Game plan to strengthen legal, accounting firms for global growth

The Committee on the Future Economy has charted a way forward for the legal and accounting industries in Singapore.

From identifying key business areas and building capabilities to technology adoption, the game plan aims to position Singapore legal and accounting firms for international growth.

The legal and accounting services working group under the CFE has recently finished its year-long study, and it tabled 15 recommendations yesterday.

The implementation of these plans will be coordinated by the Professional Services Programme Office, a new inter-agency unit set up by the Law Ministry, the Finance Ministry, the Economic Development Board and the Monetary Authority of Singapore. It will be opened next month.

One key thrust of the recommendations stressed the need to develop "future ready" professionals that possess multi-disciplinary skill sets.

This should see institutes of higher learning adjust their curriculum and programmes to better equip future lawyer and accountants. There should also be programmes for mid to senior-level accountants and lawyers to be seconded to clients for international exposure.

Singapore is geographically placed to export legal and accounting services to regional markets, to serve nine high-growth practice areas such as corporations, business valuation and internal audit, Senior Minister of State for Law and Finance Indranee Rajah said.

AIM TO ADD VALUE

But clients are also telling us that they need people who can coordinate projects across jurisdictions, and people who understand their industries and businesses. You must be more than just lawyers and accountants - to anticipate the trends and advise clients accordingly for better value-add.

SENIOR MINISTER OF STATE FOR LAW AND FINANCE INDRANEE RAJAH, on how lawyers and accountants here must go beyond their traditional roles.

"But clients are also telling us that they need people who can coordinate projects across jurisdictions, and people who understand their industries and businesses. You must be more than just lawyers and accountants - to anticipate the trends and advise clients accordingly for better value-add," she told reporters at a briefing.

Another aspect of the recommendations focused on technology and innovation for greater productivity, particularly at the smaller firms. One possible way to do so is to have open application programme interfaces to allow new digital solutions to be developed, the working group suggested.

There were 6,444 lawyers employed across 874 law firms, according to figures last year. In the accounting industry, 17,812 people were employed across 689 firms. The two industries had a combined $1.1 billion worth of services exports last year.

Ms Indranee stressed the two industries are in good shape, with demand outstripping supply as long as firms look beyond these shores for growth. Rajah & Tann is one of the local law firms with ambitions to become a regional powerhouse.

"Our overseas market growth is double-digit, whereas the domestic growth is just single digit. Certainly, there's plenty of demand - that's why the New York and London firms also set up shop here," deputy managing partner Patrick Ang said.

But resource and scale constraints will stay an issue for smaller players, he noted. "It makes no sense for a 30-man firm to pay for million-dollar solutions when a 3,000-man firm pays the same amount for far more transactions."

The Government has moved to address some of the financial hurdles for technology adoption.

A $2.8 million programme was rolled out in February to provide funding support of up to 70 per cent of the first-year cost of adopting five technology products. These include online legal research tool Intelllex and practice management systems CoreMatter and Lexis Affinity.

There is still plenty of room for improvement in terms of technology and productivity, Ms Indranee said, and efforts here can help reduce operating cost and make services in Singapore more appealing to clients.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on April 08, 2017, with the headline 'Game plan to strengthen legal, accounting firms for global growth'. Print Edition | Subscribe