Linklaters among four firms granted temporary extension to Singapore licence as performances 'fall short'

Linklaters, Gibson Dunn & Crutcher, Jones Day and Sidley Austin will be able to practise local law in Singapore until at least 2020, after authorities decided to push back a formal decision on renewing their Qualifying Foreign Law Practice (QFLP) licences until 2020.

The Singapore Ministry of Law said on Wednesday that the group’s performances in the region had “fallen short” since licences had been handed out in 2013, prompting it to defer its decision on formally renewing them until 2020.

According to the statement, this will give the ministry more time to fully assess each firm’s performance and contribution to Singapore and their growth plans for the next licence period.

The group are among nine firms with a QFLP licence in the city-state, securing their five-year licences in 2013, after the first group of firms won licences in 2009.

The QFLP programme was introduced in 2008, with licences awarded the following year as part of the government’s efforts to internationalise the legal market. It allows the firms to hire Singapore-qualified lawyers and practice Singaporean law in permitted areas, which exclude areas such as litigation.

Announcing its decision to give the firms a temporary reprieve, the ministry suggested performance across the group was worse than had been expected, despite headcount across the group doubling since the licences were awarded.

In a statement, it said: “Their respective performances have fallen short of the initial commitments they made in 2012 as they have all been impacted by Asian economies’ weaker-than-expected growth, drop in commodities prices and decrease in mergers and acquisitions, which had resulted in weaker demand for legal services in the region in the past two years.

“Deferring the decision to 2020 will allow the ministry to better assess each firm’s performance and contribution.”

Before making a decision in 2020, the ministry said it would consider things including the value of work generated in Singapore and the extent to which Singapore will function as the firm’s headquarters in the region.

The other five firms with QFLP licenses – Allen & Overy, Clifford Chance, Latham & Watkins, Norton Rose Fulbright and White & Case – received their licenses first in 2009, when the programme was introduced. All but White & Case had their license renewed in 2014; White & Case received its full renewal to 2019 in 2015 after holding extra an hearing with the government.

Herbert Smith Freehills, one of the first six QFLP firms licensed in 2009, opted not to renew  its licence in early 2014. In 2015, the Anglo-Australian firm formed a Formal Law Alliance (FLA) with Singaporean firm Prolegis.

Under an FLA – an umbrella term that covers both the foreign and Singaporean firms – the Singaporean firm is not restricted in terms of practice areas. The structure has gained popularity in recent years, especially among firms seeking to practice local litigation work. Reed Smith and CMS are among the international firms choosing an FLA structure.

The Singapore government last invited applications for the QFLP in 2012, with the group above picked from nearly two dozen applicants. There has so far been no timetable as to when or whether there will be a third round.

During the last round of renewal evaluation, QFLP firms found themselves lagging behind targets after being hit by the global financial crisis during 2008 and 2009.

Most global firms in Singapore work primarily on foreign law matters because the offices typically cover the entire Southeast Asia region, and cross-border work is often governed by English or New York law. QFLP firms usually do Singaporean law work in securities offers on the Singapore Exchange and related transactions.

Linklaters Singapore managing partner Christopher Bradley said: “Singapore is an important part of our global business and, most recently, has played a central role in the firm’s global drive for innovation. The office continues to go from strength to strength and we will continue to invest in and develop our presence here. We appreciate our close working relationship with MinLaw and look forward to working together in the future to ensure we remain part of the fabric of the dynamic legal industry in Singapore. 2017 marks the celebration of our 25th year in Singapore, demonstrating our long-term commitment to the Singapore market.”