and lawyers. The Plan compiles scientific, legal, and general proposals to manage Singapore’s marine planning and sustainability. It was an exciting project, as the Blue Plan is only published once every decade.
The amount of information that came from various professionals and backgrounds was overwhelming and phenomenal. I truly felt like I was doing something important and critical for society and mother nature.
I was part of the legal team tasked to review the legal landscape of Marine Environmental Law in Singapore. It was a team’s effort to study issues circling urban planning, development control, land reclamation, ship-based pollution, and Marine Spatial Planning, to name a few. We compared domestic and international laws to provide comprehensive, relevant, and innovative proposals in addressing the issues.
I am thankful to have been invited to be part of this incredible project at the initial stage of my move to Singapore through an Adjunct Professor of the National University of Singapore, Mr. Joseph Chun, who appreciated my Town Planning law background during the period I had practiced in Malaysia.
What inspired the focus on Environmental Law?
I would not say that my primary focus in legal practice is on Environmental law, but it is an area I am pursuing on the side. There is nothing too complicated behind my interest in Environmental law. I love nature, and I want to play my part to protect what I love. I choose not to exploit, abuse, and take our mother nature for granted because many of my happiness today comes from nature.
Whenever I need to take a break from work, I would go for an evening run along a river, the seafront, or in the parks, and 2 hours later, I forget about all the stress I have had for the day. A beach, mountain, or countryside setting would do the trick to ease my mind and refresh my thoughts on holidays. If I do not play my part or see it as essential to protect our environment, many places we turn to when we need a break from what we have created will be gone. So, channelling my energy into Environmental law seems like the best opportunity for me to advocate my passion and educate a small part of the population; however, I can, through my works and efforts.
I want my thoughts to be heard, and actions are seen where it matters. For the last two years, I have also been actively involved in the Singapore Eco Film Festivals, which help raise awareness of the natural environment. I hope to be more involved in this area of law in the future and perhaps finally pursue a program in Environmental Law that I was offered 3 years ago that did not materialise due to financial reasons.
What do you see as key opportunities and challenges in operating a new boutique legal practice?
- It is incredibly favourable to digitalize the administrative system of my firm. There is no older system to replace. Considering the launching of my firm had taken place weeks before the COVID-19 pandemic hit hard in Asia, we had the opportunity to create and ensure digital efficiency in the firm’s day-to-day tasks, client communication banking, and storing of records. It took us a very short amount of time with a smaller team to train all persons involved to go digital.
- Having a new boutique firm today is akin to introducing a new online fashion line on the market. We get to pick relevant areas of law that fit the current market, share our journey and milestones through digital platforms, and hire talents that match the demand. Fresh talents employed by a new boutique law firm would also have more up-to-date legal knowledge and training, obtained through new subjects introduced in their degree syllabus or recent relevant legal training where these talents are developed to step into the future legal practice.
- It allows me to create a new market to focus on, for instance, offering legal services in the common areas of law that I have listed as our key practice areas, but with a twist of catering our services to a particular transborder category clientele. It gives the firm an opening to practice in high demand areas without being in an overcrowded market. I see it as a chance for the firm to progress globally by exploring the future legal market with clients and law firms of foreign countries seeking such legal assistance in Malaysia to forge international collaborations.
- Not forgetting, the flexible work culture and work-life balance we offer as part of the firm’s culture. As a partner to Peter Ong & Nair at 29 years old, I fall into the generation that prioritises work-life balance. I take full opportunity of my age and lifestyle to bargain, advocate, and implement a work-life balance culture at my law firm.
I find there to be more advantages than disadvantages, but the disadvantages are compelling pointers that the firm must overcome to succeed.
- The issue of client confidence. When a new boutique law firm is compared to other similar sized firms established for a more extended period, prospective clients may lean towards engaging the latter simply because of its years of establishment, instead of trusting the lawyers’ capabilities and profiles to manage their legal concerns. Sometimes, we are looking at firms that have been in business for 40 years since.
- Firm’s lack of formal recognition. We are happy to share that our present clients are mostly referred to us by family, friends, learned friends in the industry, and clients in the Singapore office, where I am attached as a Registered Foreign Lawyer. However, beyond those circles, prospective clients rely on formal recognition and rankings to build initial faith in a law firm before attending their first consultation. Here is where the bigger and more established law firms would triumph. By saying so, I understand the importance of placing the firm on the “legal map,” and I take it as a challenge to drive the firm to greater heights.