Singapore legal market hots up

More than a few Lamborghinis on the road – the sign of a Singapore legal-market traffic jam?

Early January, I visited Singapore. After a meeting near One Raffles Quay I had the mixed pleasure of waiting in a long line for a cab. The mixed part was the weather – Singapore even mid-January is relentlessly hot and humid, like New York in July. The pleasure was the parade of latest-model, beautiful cars. It was 5 PM, which meant there would be a wait for the cab but a guaranteed stream of stunning cars dropping off someone at the building, picking up a girlfriend or husband, or simply heading home. Drivers and passengers seemed on average not older than 45 (which explains the absence of Bentleys in the streets of Singapore), but the automotive tastes in evidence were at the highest pitch of sophistication. Their cars were wonderful to watch – from the sleek white Maserati with a white silver finish, to the always reliably beautiful red or yellow Ferrari, and the rare and riveting mustard Lamborghini.

As an Aston Martin glided by (whatever happened to that marque?) the guy next to me in line – a jovial Australian, it turns out – kept on saying: “It’s never been like this, so many people waiting for a cab – it’s never been like this.” He kept repeating that, as if perplexed, over the next 30 minutes as we advanced slowly through the queue. The Australian’s perplexity made his comment stick in my mind as I shifted gears from looking at beautiful cars to my other favorite subject – lawyers and law firms.

When I started in legal headhunting back in 1990 in New York, no one talked about Singapore or even Asia. By the mid 90s, as several US-based sponsors and developers became more involved overseas, Singapore was the first point on US law firms’ Asia compass. However by the late 90s, as those sponsors left Asia, Singapore receded. Japan, and the urgency to hire bengoshi, became the new horizon – until shortly after SARS around 2002, when China became the hot topic. By then Singapore seemed to have become a backwater or curiosity.

As the years passed and as China and India stimulated the global energy and natural-resources market, financed by Japanese banks, Singapore yet again twinkled. Slowly and quietly, the international offices there became increasingly busy, even under-lawyered. By 2010 and 2011 the secret was out: Singapore was busy and its three marque practices – energy/finance, M&A/PE, and arbitration – were a go-go.

The story with Singapore is complicated. On the one hand, it had been under-lawyered because law firms hadn’t replenished as associates or even partners left. And because the market that Singapore services is relatively small – mostly focused on Indonesia and India – any shortfalls in supply are quickly felt. Yet while business remained at 2011 levels – with the right amount of lawyers for the right amount of work – Singapore was something of a paradise.

Finally my turn came and I got my cab to the airport. The ticketing area at Changi on past visits seemed barely populated. Now it was packed, and for the second time in the same afternoon, I found myself waiting in a long line – this time for immigration (and without any beautiful cars to watch). An officer approached to check passports. My flight was about to board and I had to send emails beforehand, so I asked her about the wait. How she responded could be out of fiction but I swear it wasn’t: “It’s never been like this, so many travelers,” she said. “It’s never been like this.”

All of which is to say Singapore is getting crowded. A small market which got busy while it was under-lawyered may soon become very crowded and over-lawyered.

Not long after my visit, I received a link from a friend that’s going viral – about a Fiat maneuvering a narrow street in Naples. As I watched the video, I realized that Singapore could get this crowded soon. And while the Fiat comes out without a scratch, I fear that law firms, being bigger than a Fiat, may not be so lucky. Here’s the link for your enjoyment – it’s less than three minutes, and two of those minutes are pure Italian gold:

How to assess when and whether to go into a new market is a hard decision for law firms. Do it too early, and chances are funds will be invested with little return. But if a firm waits until the market is in full swing – especially for a smaller market like Singapore – chances are it’ll be already too late.

Not any one firm gets it right all the time in every office with every practice. It’s a question of striking the right balance – as the hapless driver of the Fiat was aiming to do – and success is a mix of luck and skill.