Singapore Flings Back in Style

In the wake of closures of several international firms’ offices in Beijing and Hong Kong over the last 12-24 months it is interesting to observe how firms in this sector recalibrate their Asia strategies. By far the most notable positive recent activity has been seen in Singapore, the City State having previously been a hotbed of office openings and investment during, at various times over the years, the advent of the JLV programs allowing closer integration between foreign and local firms, loosening of local legislation governing mergers between foreign and local firms, a concerted push to establish the Singapore International Arbitration Centre as the pre-eminent arbitration venue in the region, increasing investment in neighbouring regional economies, all of which were catnip to expanding firms. Also there is a recognition that expat lawyers of a certain age, seniority and family status seem to gravitate there, not least because of its family-friendly environment, international school accessibility, high quality of living standard, travel convenience, low air pollution levels, low taxes, the list goes on.

Such recalibration is perhaps exemplified by the activities of McDermott Will & Emery. The Chicago-headquartered firm followed up the closure of its Seoul office in 2019 with the severance of ties with its Shanghai alliance partner in the summer of 2020, the firm then called MWE China Law Offices itself subsequently tying up with Winston & Strawn (which itself had pulled back from Taiwan and Beijing some years prior). However McDermott is poised to reposition its Asia footprint with a Singapore office launch having hired former Squire Patton Boggs office head, energy and infrastructure specialist Ignatius Hwang. Hwang is currently listed as being based in London but all the signs point back to the Lion City.

Squire Patton Boggs has itself been extremely active in the market there, bolstering its ranks with partner-level hires from HFW, Reed Smith, Clifford Chance and ex-Eversheds Sutherland merger partner Harry Elias since 2019. Mishcon de Reya, traditionally targeting a high-net-worth client base, shifted its overseas focus from New York to Singapore with a new office opening in summer 2020.

For years various prestigious US firms danced around the idea of a Singapore opening, attracted by the location (being a regional “hub”) and access to a new client base but often failing to make the metrics work, or be able to attract the truly top talent to make such a splash worthwhile. A spate of high-profile withdrawals at the start of the 2000s (Slaughter and May, Freshfields Bruckhaus Deringer, Morrison & Foerster to name but three, albeit two have subsequently returned) indicated that Singapore was perhaps losing its lustre and firms preferred to focus investment and resources in Hong Kong and mainland China. Perhaps the pendulum is swinging back.

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