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The Singapore Law Gazette

Lawyers Go Global

In futurist George Friedman’s book, “The Next 100 Years – A Forecast for the 21st Century” (2009), the author first begins with a description of the fundamental structural shifts taking place late in the twentieth century. This set the stage for a new century radically different from any other in form and substance. He describes the advent of Atlantic Europe’s global influence and the impersonal geopolitical forces at work:

Europeans living on the eastern rim of the Atlantic Ocean shattered the barriers between these sequestered regions and turned the world into a single entity in which all of the parts intersected with each other. What happened to Australian aborigines was intimately connected to the British relationship with Ireland and the need to find penal colonies for British prisoners overseas …

Atlantic Europe became the center of gravity of the global system … What happened in Europe defined much of what happened elsewhere in the world. Other nations and regions did everything with one eye on Europe. From the sixteenth to the twentieth century hardly any part of the world escaped European influence and power. Everything, for good or evil, revolved around it. And the pivot of Europe was the North Atlantic. Whoever controlled that stretch of water controlled the highway to the world.

Europe was neither the most civilized nor the most advanced region in the world. So what made it the center? Europe really was a technical and intellectual backwater in the fifteenth century as opposed to China and the Islamic world…. Why did they begin their domination then …

European power was about two things: money and geography. Europe depended on imports from Asia, particularly India. Pepper, for example, was not simply a cooking spice but also a meat preservative; its importation was a critical part of the European economy. Asia was filled with luxury goods that Europe needed, and would pay for, and historically Asian imports would come overland along the famous Silk Road and other routes until reaching the Mediterranean. The rise of Turkey … closed these routes and increased the cost of imports.

European explorers were therefore compelled to, and theorized about, a route around the Turks, assuming the world was round, a route that would take them to India by going west.

The rest, as they say, is history. The European powers became the great explorers of that epoch. We in South East Asian region know plenty about that.

Fast forward to 2018 and the launch of Lawyers Go Global on the last day of last month. An all new initiative for an all new year. In a much smaller way than the historical European voyagers, could Singapore lawyers be among the early professional explorers in this 21st century?

Launched on 31 January by our invaluable partners Ministry of Law, International Enterprise (IE) Singapore and ourselves, Lawyers Go Global will provide our lawyers with overseas mission trips as well as training on foreign markets, branding and marketing over the next few years. This public-private partnership is a strategic thrust and a critical part of the Law Society’s vision in the near future. Lawyers Go Global will be funded through IE Singapore’s Local Enterprise and Association Development (LEAD) programme.

The Lawyers Go Global programme is also a practical implementation of the recommendations by the Committee on the Future Economy Working Group on Legal and Accounting Services. In its report released last April, the Committee sounded a clarion call for law firms to venture abroad to capture a greater share of international demand for legal and accounting services. The programme is in line with the goal of internationalizing local law firms by the Professional Services Industry Transformation Map (ITM) also launched in end January.

Let me clarify that this regionalization and globalization initiative is not an expensive junket. It is genuinely aimed at helping small and medium sized law firms who may have valuable niche expertise but lack resources to do their own market research to explore overseas markets on their own. They can’t fly solo. Via this strategic, concerted and intentional programme, we can conduct an intelligent exploration of emerging markets based on a depth of understanding of the lie of the land.

For firms already ventured abroad, Lawyers Go Global could help you build on that beachhead by enabling an expansion of networks and deepening the understanding of the markets where they operate. The hope is to increase market share of potential inbound or outbound work in the preferred destination.

So, where do we go from here? Over the next three years, at least eight mission trips, each lasting four to five days, will bring Singapore lawyers to ASEAN countries, China and India.

The approximately 35 lawyers on each trip will network with at least 30 foreign businesses and law firms. This secret recipe of business owners networking with the lawyers seemed to go down well when we first introduced it for Myanmar. At least 50 per cent of lawyers participating in Lawyers Go Global will be doing so for the first time. We will maximise participation across the profession.

The first trip will be to Guangzhou, China in April. An exciting first port of call given the signing of our MOU with the Guangdong Law Association last year. Guangzhou presents a strategic opportunity for us to engage meaningfully on One Belt One Road opportunities on offer especially for our corporate lawyers.

Lawyers Go Global is not just about trips. Our tripartite collaboration will also feature workshops on networking skills, legal regimes and business norms as well as branding strategies for law firms abroad. This will meet a knowledge gap among our lawyers. It will enable law firms desiring to expand their reach transnationally to overcome two hurdles: (1) not knowing which markets to focus on; and (2) not having an understanding of foreign legal systems and cultural practices. Insights gleaned from workshops will better equip us for the world out there.

Legal services are projected to grow at 5.5 per cent a year in the Asia-Pacific region from 2019. This is more than the two per cent annual global growth. Deputy Secretary of Ministry of Law made a compelling economic case during the launch of Lawyers Go Global. Legal work in Asia is also expected to grow in areas like infrastructure, according to Ministry of Law’s prognostication and projections. The trend is set to continue given the rising infrastructure projects in the region propelled by China’s One Belt One Road initiative.

These blue ocean economic areas will help tide us when there are slim pickings in Singapore due to a downturn or economic cycle.

It is no secret as Senior Minister for State Indranee Rajah SC pointed out that the centre of global economic gravity is shifting towards Asia. Could this be the crucial psychological moment for us as it was for the Europeans before they set sail?

A local example of this economic shift is Singapore’s dispute resolution hub that was a “much smaller sector” 15 years ago as Senior Minister of State Indranee Rajah SC pointed out during the launch of Lawyers Go Global. Today, it has grown in competency and stature to become an international hub.

We have to be realistic too. One challenge is that some foreign Bars are very protectionist in nature. We need to work intelligently with our overseas counterparts. Through a formal programme such as Lawyers Go Global, this will enable the process of collaboration to be easier, non-threatening and potentially a win-win. Enlightened professionals from other jurisdictions know that Singaporean lawyers are not aiming to eat from their rice bowl. Nor are we interested in the leftovers or scraps. Instead, the focus is on the increasing number of deals having a cross-border flavour. These present opportunities for all of us to participate in international project teams. Singapore lawyers can be part of, lead or help facilitate such teams. Together, we can cast a wider net for joint benefit.

In tandem with Lawyers Go Global, the Law Society will be launching a marketing campaign by the end of this year to promote the “Singapore lawyer” brand. As I shared during my Opening of the Legal Year Speech this year, careful thought and resources will be invested by the Law Society to articulate the value of the Singapore lawyer brand. This is not narcissism but an introspective look at our identity and DNA. Who we are after a year when, at different points, we learnt where we came from. The Law Society will seek to discern the value proposition and values proposition of the Singapore lawyer. To that end, a special Secretariat team and a dedicated e-mail address has been set up: [email protected].

The campaign will be based on the outcome of a study by consultants to assess perceptions that businesses have about lawyers. I will say more about the definable and discernible qualities of the Singapore lawyers’ brand on a future occasion.

What are you waiting for? The sky’s the limit and the world is your oyster. The funding piece and the training piece have melded together brilliantly in Lawyers Go Global. So avail yourself of the valuable international opportunities like the European explorers of old.

Lawyers, Go Global.

Partner, Dispute Resolution
Rajah & Tann Singapore LLP
Immediate Past President
The Law Society of Singapore