The Law Ministry has rebutted comments by a prominent Singapore lawyer who said a scheme unveiled in 2008 to open up the local legal sector to foreign law firms has not benefited local lawyers enough.
The ministry was responding to comments on internationalisation by Mrs Lee Suet Fern, managing partner of Morgan Lewis Stamford, at a lecture organised by the Law Society last month.
Mrs Lee had cited the Qualifying Foreign Law Practice (QFLP) scheme, which allows foreign law firms to practise in permitted areas of local law through Singapore qualified lawyers.
She noted that the six original QFLP firms, despite generating $1.2 billion in revenue between 2009 and 2014, had hired "only about 100 out of thousands of Singapore-qualified lawyers", and wondered if this was a good enough outcome. Foreign law firms, she said, had given local ones a run for their money.
In its response, MinLaw defended the scheme, noting that it had opened up new opportunities for Singaporean lawyers who were keen to do transnational commercial work. The scheme allowed them to gain exposure to niche areas not previously easily available and gave opportunities to young local lawyers.
The ministry noted that for 2014/2015, the nine foreign firms granted QFLP status generated $340 million in revenue, with 80 per cent coming from offshore work, or work that could have been done elsewhere.
Exports of legal services in 2014 were worth $700 million - $400 million contributed by foreign law firms.
The ministry added that more than a third of lawyers in QFLPs were Singapore-qualified and more than a quarter of partners in the QFLPs were Singapore-qualified.
It added that the scheme had received the backing of many of Singapore's larger law firms, some of which would be most directly impacted, as well as those in the financial services industry. "In other words, the introduction of the QFLP, and its role in making Singapore a regional legal centre, has implications beyond the legal sector, and benefits beyond the economy."
Pointing out that Mrs Lee's arguments appeared at odds with her previous positions, the ministry disclosed that she had sought to join the scheme in 2014.
But her proposal to do so was turned down as the ministry "had specific periods when it invited applications from everyone, then considered the best applicants".
"It would not be possible to give a licence to one firm, at that firm's request," MinLaw said.
Mrs Lee, however, appealed for an exception to be made for her firm and "strongly made the case for a QFLP licence to be given", said the ministry, noting that she had "extolled the virtues of the QFLP scheme" at the time.
"However, her request was rejected because no exceptions could be made for her. The QFLP licence is awarded only when an application cycle is called, and on a competitive basis."
Asked about this by The Straits Times, Mrs Lee said: "When we were exploring a merger with Morgan Lewis in 2014, we looked at the various existing options, including a QFLP. But as another round of invitations for QFLP licences was not likely, we searched for another avenue to achieve internationalisation."
Stamford Law merged with Morgan Lewis & Bockius last year. Mrs Lee was Stamford's senior director and founder.
Last night, Mrs Lee said she acknowledged the benefits of the QFLP scheme, but added that it is only one of the ways for the legal sector to grow. "Singapore lawyers need to go regional, with or without QFLPs. And there are many opportunities for Singapore lawyers to tap overseas opportunities, as more local and international firms tie up. This calls for a mindset change. Singapore lawyers need to leave their comfort zone and think regional, think international and venture beyond the shores of Singapore."
This article was first published on April 15, 2016.
Get a copy of The Straits Times or go to straitstimes.com for more stories.