Channel NewsAsia

Legal firms link up in ASEAN to meet growing demand

As global businesses increasingly look to tap growth in Southeast Asia, law firms in Singapore are stepping up their game to meet the growing demand for legal services for cross-border transactions.

SINGAPORE: Whether it is entering a new market like Myanmar, acquiring companies in different ASEAN countries or listing a company on the stock exchange or settling disputes, law firms are facilitating more cross-border transactions for their clients, and demand is expected to grow.

To better capture these opportunities, Rajah & Tann announced on Thursday (Aug 21) that it has launched a new network of legal firms in the region - Rajah & Tann Asia. It brings together eight law firms from eight countries across the region - including Singapore, Indonesia and Myanmar - with 500 lawyers under its wings.

The eight firms are R&T Sok Heng Law Office (Cambodia), Assegaf Hamzah & Partners (Indonesia) , Rajah & Tann (Laos) Sole Co Ltd, Christopher & Lee Ong (Malaysia), Rajah & Tann NK Legal Myanmar Company Limited, Rajah & Tann Singapore LLP, Rajah & Tann (Thailand) Limited, and Rajah & Tann LCT Lawyers (Vietnam).

All the individual firms within the network collectively have 11 offices in the major cities in Southeast Asia as well as Shanghai. This is expected to help the law firm strengthen its areas of practice.

Mr Lee Eng Beng, chairman of the Regional Management Council at Rajah & Tann Asia, said: "If you look at Singapore law firms, maybe up to recent times, Singapore firms never had substantially practices in areas such as mining, energy and resources and certain areas which are not relevant for a strictly Singapore practice. Whereas those are very important areas of practice in Indonesia."

Rajah & Tann Asia said the impending launch of the ASEAN Economic Community in 2015 will also create more opportunities for intra-regional trade and commerce for clients in the region.

Mr Lee added: "There is undoubtedly a lot of infrastructure work that is going to take place, that has to take place in Southeast Asia - transport, roads, airports and railways. All that is certainly going to come. Natural resources is another area, perhaps even activities in the leisure industry. There is certainly going to be a wave of investment into the region generally."

Separately, another law firm, WongPartnership, has also strengthened its presence in the region as clients expand overseas.

"When you look at how Singapore companies have grown over the years, a lot of them started in Singapore but over time, they have decided that they will expand their business - could be manufacturing, services - and they build their business across the region first. They go from ASEAN into China, into Middle East and we have in many ways followed the clients," said Mr Ng Wai King, joint managing partner at WongPartnership.

WongPartnership has offices in Abu Dhabi, Beijing, Doha, Shanghai and Yangon, as well as tie-ups with law firms in Indonesia and Malaysia.

Meanwhile, Deputy Prime Minister and Finance Minister Tharman Shanmugaratnam said the legal services industry is "one of the more protected" service industries around Asia and globally. He also observed that cross-border work in the sector has grown, which could present opportunities for Singapore.

Speaking at the launch of Rajah & Tann Asia, Mr Tharman said: "Just the flow of people in businesses across borders is in fact expanding much faster than the business growth within domestic economies. And that means that domestic firms have to respond and international firms will respond."

He added that this was a good opportunity, but alliances had to be built: "This is a real opportunity for us. We have some advantages in Singapore of a trusted legal sector. But that itself is not good enough. We have got to build alliances (the way you have), we have got to form deep networks and relationships in the region so that we can serve the region, be part of the region's growth."