There have been a number of eyecatching moves in the Singapore international arbitration market over the past year, with senior partners making moves few would have predicted. At the turn of 2022 it was announced that partner Simon Dunbar and counsel Kevin Lim would be leaving international arbitration titans King & Spalding for diminutive Singapore boutique Gateway Law Corporation. Around the same time, Norton Rose Fulbright’s practice head KC Lye joined dispute resolution boutique Breakpoint LLC. PDLegal added Ashurst ADTLaw senior associate Cathryn Neo as an arbitration and China disputes partner. Three Crowns, the global international arbitration firm, launched its fifth office after hiring Shearman & Sterling office head Daryl Chew. In another blow to Singapore Biglaw, Jones Day head of arbitration Matthew Skinner left Singapore altogether to join Shearman & Sterling in London, but the local moves bear more scrutiny.
Singapore has, as been endlessly documented, long touted itself as the leading regional international arbitration centre, and with good reason. It is now one of the two most preferred international arbitration centres alongside London, and is constantly evolving and innovating to stay ahead, including the introduction of an integrated arbitration centre in Maxwell Chambers. It has also been leading the way in technological advancement as the world adapts to the pandemic. Disputes doyenne Lucy Reed was recently appointed as president of the SIAC and is looking forward to enhancing what has already been a well-oiled machine for decades.
What is interesting is the recent shift to local boutiques. In a split legal market, the Ministry of Law, keen to advance the city state’s status in international arbitration, had always allowed and encouraged international firms to lead the way in this market, bringing their own expertise, experience and credibility. It was the only form of dispute resolution open to international firms to practice and despite the emergence of some talented individuals in local firms, the international contingent continued to dominate the international arbitration landscape. These moves may be coincidental in their timing, or they could be an indication that the market is recognizing that smaller boutiques offer a more adaptable and agile platform, are less prone to exposure to conflicts, and are potentially more lucrative. Three Crowns is just one example of an international arbitration specialist firm formed in recent years and more similar launches in Singapore are to be expected; whether local firms follow a similar path will be interesting to observe. Biglaw may finally be facing a challenge to its hegemony.