Bazul Ashhab of Oon & Bazul, who was named as the Singapore Managing Partner of the Year at the ALB SE Asia Law Awards 2018, talks about the growth of his firm, his evolving role as managing partner, and what the Singapore legal market can expect to see in 2019.
ALB: What are some of the notable trends that you have witnessed in 2018 in terms of the quality and quantity of work?
Bazul: M&A work in particular has picked up tremendously this year. Our head of M&A, Lam Shiao Ning joined us in March 2016, when the practice was just starting off. Now, M&A work has gained much traction and we have secured a series of new M&A instructions in 2018.
In the immediate past, there have been many changes taking place in the insolvency and restructuring space. There has also been a great push by the Singapore government to promote Singapore as a leading debt-restructuring hub. We were glad to have Meiyen Tan join us from WongPartnership to set up and lead our Restructuring and Insolvency Practice. She is the first female to lead a restructuring and insolvency legal practice in Singapore. From the get-go, she picked up the Zetta Jet case, and she is growing her practice.
We have also seen a marked increase in 2018 (and even since 2017) in commercial dispute instructions (in particular from high-value multi-jurisdictional joint-venture commercial arbitrations involving parties and entities across Asia as well as in various offshore jurisdictions such as the BVI and the Cayman Islands). We have therefore expanded our dispute resolution team to include another partner with 18 years of commercial dispute resolution expertise, Sean La’Brooy.
There was a gap in the market for a conflict-free practice which could take on clients who had matters against big institutions that instructed the local Big Four practices. In these cases, it is not just a question of being able to act where big firms are conflicted, but also having the capability to pitch against very large firms, such as the Big Four or large international firms. I am proud to say that our firm has grown to become the largest conflict-free firm in Singapore, which enables us to readily take instructions for high-value claims against the big institutions.
ALB: How have you seen your role as managing partner evolve over the past few years?
Bazul: I still spend the bulk of my time doing actual legal work, such as meeting clients, working out legal strategies in view of the client’s desired outcomes, crafting submissions, and arguing cases. I have increasingly been involved in many multi-jurisdictional arbitration disputes.
That said, I run a large team and it is important to have excellent senior lawyers to guide the junior lawyers. I therefore am focused on developing the junior partners in my team to eventually become equity partners.
One of my biggest challenges to grow the firm initially was to hire the right talent and create a critical mass of excellent, first-class lawyers. This took years to build, and today the firm is a rich marketplace of ideas and growing exponentially. Our clients think this is an exceptional achievement as the firm started very small. Now, the firm is often looked at the first port of call for substantial matters.
At the same time, I am spending less time professionally managing the firm. I have excellent professionals to assist me in running the firm, be it in marketing, accounts/finance, office management, and human resources. I am a firm believer that the firm needs to get non-lawyers engaged in the non-legal side of the business, so the lawyers can focus entirely on client care and team building.
ALB: What have been the biggest challenges that firms like yourself have faced in the past 12 months? How have you as a firm looked to overcome them?
Bazul: The biggest challenge to the firm is the issue of pricing, due to the rise of technology -especially artificial intelligence. Due to artificial intelligence, there is an expectation that law firms do what we do better, cheaper, and faster.
To overcome this challenge, our response is to resource a file with the right level of expertise and support. We set a budget very early on for a brief. Even if there is no external budget, we set an internal budget. We are also big on having senior lawyers being involved at an early stage of the case to help to identify issues and set out the direction and strategy to take in a case.
This will, for instance, translate to the research work being more focused and thereby reducing the amount of time that the junior lawyers spend doing research.
ALB: What are your predictions for 2019 for the Singapore legal market?
Bazul: Singapore is already the forum of choice for many businesses in the Asia-Pacific region to resolve their commercial disputes. The Singapore government has done a tremendous job so far in promoting Singapore as an international arbitration hub and now a regional debt restructuring hub with its legislative changes. This will ensure that Singapore stays ahead of the global and regional legal developments. I am certain therefore that we will see a further increase in the debt restructuring work in Singapore in 2019.
With the recent agreement between the Singapore and Chinese Courts on reciprocal enforcement of commercial judgments, both Singapore and non-Singapore parties dealing with a Chinese party whose substantial assets are in China can now also choose to take their disputes to the Singapore Court and later enforce their money judgment in China. I foresee that this will lead to more such disputes being heard in the Singapore courts (including in the SICC).
The Singapore Mediation Convention, expected to be signed in August 2019, will also make it easier for businesses to enforce mediated settlement agreements with their cross-border counterparts. The convention will encourage businesses around the world to resolve their commercial disputes through mediation, as opposed to seeking arbitration or litigation. I believe that this convention will further raise Singapore’s standing in the world as a leading alternative dispute resolution hub.
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