Kia Meng Loh is Senior Partner & COO of Singapore’s Dentons Rodyk & Davidson LLP. In this interview with Asia Law Portal, he details what inspired him to assume these roles, the current state of the firm, his law practice, the challenges facing businesses in the Asia-Pacific region in 2023 amid an increasingly competitive climate for legal services, and his hopes for the future.
What inspired you to become Senior Partner & Chief Operating Officer of Dentons Rodyk & Davidson LLP and what are your responsibilities in the role?
A preface to my answer would be to share how I first became a lawyer. I am an “accidental” lawyer in that being a lawyer was not my choice of a career in my student years.
In fact, I had considered being a sociologist, a journalist or a diplomat. So it may disappoint some to know what I was not “inspired” to become a Senior Partner, a Chief Operating Officer, or even a lawyer at all; I simply did well enough in school to qualify for Law School, applied, got selected, did well enough to graduate, qualified for pupillage (traineeship nowadays), managed to qualify for the Bar and became a lawyer. Basically, I stumbled into the practice of law by a process of elimination (knowing what I did not want to do and moving away) and a series of choices (what I preferred to do and leaning towards).
I have to admit that I came to like the law as I practiced it over the years, doing more of the areas I liked, and getting more skilled in them, and gradually finding my calling from there. So instead of an inspirational epiphany, my relationship with the law was built over time.
In contrast – the Chief Operating Officer role was thrusted upon me. My former boss, Philip Jeyaretnam S.C. (now Justice at the Supreme Court of Singapore and President of the Singapore International Commercial Court), probably saw something in me that I did not see in myself.
When we as a local Singaporean law firm combined with the global firm Dentons in 2016, and there was the need to level up our operations and align with global standards. I was tasked to lead our business support teams towards those standards and be a bridge between Dentons’ global team and Singapore. Never one to back down from a challenge, I took it up, did the job and have been enjoying it ever since.
Tell us more about Dentons Rodyk & Davidson LLP and your legal practice
Fun fact: Dentons Rodyk & Davidson is the oldest firm in Singapore, founded in 1861.
In 2002, it merged with HelenYeo & Partners to become one of the largest firms in Singapore. In 2016, we combined with the largest law firm in the world, Dentons. Now, we are consistently referred to as one of the “Big Five” Singapore law firms.
My legal practice – I would like to think of myself as the quintessential versatile lawyer – I am able to provide counsel to clients on advisory matters as well as represent them in court when a dispute arises. As a private client lawyer, I need to possess a broad base of not only legal knowledge but a keen understanding of commercial realities to serve the clients’ various needs. More of myself here – https://dentons.rodyk.com/en/kiameng-loh.
As the co-head of the firm’s private wealth and family office practices, we have built a strong team over the years to become one of the more renowned practices in these areas.
What should general counsel be most aware of when doing business in Southeast Asia in 2023?
The impact of key events on the global economy in 2022 will likely spillover to 2023. General counsel should do well to remain alert on developments continuing from the Russia-Ukraine conflict, the looming recession, supply chain issues and rising interest rates.
Closer to South-East Asia, the impact on China and Hong Kong’s border easing will be closely watched. Tourism and hospitality sectors should be on the recovery trend for most ASEAN countries. The inflow of large capital to Singapore over the past two-three years is likely to fund private equity investments in this region as fund managers deploy the capital. M&A activity should be on the rise.
There are headwinds, however, as the business climate remains uncertain. Rising costs of capital and foreign exchange risks remain high, which could wipe out investment gains. General counsels have been paying extra attention to due diligence on deals and were prepared to abort where risks are deemed high. This trend is likely to continue into this year.
The mass retrenchment exercises in the financial services and tech sector at the start of the new year may have an impact on related/support industries, leading in a slowdown to relevant sectors.
What is the current competitive climate for legal services in Asia and how is it impacting Dentons Rodyk & Davidson LLP?
I recently contributed to a couple of media articles on this broad topic. There is an interesting article published by Law.com on the private client market in Singapore – https://www.law.com/international-edition/2023/01/19/wealth-is-flooding-into-singapore-will-private-client-work-provide-sustainable-returns/
From FT: https://www.ft.com/content/62845c24-1e45-483c-95d1-b2c5d4c07337
The stands are largely similar – Asia is fast emerging as the focal point of commercial activity with the large economies of China, India, Japan, Korea and Indonesia fueling both supply and consumerism. Capital continues to flow into Asia as the financial of Singapore and Hong Kong rivalling New York and London.
With the movement of commercial activity and capital to Asia, US and UK firms have been, and will continue to establish stronger presence in Asia. However, with the shift appears to be Asians helming these practices (Baker & McKenzie named a Singaporean to lead its global firm; a Singaporean is also the Managing Partner of Sidley Austin’s APAC office in Singapore).
In Singapore, there are more mergers of offshore law firms (from India, Japan in addition to US and UK firms) with Singapore firms. These bode well for the legal industry as a whole, because this means that there is work coming into Singapore.
The challenge for incumbent firms like Dentons Rodyk would be how to continually remain competitive, in terms of service quality, expertise and pricing.
The Big Four audit firm’s continued foray into Asia (https://home.kpmg/sg/en/home/media/press-releases/2022/12/kpmg-significantly-expands-legal-services-footprint-in-asiaapacific-with-addition-of-lawyers-from-zico-law-firms.html) is a continuing threat, although law firms have had comebacks (http://www.legalbusinessonline.com/appointments/sg-dentons-lawyers-return-home-ey-part-8-lawyer-move)
What strategies is Dentons Rodyk & Davidson LLP pursuing to differentiate itself competitively?
What sets us apart from the competition, however, is that we are part of a truly global law firm with 12,000 lawyers in over 200 locations across over 80 countries. No other firm in Singapore can claim that level of connectivity to legal talent anywhere in the world as we do.
Apart from legal work, we now have a consultancy arm in the form of Dentons Global Advisors, whom we often work with to provide comprehensive solutions to clients’ issues beyond the realm of the law.
What are your hopes for future growth for Dentons Rodyk & Davidson LLP?
We are already part of the largest law firm in the world; we want to move from being the largest to the leading law firm.
We also want to always be “the law firm of the future” – this entails building a next generation of lawyers who are always in tuned with the workings of the world, able to anticipate the needs of clients and businesses and be able to continually evolve and adapt to the changing environment.
The growth for Dentons Rodyk will be focused on how we can help clients grow, protect, finance and operate their businesses.