Stefanie Yuen Thio is the Joint Managing Director of TSMP Law Corporation in Singapore, leads the firm’s M&A and corporate practice and co-manages the firm. TSMP is regarded as one of Singapore’s handful of “go-to” independent firms for cutting-edge Wall Street work and was named SE Asia’s Boutique Law Firm of the year in 2016 by Asian Legal Business.
In December 2018, she was named among 30 people to watch in the business of law in Asia by Asia Law Portal. In this Q&A interview with Asia Law Portal she explains how to build a successful boutique legal practice, what inspired her to practice law, advice for law students looking to a future career, and Southeast Asia M&A trends for 2018:
What inspired the founding of TSMP in 1998 and what are your prime focuses of practice?
TSMP was founded 20 years ago by lawyers from big firms. We all knew we loved the complex work but wanted to be able to provide the service differently to the client. We wanted flexibility in how we serviced the client – from the ability to structure fees based on the client’s needs to the teams of lawyers, we put together for each transaction.
We also wanted to innovate within the firm. We didn’t want to follow in the footsteps of big firms, who were getting more and more specialized and silo’d. Instead, we felt that lawyers who were able to advise the client across a number of useful areas of law, would best serve Asian clients who prize individual attention and relationships of trust.
Our key areas of practice are in complex dispute resolution, M&A, equity capital markets, banking and finance, and corporate real estate.
TSMP was recognized by Asian Legal Business (ALB) in 2016 as SE Asia’s boutique law firm of the year. What in your experience makes a boutique practice an attractive and successful business model for legal practice?
TSMP is not a “legal product” firm. We are a group of top notch lawyers who invest in deep client relationships and fight our clients battles ferociously, whether in the courtroom or in the boardroom. The high partner engagement, and the commitment to the relationship, has been cited by clients over and over again as a reason they come back to us.
Being boutique sized also allows us to be nimble, which differentiates the nature, quality and cost of the service.
Boutique firms make it if they have a differentiated offering, and they make that worth the money.
It’s worth mentioning that the partners are also good friends, so we enjoy coming to work and building something together. There’s none of the backbiting and politicking that you hear about from large organisations, and I think that adds to the quality of the service and the client engagement. That collegiate mentality permeates the entire firm, and interns often remark on the sense of family in the office.
How has TSMP grown over the years? And what are your future plans for growth?
We started as a 6 man law firm and are now more than 60 fee earners. But a headcount is just a number, and we do not mark our progress using that metric. Instead, we judge our success by the quality of the work we do and the depth of our client relationships. We are doing much more cutting-edge work these days, and playing a more active part as lead counsel. We also have client relationships that sprawl across practice areas and industries. Our partners are thought leaders in their fields.
As for our plans, we want to continue to chase that quality; and we have not set a target for the size of the firm or TSMP’s practice revenue. We want to be big enough to secure the work we enjoy doing and to continue hiring the best of the young lawyers coming into the industry.
You maintain a specialist focus in Banking, Finance and M&A. What trends do you see in SE Asia capital markets?
A few trends will have a significant impact:
China’s aggressive pursuit of the One Belt One Road policy coupled with a Trump presidency allowed China to play senior statesman; and
Singapore’s increasingly important role as a financial hub (Ravi Menon of the MAS was recently named Asia’s best central bank governor) and the rise of fintech and digital currency.
I see growth in the areas surrounding these trends.
Beyond the capital markets, what areas of law do you see emerging as higher-demand practices in Singapore now and in the years ahead?
Traditional banking and the stock market are no longer the main sources of capital, as innovation and digitalization allow startups and early-stage companies to grow very fast. Private equity and venture capital will continue to dominate transactions. Also startups and new economy business models – including those who tap into the ICO fundraising model – will also be players, although I’m not sure how much work will be generated from a great deal of buzz.
What inspired you to choose law as a career, and what advice would you give today’s law students considering a career in legal practice?
I fell into the law because there were fewer career options back in my day. I stayed in it because building a firm with my husband, and helping to steer the firm through some very interesting times, were a fun challenges. In the past 20 years, I lived through the Dot com bubble, when business plans were scribbled on a used beer napkin, the Asian financial crisis, when a mob stormed the Grand Hyatt, Singaporeans’ favourite hotel in Jakarta; the terrifying scourge of SARS, and the Global Financial Crisis
Unlike my husband, who was born for the courtroom, I’m not a naturally gifted lawyer. When young people ask me how I do it, I tell them “One step at a time. Try to end the day a better lawyer and a better person than what you started as. Strive to be the best version of yourself always.” It’s a simple philosophy.
Being an established professional also gives me a platform to speak on issues that matter to me. Gender equality and diversity is a pet topics. I also care about good governance and a values-led business management focus. I am active in a variety of charities. Being a lawyer opens doors that allow me to pursue causes where I can make a bigger difference in the community.
I guess if I had to have a motto, it would be “Wake Up. Kick ass. Repeat”.