EARLY NEXT month Freehills will officially launch a workplace law and advisory service in Asia to address what it has recognised as a growing need for companies investing in the region.
According to the firm’s national practice leader for employee relations, Russell Allen, Freehills stands alone among local rivals in providing the service from its regional base in Singapore.
“No-one else is really doing this in Singapore, from Australia,” he told Lawyers Weekly.
“Obviously there are a lot of law firms that would prefer to operate in this space. Baker & McKenzie would say that they clearly do have a capability regionally. But I think we are doing something a bit unique with having a core team based in Singapore, which is our business model.”
That business model concerns the pooling of resources at Freehills involving Asian international work, Allen said, backing up a small number of experienced lawyers on the ground in Singapore with more than 100 back in Australia.
“We don’t see a need, and it is quite an expensive exercise, to put expatriates into Singapore. We’ve got a core team in Singapore, but then supplemented by the horsepower that we have of 100-plus lawyers back here in Australia in our labour and employment law area.”
Freehills will use the service to strengthen its long established infrastructure, banking, finance, mining and manufacturing practices in Asia.
According to Allen, there is an increasing need for clients engaged in acquisitions to safeguard against labour and employment law problems — particularly regarding employment contracts for expatriate employees.
This is a trend Freehills has seen developing over the past five years in Asia, and provides the major motivation for the employee relations service launch in June.
“One of the drivers for investment in the region for a lot of companies is simply related to taking advantage of advantageous labour costs, as part of the whole investment decision,” Allen said.
“If you make a mistake in terms of that area, you may well be compromising the whole basis of the investment. So we’ve found that companies have been far more concerned to look at those issues, and consider those as part of their overall investment decision.”
Although Singapore is Freehills’ base in Asia, a large portion of the work the firm is doing currently is spread throughout Japan, China, India and Korea.
But because Singapore shares a time zone with Western Australia, Freehills can use its office in Perth as a backup.
The Singapore Government promotes its own city as the human resources centre of Asia. But Allen argues that a base in Singapore brings other advantages too.
“There has also been a trend for Australian and international, multinational companies to move their regional headquarters into Singapore,” he said.
“We’ve found that some of our quite significant Australian clients — that have previously had their regional headquarters in Australia — have in recent years moved those to Singapore. Kraft is an example of that, [and so is] Shell.”
See the News Review on page 13 for more on what firms are doing in Asia.