Top UK firms show interest as Malaysia looks set to liberalise legal market

Trowers ahead of the pack as Malaysia prepares to open doors to foreign law firms

Malaysia looks set to become the latest Asian country to open up its legal market to overseas law firms, with Trowers & Hamlins, Allen & Overy (A&O) and Norton Rose among firms that could be interested in practising if the country pushes ahead with new reforms.

The Legal Profession (Amendment) Bill 2012 sets out several options on how overseas law firms and lawyers could operate in the country.

These include firms opening their own offices advising on specific practice areas, for which the bill proposes a limited number of licences in a similar fashion to Singapore, or international partnerships with local firms, which may also be able to hire overseas lawyers.

Licences would be handed out by a selection committee led by the Attorney General and President of the Malaysian Bar Council, which would award, revoke or alter licence conditions and outline permitted practice areas.Those seeking to practise would have to pay a fee for their licence application.

Trowers last week confirmed it had become the first overseas firm to establish a local presence in Kuala Lumpur after gaining special approval from the Malaysia Investment Development Authority to open a non-trading representative office.

The firm now plans to apply for an independent licence to practise as soon as the new legal framework is in place – which could be as early as next year.

Trowers Malaysia head Nick White said: “Right now, we seek to develop our relationships with Malaysian clients in terms of the wide-ranging business sector legal advice they need outside of Malaysia.

“But with a full licence, we would expand that strategy by providing international expertise in relation to, for example, the energy, infrastructure, PPP and Islamic finance sectors.”

According to White, the relationship between the UK and Malaysia has been “enhanced” by recent inbound investment into London real estate.

However, he said there is unlikely to be an immediate influx of foreign firms as the number of licences on offer is likely to be strictly limited.

Commenting on the bill, A&O Singapore managing partner Kenneth Aboud said: “We would certainly consider opening a Malaysia practice if the bill was passed and regulations were clearer, and would look at all the potential structures available.

“Southeast Asia is a key focus area for the firm and we would always look to expand where we think client demands can be met.”

Norton Rose Asia head Jeff Smith added: “Malaysia is an important legal market. We have many years’ experience advising some fantastic Malaysian clients across many jurisdictions and we would welcome a business case which would allow us to better serve the international needs of our clients there.

“In liberalising its legal sector, Malaysia has the opportunity to regulate its legal business in a way that can support and nurture the development of Malaysian financial institutions and corporations with the best international advice, expertise and experience.”

The proposed overhaul has met with lukewarm response elsewhere, with some partners suggesting the market is not international enough to attract overseas firms.

Hogan Lovells Asia managing partner Crispin Rapinet said: “Historically, the Malaysian market has always been a fairly domestic one, with less international work than is the case in other jurisdictions in Southeast Asia.

“This may change if the suggestion that the banking market might open up more to international banks becomes a reality.”