Lawyers Go Global – Tips for Singapore Lawyers Doing Business in Australia
The Law Society led a mission trip to Sydney in July 2018 under its “Lawyers Go Global” program. I was tasked with giving the group tips on navigating business culture in Australia and how they might get the best out of their interactions there.
These are a few of things that I had focussed on.
Over-lawyering in Australia
If you are planning on providing legal services in Australia, you should know that Australia is possibly more “over-lawyered” than Singapore.
The number of practising lawyers in Australia grew 24% in a recent five-year period1https://www.lawsocietywa.asn.au/wp-content/uploads/2015/10/2017DEC12-Law-Society-Future-of-the-Legal-Profession.pdf and young Australians are being warned off investing in a law degree.2http://www.abc.net.au/news/2018-02-02/malcolm-turnbull-says-too-many-kids-do-law/9387508; https://www.lawyersweekly.com.au/sme-law/22768-frustration-grows-over-unis-cashing-in-on-law-grad-oversupply
Further, Australia has been an exporter of legal services for many years. Many Australian lawyers would have had a stint at a law firm in places such as New York, London or Hong Kong.
An alternative to providing legal services in Australia is to build relationships with lawyers and law firms in Australia.
There are about 15,500 private practice law firms in Australia. 73% of them are sole practitioners. 19% of them have two to four partners. About 14,000 Australian lawyers work in larger firms with more than 40 partners.3https://www.lawsociety.com.au/sites/default/files/2018-04/NATIONAL%20PROFILE%20OF%20SOLICITORS%202016.compressed.pdf
There are likely to be many Australian law firms or lawyers without firmly established relationships with Singapore lawyers.
Even with the top eight corporate law firms in Australia, four of them are independent. Opportunities may exist when they realise they have all been dating the same Singapore law firms.
Opportunities for Collaboration
In addition to building a personal relationship, you may want to give some thought to areas in which you may collaborate with Australian lawyers and law firms.
If you are providing private client services, you may be interested to know that Australia’s total population, at 24.8 million people, is 4.4 times that of Singapore.4http://www.abs.gov.au/ausstats/[email protected]/mf/3101.0 — Australia is a big country and sparsely populated in many areas. Australia’s land area is more than 11,000 times the size of Singapore. The average income of an Australian is similar to that of a Singaporean. If Singapore were an Australian city, it would have a population similar to that of its major cities, Sydney and Melbourne. In addition, there are more than 70,000 people born in Singapore now living in Australia, which is a third of the Singaporean diaspora 5http://www.abs.gov.au/ausstats/[email protected]/Latestproducts/2024.0Main%20Features22016?opendocument&tabname=Summary&prodno=2024.0&issue=2016&num=&view=;
There are likely to be people in Australia with a connection, and therefore need for legal help, in Asia.
If you are providing commercial services, you may already know that Australia has an economy that is four times larger than Singapore’s.6https://countryeconomy.com/countries/compare/australia/singapore — Gross Domestic Product (GDP) at US$1.3 trillion to Singapore’s US$323 billion. It is a diversified economy with a large services sector in addition to its historic image of a mining and agricultural focus.
Australia has excellent universities with commercialisation programs that see innovative spin-outs looking to raise capital in Asia. Forward-thinking Australian businesses looking to expand will also likely look to Asia, with Singapore as an attractive Asian base. Companies in the region looking to list often consider the Australian Stock Exchange in addition to the Singapore Exchange, the Stock Exchange of Hong Kong and the NASDAQ Stock Market.
While Australia has historically had strong ties to the United Kingdom (UK), it is now more culturally diverse and there has been a gradual shift of focus to the Asia Pacific region.
The Comprehensive Strategic Partnership between Singapore and Australia, announced in June 2015, is a framework to deepen bilateral engagements in economics, defence, innovation and people-to-people ties over the next ten years. In announcing it, the then Australian Prime Minister had said that he hoped that employment and residency rights for Australians and Singaporeans in each other’s countries would soon resemble those of New Zealanders and Australians.
Australia could become a very close neighbour indeed.
Learning Lessons for Your Practice
Relationship-building and finding areas for collaboration takes time and repeated visits. While you are at it, you could also draw lessons for your practice from the changing legal landscape in Australia.
At the big end of town, of the top eight corporate law firms:
- Three have merged or “allianced” themselves with UK headquartered international law firms in the last six years.
- One is the first Western law firm to be in a committed and public relationship with a prominent Chinese law firm.
In the middle, some are of the view that mid-sized law firms have been “squeezed” as they lie between “small, nimble specialists” and “larger practices with financial resources”.7https://www.macquarie.com/au/business-banking/campaigns/legal-benchmarking-2017 Some mid-sized law firms have responded by growing and merging with each other8https://www.lawyersweekly.com.au/biglaw/24179-thomson-geer-to-acquire-kemp-strang?utm_source=LawyersWeekly&utm_campaign=04_10_18&utm_medium=email&utm_content=1;
https://www.australasianlawyer.com.au/news/australias-fastestgrowing-firms-revealed-225318.aspx or being taken over by international practices.9https://www.lawyersweekly.com.au/sme-law/22945-dibbs-demise-mid-tier-confirms-it-will-soon-cease-to-exist
At the smaller end, sole practitioners have lived with the commoditisation of conveyancing for many years now. These days, the smaller end also includes “NewLaw”, boutique and virtual law firms, sometimes with ex-“BigLaw” lawyers providing the same services differently.10 For example, see discussion here — https://www.lawsocietywa.asn.au/wp-content/uploads/2015/10/2017DEC12-Law-Society-Future-of-the-Legal-Profession.pdf
In summary, there are more lawyers and law firms in Australia and they may have tried the tactics or tie-ups you are thinking about. They would be a source of invaluable feedback.
Building strong relationships with people with a different history and culture always requires a bit of homework.
- You might draw some insights from this INSEAD professor publishing in the Harvard Business Review.11https://hbr.org/2017/07/being-the-boss-in-brussels-boston-and-beijing
According to her, Australians are more likely to be “egalitarian” but with a “top-down” approach to decision-making. That is, Australians pay less attention to rank or status but the boss makes the decision, even if it is less likely to be a final decision than in other cultures.
Also, according to our INSEAD professor, Asians have a more “hierarchical” but “consensual” approach to decision-making. Bosses direct, not facilitate, and give clear instructions, after much carefully thinking themselves.
Understanding this might help you participate in discussions with Australians more freely. It is not incompetent or arrogant to throw out half thought-through ideas for debate with colleagues or partners. It is not a sign of weakness to change course or adopt new ideas midway.
- You might also like the more in-depth look at different negotiating styles in “When Cultures Collide” 12https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/482071.When_Cultures_Collide especially the specific sections on Australian and Singaporean negotiating styles.
Some key points:
- Australians appreciate cheerfulness and affability, and often mix business with social activities. Showing an interest in conversations at a more personal level is polite, contributing your thoughts and experience would be delightful.
- Swearing is not always a sign of anger. Do not be offended.
- Intruding into leisure time is frowned on. However, I am not sure this always applies to a hardworking, hard-playing lawyer culture.
Building strong relationships with people with a different history and culture also requires greater sensitivity to nuances. Delving deeper might help you sympathise and give you a better chance of liking the Australians you interact with. Here are some examples.
- Be especially appreciative of the time that someone might give you for a coffee or a drink.
They often have home-duties to rush back to that might be performed by a domestic helper in Singapore. Cleaning, cooking, mending, child-minding — help in Australia is expensive. Do-it-yourself is not a hobby; it is a necessity. They may also have far to travel to get home. On the other hand, they do not have PSLE.
- Do make an effort with “small talk”.
Some diffident people stay quiet and some try to fill the silence. Make agreeing gestures or remarks, if not throwing in some remarks of your own. The object is not to inform but to assure your conversation partner that they are interesting people.
Despite speaking enthusiastically about sport or gardening, it may be that your conversation partner is desperately trying to find a way to talk business or move on to a topic that might be of interest to you. Do not be shy about gently moving the conversation onto something different.
Finally, remember our INSEAD professor — in Australia, you do not have to be 100% sure of what you are saying to say something.
- Sometimes, Asian visitors to Australia say that they have had unpleasant race-based interactions.If it is rude service at food and beverage outlets, keep in mind that Australia has no low-skilled migration. Service staff have options and, therefore, attitude.
Also, for reasons probably related to long past and recent history, Australians value greater equality in interactions between people with different roles and social status. Your tone, or the tone of someone they served in the past who looks like
you, may result in chillier, slower service.
Finally, it may also just be old fashioned racism. Remember, you cannot be friends with everyone and time is precious. Move on politely and quickly. There are plenty of fish in that sea.
- Keep in mind that some Australians who have spent time in Asia might say that they have had unpleasant interactions in Asia too.
Australian lawyers you meet are likely to be “bourgeois bohemians”, a “logic-defying fusion of 1960s counter-culture and 1980s entrepreneurial materialism”.13https://www.theguardian.com/theobserver/2000/may/28/focus.news1 The “1960s counter-culture” bit means that they are likely to be more sensitive to remarks or attitudes about race, gender, sexual preference and disability.
For example, comments that assume that women stay at home with the kids or that suggest discomfort or disgust with LGBTQ are unlikely to make you look like an educated cosmopolitan person. You may come across as having inferior social graces as well as lower intelligence — someone who cannot be trusted with complex legal questions or important clients.
If you are unfamiliar with the appropriate language, err on the side of caution. Perhaps use the opportunity to tap into the decades of debate that has led to the sensitivity about language and behaviours.14 Where better to start than Wikipedia — https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Political_correctness Singapore has little business other than other people’s business, so it is probably a good idea to stay open-minded about how what we say and do might make others feel.
Final tip — Australians do not like implications that they look fat or old.
This article has taken a long time to write because Australians are so diverse and once you get to live with and befriend them (over 20 years and marriage in my case), it is hard to generalise. I am sure this article does not do them or my Singaporean readers justice. So, do not take my word for it, go find out for yourself and have a ball!