This article first appeared on February 27, 2018 in ALB Insights, a weekly, ad-free newsletter that is sent to subscribers.

 

Singaporean firm TSMP Law Corporation recently celebrated its 20th anniversary. John Kang speaks to joint managing partner Stefanie Yuen Thio about the firm’s biggest achievements in the past two decades, the benefits of being boutique, and running the firm with her joint managing partner and husband, Thio Shen Yi.

ALB: What havebeen some of the most significant achievements for TSMP in the past two decades?
Thio: TSMP went from seven lawyers when we opened in 1998 to more than 60 fee-earners in 20 years. We were a startup before startups were sexy. We survived, and even thrived, through some harrying times: The Asian financial crisis, the dot-com bubble burst, SARS and the global financial crisis. We came through stronger, and each time with a more definite idea of what kind of lawyers we wanted to be. For a small outfit, we received a lot of accolades, which was testament to the good work we were getting from our clients.

But I think our real achievement was in building a firm that is value driven. All of our partners had come from large firms, where we enjoyed the challenge of cutting-edge work, but did not want to be driven solely by the bottom line. We wanted to be able to spend time cultivating client relationships, growing our people, supporting the causes we believed in. 

TSMP was named as the best boutique firm in Southeast Asia by ALB in 2016. As a boutique firm, what are some of the biggest advantages over bigger firms?
We are nimble and the partnership is collegiate. Being boutique also allows us to respond quickly to disruption in the market. We don't have to innovate by committee.

Unlike in a big firm, where you have to toe the institutional line, TSMP can forge its own path. Shared values form the core of our partnership, but we have the freedom to grow, whether by establishing a new practice area, adopting a charity or being an advocate in a developing area of law. It's a very empowering partnership. 

Being boutique sized also allows us to respond quickly to changes in the industry. A few years back when we were having difficulty recruiting top talent, we raised our starting pay to a market leading salary that was more than a thousand dollars more than the large firms', for a newly qualified lawyer.

We are also about to create a co-working space in the office for our clients' use. This will help us to enhance collaboration with our clients and connect with a new class of millennial entrepreneurs, more comfortable working at a Starbucks than in a traditional law office.

What are the keys to success as a boutique firm?
Play to your strengths. We tried, in the initial years, to ape the big firms that we had left. We would tell clients that we could provide what they could – large dedicated teams and abundant resources. We soon learned that our strengths lay elsewhere. We had the domain knowledge to handle complex disputes and transactions, and also the liberty to dedicate more personalised attention to the brief. Clients get tired of having to explain their transactions to (and pay for) different specialised legal departments within the same firm – they prefer to deal with one partner who is able to advise on a variety of areas.

We also do not charge based solely on time. We believe in value billing. Often, by the time we commence an engagement, we would have spent hours discussing possible transaction structures with the client. Because of this, many of our projects were named for the café where the deal was first born, on the back of a beer napkin. That commitment builds strong relationships with clients and also helps us to understand their business better.

What’s next for TSMP? What are you most optimistic about?
The entire world – from banking to Big Pharma – is being disrupted. That heralds change, both bigger in scale and more rapid in development. In periods of volatility, a nimble and outward-looking firm like ours will do better than in times of stability and plenty, which favour more established franchises. 

I'm optimistic that our focus on people – from the talent that we hire, to the clients we dedicate ourselves to – will reap returns. There was a time when, because lawyers had technical know-how that clients did not, law firms were able to mint money through a commoditised legal product. The age of the internet and the advent of Google changed all that. Now, we need to play to our human strengths. 

You and your husband are the joint managing partners of the firm. What’s that like? What are your tips for balancing home and work life?
Shen Yi and I have a true partnership, born of a real respect for the other as an equal. There's no one I admire more than him, and that allows us to not pull our punches with each other. As lawyers, we are blessed with good communication skills which is the backbone of every successful relationship. 

Some couples swear by never bringing their work home. I think that takes away a crucial support mechanism. If I did not have my husband to lean on, to discuss problems with and to strategise together with, I would be much poorer for it. TSMP is stronger because Shen Yi and I are stronger together.