A number of dispute resolution legal eagles have taken flight and started their own independent boutique practices in recent years.
Mr K. Anparasan, who was Withers KhattarWong's regional leader for dispute resolution in Asia, left the firm on Jan 31 after 17 years of service to launch his litigation and dispute resolution firm, WhiteFern LLC.
He is joined by his former Withers team - partner Grace Tan and senior associates Sumyutha Sivamani and Audrey Wong. WhiteFern specialises in dispute resolution, including insurance and reinsurance litigation, and commercial litigation and arbitration.
Another veteran, Senior Counsel Lok Vi Ming of Dentons Rodyk, left in December 2016 after 30 years there to start his own dispute resolution practice, LVM Law Chambers, which now has 16 lawyers.
Corporate restructuring and insolvency lawyer Ashok Kumar left TSMP Law in March 2016 after nearly five years there, to start his own practice, BlackOak LLC, which now has 10 lawyers. Mr Ashok was also a partner at Allen & Gledhill for 13 years.
"We felt there is a space for restructuring and insolvency lawyers who are independent, conflict-free and able to represent anyone against parties such as institutions and banks, which firms may have difficulty acting against," said Mr Ashok, BlackOak's co-founder and director.
SC Lok, LVM Law's managing director, believes there is "room for more conflict-free, independent, disputes-focused law firms here.
"But due to the growing complexity of disputes, as well as the emphasis on speed and responsiveness required for litigation and arbitration, such firms will need to have considerable bench strength. Single practitioners and small practices will find coping with high-value and high-tempo disputes challenging.
"Bench strength should be fortified not just in terms of number of practitioners, but also in having a more expansive suite of subject matter expertise. That can be obtained only by assembling a team of senior practitioners, each an expert in a particular field," he said.
WhiteFern managing director Anparasan said having his own niche firm means he has "the independence to grow his practice in the direction he envisages while staying adaptable to clients' needs".
"Another advantage is that we are able to provide quality legal services for clients at competitive rates. I think the market certainly has room for both niche firms and collaborations with global outfits to cater to clients' different needs," he added.
In addition to referrals and instructions from mid-sized and small law firms, a good number of LVM Law's cases last year came from big local firms that were unable to take these cases on because of business or legal professional conflict, SC Lok said.
International firms have also instructed his firm to give advice on local law in cases that they are involved in, which their local tie-up or joint venture partners are unable to handle because of conflict issues.
"We have also been busy with appointments as mediators or arbitrators in matters handled by some of these international firms. The conflicts issue, both real and perceived, is particularly challenging for senior lawyers accepting arbitration appointments," he said.
These issues can affect the independence of the arbitrator, who assumes the position of a "private judge", added SC Lok.
"There is zero tolerance for conflict, or any perceived conflict, in the appointment of arbitrators. This same demand for independence is not so strong in litigation cases, where the practitioner appears as counsel, taking one of the parties' side," he said.