THE FIRST joint law venture (JLV) in Australia between TSMP Law Corporation in Singapore and Allens Arthur Robinson was announced last week, garnering praise from the Federal Attorney-General and signalling new opportunities for local firms in Asia.
The agreement is the culmination of more than two decades of experience in Singapore by Allens’ executive partner in charge of Asia, Jim Dunstan, who has been instrumental in solidifying ties with TSMP over the past four years.
Dunstan originally established an office in Singapore back in May 1981 at a time when a formal agreement such as a JLV was not an option for a foreign firm.
“It was always thought that holding an offshore licence alone was an unsatisfactory way of operating in a market like that, because of the inevitable overlap between international work and domestic work, and the complexity involved with having to get an extra firm of lawyers every time that you needed something to be done locally,” he said.
Likewise, a Formal Law Alliance would have been unsatisfactory, as it would not have allowed for the fully integrated service to be known as Allens Arthur Robinson TSMP, which is due to begin officially on 1 June 2007. The JLV will see 30 staff from TSMP join with up to 20 Allens lawyers by the end of the year.
For Allens, a successful JLV could only be achieved with a firm of sufficient size to be credible in the Singapore market, but small enough to be a comfortable fit, Dunstan said.
“The foreign JLVs have engaged with bits of the local firm, but haven’t been able to engage the totality of the local firm. We believe that we can do that more effectively with TSMP, because their size makes a lot more sense to us.”
But cultural harmony was just as important to Allens as size, for as Dunstan said: “they have the same outlook [and] a very closely shared vision of what we want going forward, in the sense that they are very keen to have access to our international network, and our regional network, and we’re very keen, of course, to have an extra source of manpower for that network.”
Joint managing director of TSMP, Stefanie Yuen Thio, said that aside from formalising her firm’s good working relationship with Allens, the JLV meant that after nine years building TSMP it could finally offer a seamless international service while retaining a degree of independence.
“It is a genuine joint venture, not a merger and acquisition kind of situation, which for us was important,” Yuen Thio told Lawyers Weekly.
“We very much valued our independence. We didn’t just want to get swallowed up by a firm that wants you to become their outpost, effectively. Allens have worked very closely with us, and they made it quite clear that they want to just be able to deepen the relationship that we have currently.”
Yuen Thio said Allens was more attractive than a firm from London or New York, both because it is more competitively priced and can offer lawyers experienced in Asian cultures and ways of doing business.
“If you bring somebody from New York who hasn’t spent a lot time in Asia, there may be little time [available] in terms of acclimatisation and communication; never mind the language,” she said.
“In some countries, ‘yes’ could mean ‘yes’, ‘maybe’ or ‘no’. Reading between the lines, understanding nuances, understanding how people like to do business is very different in different cultures, and Allens has really put a lot of time and commitment into that.”
There have now been six JLVs in Singapore, although one of those, involving Freshfields Bruckhaus Deringer, was concluded at the end of April this year.
Considering this, Dunstan said it was possible but unlikely that any Australian firm will enter a JLV in the imminent future.
“It’s a very logical thing to do, in the sense that it is the only way of being able to enter the market on a fully competitive basis, but it’s taken us a few years to get to the point, even after the JLVs were established, where we were confident enough about the strength of our operation there, and also the strength of our relationship,” he said.
“We don’t enter into joint venture relationships with anybody we don’t know very, very well. We have a fundamental principle that we do joint ventures with people that we know and trust completely, and that trust takes some years to build.
“So it would theoretically be possible for somebody else to come and enter into a JLV almost overnight, but it would be risky. They might be very lucky and it might work brilliantly, but we’re very cautious in terms of our investments, and we certainly wouldn’t do it that way.”
In fact, of the top-tier firms, only Freehills has an office in Singapore. Minter Ellison is happy to service the country remotely and is not presently interested in pursuing a JLV, according to chief executive Guy Templeton.
“Minter Ellison has excellent long-established relationships with some of Singapore’s top lawyers,” Templeton said.
“Working together with them, we’ve been able to provide our clients with high quality service and the most effective solutions to their legal needs there, with the added benefits of in-depth knowledge and advice on the local market. This has been a highly effective strategy and we don’t have any plans to change it.”
Templeton said Minters’ lawyers travel regularly to Singapore to meet with clients and the firm’s local counterparts.
“We recently assisted Las Vegas Sands manage their winning bid for the Marina Bay Integrated Resort, one of the highest profile projects in South East Asia, and we act for many large Singaporean companies in Australia,” he said.
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