Having just absorbed the bulk of Bingham McCutchen, a first-of-its-kind merger now awaits Morgan, Lewis & Bockius, which is poised to announce a union Monday with Singapore’s Stamford Law Corp.
The combination will make Morgan Lewis the largest global firm in Singapore and the only one with the capacity to practice local law across a range of practice areas. Stamford, an 80-lawyer firm based in Singapore’s Ocean Financial Centre, will adopt the name Morgan Lewis Stamford once the union becomes official on April 1.
The deal between Morgan Lewis and Stamford is somewhat akin to Mayer Brown JSM, the entity formed via the Am Law 100 firm’s 2008 merger with Hong Kong’s Johnson Stokes & Master.
Suet-Fern Lee, a senior director and founding member of Stamford, says that the merger between her firm and Morgan Lewis is a “trailblazing” transaction for Singapore’s legal services industry, pointing out that there are regulations against the pure acquisition of a Singapore firm, but that there are no such prohibitions against the “internationalization” of such a firm.
When asked why no other local firm has tried to do such a deal before, Lee has a simple answer: “We had not thought of it.” She notes that Stamford utilized existing rules and asked for no special treatment.
“I did not realize the possibility until I undertook a very meticulous study of the regulations,” adds Lee. ”Probably everyone including myself had not appreciated that this was an available option within the existing regime.”
Morgan Lewis Stamford will become Morgan Lewis’ headquarters in Asia and all of its partners and associates will have the same roles at the 2,000-lawyer combined entity, which will now have 29 offices around the world. Morgan Lewis, which also operates an office in Tokyo separate from the rest of its Asia practice, shuttered its previous offices in Singapore and nearby Jakarta back in 2000 in the aftermath of the Asian financial crisis, but firm leader Jami McKeon says that times have changed in the region, with Singapore now rivaling Hong Kong as a key financial services center.
“Singapore has increasingly become a destination for our clients in Asia,” says McKeon, who officially took over as chairwoman of Morgan Lewis on Oct. 1. “It has a strong commercial court system, a growing hub for international arbitration and a low cultural barrier of entry—everyone speaks English.”
McKeon says talks with Stamford began late last year, right around the same time Morgan Lewis was in negotiations to take on more than 750 lawyers and staff from Bingham McCutchen, as the latter began to unravel. Morgan Lewis did not work with a consultant, McKeon says, but was introduced by a third party she won’t name to Stamford’s Lee, who besides her role at the firm is considered a leading dealmaker in Southeast Asia. (Lee is the eldest daughter of a well-known economist and wife of Lee Hsien Yang, a high-profile Singaporean business executive with family ties to the country’s political elite.)
Lee says that Stamford had been approached at various times by global firms seeking out some type of local collaboration, perhaps because of its small size that would easily allow it to be folded into a larger suitor. She was aware of Morgan Lewis’ discussions with Bingham McCutchen, but says they were an incentive, not a deterrent, to proceeding in tie-up talks with the firm.
“We know that Morgan Lewis has a strong reputation for thorough integration,” Lee says. “We knew that if they did the deal with Bingham, it would be because it would make a lot of sense and would be accretive, both strategically and financially, for Morgan Lewis.”