Will Singapore Immigration Politics Impact Law Firms?

, The Asian Lawyer


protest against the government at Hong Lim Park on February 16, 2013 in Singapore

In September, the Singaporean government announced new rules requiring companies to “consider Singaporeans fairly” before applying for permits for foreign workers. Starting next August, employers will need to advertise positions on a government-sponsored website before giving jobs to expats, and their hiring patterns will be scrutinized and benchmarked against similar companies to see if they are acting in a discriminatory manner.

A number of other countries have similar policies, and it remains to be seen how hard a line Singapore takes on new employment passes. The Singapore managing partner says seniors lawyers are unlikely to be affected—jobs that pay a base salary of over $9,560 per month are exempt from the advertising requirement. Moreover, Singapore heavily encourages international firms to base regional managing partners and practice heads there. But support staff and some junior associates could be a different story.

Another partner with an international firm echoed that worry. “We are concerned that the next time we apply for work passes for some of our support staff, this will be an issue,” he says.

Still, many lawyers say Singapore has been committed for so long to turning itself into a leading international legal and financial center that they simply can’t see the government letting things go too far.

“I’m really not too worried,” says the Asia managing partner for one U.K. firm. “Singapore is still very much in the business of encouraging professionals to operate there. The fact that you might have competing constituencies in Singapore or anywhere else is not that unusual.”

The six international law firms that were given the first QFLP licenses in December 2008—Allen & Overy, Clifford Chance, White & Case, Latham & Watkins, Norton Rose Fulbright and Herbert Smith Freehills—may soon find out if the Singaporean government is taking a new approach to the global legal profession. Their five-year licenses are currently up for renewal.

In designing its policies, the Ministry of Law has long kept three major goals in mind: to bolster Singapore’s status as an international legal center, to create more job opportunities for local lawyers and to facilitate the transfer of skills and know-how from the global profession into the local one. It’s been a matter of debate whether the QFLP program has proven effective in furthering the last two goals in particular.

In a speech about the QFLP program last year, Law Minister K Shanmugam noted that the six firms had added a combined 200 lawyers to their Singapore head counts since the end of 2008. But he also acknowledged that two-thirds of those had been foreign-qualified expats rather than local lawyers.

Sources at some of those firms have acknowledged to The Asian Lawyer that they are not going to hit the hiring or revenue targets they set in their QFLP applications. One source says questions about local hiring are expected to dominate the renewal process.

Singapore’s Ministry of Law responded to questions about its review of firms’ QFLP licenses with the following statement: “The QFLP licenses were awarded based on the firms’ proposals and commitments, which include manpower commitments for their Singapore office. The fulfillment of their manpower commitments will be one of the factors taken into account together with other commitments made by the firm when the QFLP licence is due for renewal.”

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