Small and medium law firms to get help as S'pore opens itself to more international work

SINGAPORE - Small and medium law firms will not be left behind even as Singapore's legal sector opens itself to more international work, said Minister for Law and Foreign Affairs K Shanmugam.

The Government is looking at ways to help small and medium law practices to leverage on the sector's growth. These could be through business structures which help firms provide creative and seamless services to their clients, he said on Tuesday.

It is also working with agencies such as Spring Singapore to see how smaller law firms can tap on existing funding, such as the productivity and innovation credit scheme, and Spring Singapore's capability development grant.

Such funding can be used to install technology that improves efficiency for smaller firms, or develop structured programmes to train lawyers. Speaking at the Association of Muslim Lawyers' annual lecture at the Supreme Court auditorium on Tuesday evening, Mr Shanmugam pointed out that the legal sector has grown at about 7 per cent each year since 2007, outpacing GDP growth. The high growth rate of the sector has been driven by the export of legal services to other countries, which has grown at about 9 per cent each year in the same period, he noted.

Within the last five years, he said, Singapore has climbed up the ranks to become the third most preferred seat of arbitration worldwide and some local law firms are now ranked among the top arbitration firms globally. The Singapore International Arbitration Centre's (SIAC) caseload for new cases has grown from 99 in 2008 to 259 last year, Mr Shanmugam added. Out of these 259 cases, 86 per cent were international in nature. Half of the cases handled by the SIAC involved local law practices, and over half involved local lawyers.

With Asia-Pacific's share of the legal market expected to double from $142 billion in 2012 to $279 billion in 2017, Mr Shanmugam said there will be "tremendous" opportunities for the Singapore legal sector. Regional demand will be driven by domestic and cross border merger and acquisition activity, finance and capital markets, infrastructure and capital investments, and cross border trade, he said.

Singapore lawyers are well positioned to capture work flowing into the region, by being "regional leaders with multi-jurisdictional capabilities", he added. "With our strong brand and trust premium, Singapore can position itself as the preferred venue for dispute resolution in Asia."

Besides working on specific initiatives to help small and medium law practices, Mr Shanmugam said the Government will also help to internationalise local law firms. To that end, it has introduced tax incentive schemes to support internationalisation and expansion, and organised seminars and trade missions to new markets such as Myanmar. The Singapore International Mediation Centre, which was launched earlier this month, and the Singapore International Commercial Court, which will begin operations next year, were also set up with the aim of attracting cases which would not otherwise come here, he added.