Eversheds Sutherland and Singapore’s Harry Elias Partnership recently announced that they were ending their three-year merger with a joint media release. The statement said the firms were parting on “good terms,” but those watching on the sidelines in Singapore have questioned why the arrangement didn’t work out, suggesting that the split is symbolic of changing expectations in the highly competitive market.
Speaking about what led to the two firms parting ways, Stephen Kitts, managing partner for Eversheds Sutherland in Asia tells ALB: “Obviously Eversheds Sutherland had some successes during the merger, but Philip (Fong, ex-managing partner of Eversheds Harry Elias) and I agreed it was better we part ways.”
“When I look back on my time as a transactional M&A partner, we always said the hard work with mergers began once the ink had dried,” he adds, noting “successful integration and alignment is the key to success. After that, it’s all about implementation.”
The announcement comes a few months after Taylor Wessing and RHTLaw ended their eight-year association.
Tie-ups between local and international law firms in Singapore are now being increasingly scrutinised, and the stakes are growing ever higher. Successful arrangements must marry together the processes and work of two different businesses, while managing expectations on both sides. The checklist for firms entering into these arrangements is long — from considerations such as cultural fit and compatibility, to client experience.
It remains to be seen whether the Eversheds-Harry Elias split will dent enthusiasm when it comes to such arrangements, but Dharmendra Yadav, consultant at Alpha Creates and a former vice-president of the Singapore Corporate Counsel Association, tells ALB that local firms are being more strategic when considering alliances.
“I think there is a wider conversation going on about what the value proposition of that international relationship should be,” Yadav says.
The motivations of why Singaporean firms are entering into these tie-ups are also being examined more closely. Whether the arrangement will result in genuine collaboration, or whether the partnership is motivated purely by gaining an international brand name, are among the questions local firms should ask, Yadav believes.
Where it can go wrong is when expectations don’t quite meet reality.
“I think Singapore lawyers are hungry,” says Baldev Bhinder, managing director of Blackstone & Gold, an energy and commodities-focused law firm in Singapore.
“They’re globalised lawyers. There are lawyers who studied in the UK and then came back to practice in Singapore. They understand global businesses and they want to be part of a global business,” he says of the attraction of entering into a joint venture with a global firm.
“But where they might get slightly disillusioned,” Bhinder says, is when they see that work for Singapore lawyers can be “very limited.”
“The whole point of the joint venture must be the transfer of knowledge from the big international law firm, to the local law firm,” says Bhinder, adding that if Singapore lawyers are only given the “Singapore-centric portion of the deal," they are missing out on the whole picture.
“That trend that I’ve noticed is Singapore lawyers in these sorts of joint ventures want more,” he adds.
The way the firms work together also trickles into matters such as billing and client experience, says Yadav, adding that an international firm’s commitment to the market, as well as its investment in Singaporean leadership and talent, is another barometer of the depth of the alliance.
In this case, “there was a lot of potential with the Eversheds brand, because they’ve got Eversheds Agile or Eversheds consulting. I don’t think the Singapore firm really took advantage of this value proposition. I sensed there was a cultural mismatch,” he notes.
Yadav adds the firm’s D&I efforts will also reveal whether there is an alignment of values.
“There must be better integration. The firms that are doing well are not the firms that have simply parachuted talent into Asia,” suggests Yadav, who says local firms need to carefully weigh up the partnership they are considering entering into.
“The question I would ask about Eversheds is: Were they really committed to Singapore?” he adds.
Eager to put this question to rest, Kitts tells ALB the firm’s stance in no uncertain terms.
“Eversheds Sutherland is committed to Singapore because it is the legal, financial and business hub in Southeast Asia and the regional headquarters for a number of our global key clients. We are targeting opportunities to work for them on a number of major transactions and disputes,” he says.
“Mergers are challenging at the best of times and success relies upon the long-term commitment of resources, time and, most importantly, goodwill. Some really good progress was made in Singapore in the period immediately following the merger, when enthusiasm carried the day,” he adds.
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