Veteran Singapore lawyers start their own boutique practices

SINGAPORE - A number of dispute resolution legal eagles have taken flight and started their own independent boutique firms in recent years.

The latest to fly solo is Mr K. Anparasan, who was Withers KhattarWong's regional leader for dispute resolution in Asia. He left the firm on Jan 31 after 17 years of service to launch his commercial and insurance litigation and dispute resolution firm, WhiteFern LLC.

Senior Counsel (SC) Lok Vi Ming and Mr Ashok Kumar also started their own firms in the last two years.

In December 2016, SC Lok left Dentons Rodyk, where he had worked for 30 years, to start his own dispute resolution practice, LVM Law Chambers, which now has 16 lawyers.

Mr Ashok, a corporate restructuring and insolvency lawyer, left TSMP Law in March 2016 to start his own practice, BlackOak LLC, which now has 10 lawyers. Before TSMP Law, Mr Ashok was 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," Mr Ashok, BlackOak co-founder and director, said.

SC Lok, LVM Law's managing director, believes there is "room for more conflict-free, independent, disputes-focused law firms here".

"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 practitioner and small practices will find coping with high value and high tempo disputes challenging," said SC Lok, who learnt the ropes at Rodyk & Davidson under the tutelage of senior lawyer P. Selvadurai.

WhiteFern managing director Mr 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".

"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-sized law firms, a good number of LVM Law's cases last year came from big local firms that were unable to take on these cases 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 they are involved in, which their local tie-up or joint venture partners are unable to handle because of conflict of interest 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," said SC Lok.

He added that such issues can affect the independence of the arbitrator, who assumes the position of a "private judge".

"There is zero tolerance for conflict, or any perceived conflict, in the appointment of arbitrators. But this demand for independence is not so strong in litigation cases, where the practitioner appears as counsel, taking one of the parties' side," he added.