Singapore has, in recent decades, proved an attractive legal market for UK based lawyers looking to gain experience in an overseas market, with indeed many eventually going on to spend their bulk of their careers there and progressing to Partnership and even retirement. Since international law firms like Freshfields and Norton Rose began opening in the prosperous city-state in the 1980s, it has been known as an important market for legal work in core practice areas for the South East Asian region such as Shipping, Projects, and Corporate. In more recent times, many of these law firms have built on these areas into becoming more or less full-service firms, with the subsequent growth of Singapore as a hub for Technology and Arbitration. Benefitting from constantly warm weather, low income tax, a family-friendly lifestyle, travel opportunities, as well as dynamic and truly international professional environment, the appeal has been easy to understand.
It has become harder to make a move to Singapore of late, not least with the ever changing Covid travel restrictions. There is also the factor of progressively tougher immigration controls to consider, making it harder for overseas workers to meet the criteria for an Employment Pass (Visa). The pool and quality of locally qualified lawyers with the capabilities to carry out the work has also grown, meaning there’s perhaps less of a relative demand to import lawyers than previously.
Yet opportunities will certainly come about as travel and international business returns to normal.
Trainee and junior lawyers who have an interest in Singapore may ask what steps they might need to take to increase their chances to secure a role there in the coming years. Of course previous experience of Singapore, or regional language skills such as Mandarin, Korean, or Indonesian would be advantageous, but for those without these advantages to draw upon, there are other things that might help:
- Choose your practice area carefully – Some practice experience you may gain in the UK travels much better than others. I have alluded to some of the areas that international law firms in Singapore tend to focus on – Projects and Energy, Shipping (disputes and finance), Corporate/M&A, TMT, and International Arbitration. There are also other more niche areas that are growing in importance in South East Asia such White Collar/Investigations, Funds, and Private Wealth/International Tax planning. The key is to seek out areas where advisory and contentious work can be done easily on a cross-border basis. On the other hand, experience where your legal advice is based on national laws and regulations (eg. Conveyancing, Environment and Planning, Divorce, Crime) won’t offer obviously transferable skills, or fit any roles you might find in Singapore. It should also be noted that court litigation is permitted in Singapore only for locally admitted lawyers. Therefore, if you favour contentious work, try to gain solid Arbitration experience.
- Try to build your early career in a firm with an internationally known brand – Though there are undoubtedly many superb regional and boutique firms doing high quality work, if their reputation is not well known overseas, then by working at one your CV may have less appeal. It is perhaps not fair, but a hiring partner in Singapore (who is perhaps is not up to date with the UK market) may prefer a known quantity to recruit from.
- Get a couple of years of experience under your belt after qualifying – Though it’s not impossible for an NQ or 1PQE lawyer to land a role in Singapore, most firms there aim to train their own junior lawyers, or move them from other offices in the network. Most of the vacancies you will find in Singapore that are open to UK (or indeed other common law qualified) Solicitors will be firmly in the 2-6 year PQE band. Similarly on timing, if you are looking to move overseas, it is best not to leave it too late. If you reach say the 8PQE stage then often you will be seen as approaching Partner level but with all your experience gained elsewhere and a need to adapt to the particular regional market. Such hires tend to be less common than at the mid level.
- If you get a good offer, be prepared to take it! – Occasionally candidates decide on reflection that the time is not quite perfect and they might try to move overseas “next year” instead. Of course if there are clear reasons why you cannot move at that time then that is understandable, but it would be wrong to assume that a similar opportunity will be available in 12 or 24 months. As we know, the market can change very quickly and the opportunities may dry up accordingly.
Hopefully these suggestions are of help and Singapore will see many more talented lawyers make in their home in decades to come. Jameson Legal is well placed to advise having a long legacy of placements in Asia, with offices both in Singapore and Hong Kong.
Fred dos Santos – Associate Director (South East Asia) at Jameson Legal