In a recent interview with Asia Law Portal, our Managing Partner and Head of Dispute Resolution, Bazul Ashhab, shared on what inspired him to start Oon & Bazul, important issues client should be focused on to avoid litigation exposure, how much more challenging it is to resolve cross-border disputes via mediation, and more. Full article below.
Oon & Bazul has grown to become the largest conflict-free firm in Singapore. The firm is a large leading commercial practice and their lawyers are known for their ability to deliver high quality work as well as their commitment to helping clients achieve success. Given their current growth trajectory and the complexity of instructions they receive, the firm is expected to grow to be a Top 6 firm in Singapore in the next two years. This is a significant achievement for a firm that was only 2 lawyer strong, 20 years ago. Bazul Ashhab is one of the founding partners of the firm and the leading architect propelling the firm to the future.
What inspired you to start Oon & Bazul?
I started the firm with my Partner, Oon Thian Seng in 2002, just the two of us in a 500 square foot office. The legal services industry in Singapore was moving at a break neck speed to make Singapore a legal services hub. The Singapore International Arbitration Centre (SIAC) took off at a grand scale and substantial time and monies was spent on bringing specialised judges to the bench. The Government encouraged and supported with ideas and funds on building a credible eco system to make Singapore the preferred venue for legal services. It was clear to me that if we rode on the wave of changes, we will be able to find growth and there was a space for a conflict free independent law firm.
I am also a big believer that people management is a critical component to success and I wanted to be able to implement changes which will allow me a free reign to bring the best out of people.
2022 marks the 20th Anniversary of Oon & Bazul. We are now where we are, recognised as Singapore’s largest conflict free law firm with international capabilities, having grown into a 19 partner, 65 lawyer and 115 staff firm. This success would not have been possible if not for the support of the Singapore government.
What are the most important issues clients should currently be focused on to avoid litigation exposure in the Asia-Pacific region?
Counter-party risk is one obvious answer. When entering into a deal one needs to assess whether it is for the short or long term. Firstly, assess whether the counterparty can perform his bargain. Next if it a long-term project, assess whether the deal is a reasonable one especially to the party who is not in a strong bargaining position so that there will not be an incentive to get out of the contract and re-bargain after.
Even with the best of intentions, disputes cannot be avoided. The focus has to be on how best to avoid litigation after the dispute surfaces. This is where mediation comes in as an equal partner with litigation and arbitration to resolve disputes. This has been brought to the forefront with the COVID-19 pandemic. Most companies are focused on survival and a court action or arbitration may take too much time and costs and this is not a viable option for companies trying to survive.
I have a specialised mediation practice which I use to manage crisis and resolve disputes when they surface. It requires focusing parties to identify underlying issues to attain mutually beneficial outcomes. It is important for clients and their advisors to understand that dispute resolution need not be binary. We do not need to attach winner or loser labels. It is ok for parties to lose some and win some. In the long term it will work out. It is really a tool to preserve existing relationships. The fact that there is a huge success rate for mediation is evidenced by how well the recently formed Singapore International Mediation Centre (SIMC) has performed. The number of cases has grown significantly. As published on its website, the SIMC has an overall success rate of about 80%. Personally, I do about 5 mediations a year, and my success rate is around 85%. The ratification of the Singapore Convention on Mediation last September 2021 has also enabled international mediated settlement agreements to be enforceable across borders. The Convention has 53 signatories and has been ratified by six countries, providing an efficient and harmonised framework for cross-border enforcement of settlement agreements resulting from mediation. This will help the growth of mediation.
When disputes are cross-border – how much more challenging can it be to resolve them via mediation?
Cultural nuances pose a challenge in mediating a settlement. It is important to recognise that culture permeates even at the commercial arena. One needs to drop the expectation that one’s conduct and behaviour is universally accepted and is the norm. Operating in Singapore allows me to experience diversity of culture intensely and I appreciate the need to listen carefully to pick up what are the true hurdles in resolving a dispute. One will need to appreciate that an apology is not an acceptance of liability depending on the cultural background. A trained mediator will be able to spot the cultural nuances and take it into account to facilitate a settlement.
The travel restrictions during the pandemic period have also forced service providers to shift to virtual, or hybrid mediations. My experience suggest that it is easier to settle a dispute sitting across the table than staring at the screen. However, the hybrid model of mediation has its advantages. It gives flexibility to the busy decision maker to join the mediation as and when he is needed rather than sit throughout a mediation session.
What should foreign investors into the ASEAN region be most aware of as we look to 2022?
Foreign Direct Investment (FDI) inflows into ASEAN reached its highest ever level in 2021 at US$ 182 billion. The forecast for 2022 is expected to be healthy. ASEAN was hit badly by the pandemic. The makeup of the ASEAN countries will not allow a continuous lockdown to deal with the pandemic and it will soon be business as normal as much as possible. I believe there would be investment opportunities and bargain buys. I also expect to see an uptick in M&A activity. Given the young population in some of the ASEAN countries, there will be opportunities to set up manufacturing plants and this will be a viable option to the traditional method of looking to China for manufacturing.
When there is growth in the region, financial and legal services will stand to gain. Singapore, where rule of law is an existential element will be able to provide both the financial and legal services. Where wealth is generated in the ASEAN region, there will also be a growth of ultra-high net worth individuals. From 2018 to 2020, there has been an exponential growth of family offices in Singapore. As a result, our private wealth and family office practice has seen a sharp increase in interest.
Asian Legal Business has previously named you Singapore Managing Partner of the Year. Everyone knows that the legal services market is well known as highly competitive and the job of the managing partner can be particularly difficult. With this in mind — what unique challenges and opportunities do you currently see the firm facing?
Over the years, I have come to realise that the biggest challenge in managing a successful law firm is bringing together a critical mass of good people. I would not have been able to win this award if I did not have a good team in place. Good people are the catalyst for growth. We achieve so much more as a collective unit than as individuals. More recently, we have seen young, capable Magic Circle lawyers joining the firm and increasing our partnership bench strength. Our recent recognition as a Human Capital Partner (HCPartner) by WorkForce Singapore is also testimony of our unrelenting efforts in investing in human capital and adopting fair and progressive workplace practices.
The real challenge is putting together a post Covid-19 law firm and harmonising work as a part of life without robbing life itself. Covid-19 has accelerated the use of technology and I do not wish to lose the advantage we have gained in using technology by returning to the pre Covid-19 way of practice. A physical presence in the office need not be the marker for providing value. There may not be a need to have fixed working hours as well. More dialogues need to be had with our younger lawyers in the firm as we work towards a post Covid-19 law firm that provides value. Clients who are used to seeing their legal bill reduced by technology will want to have serious conversations about providing value.
What future goals do you have for the firm?
I end where I started. Singapore is driving to establish itself as a natural forum to provide legal service to business in Asia. The Ministry of Law and Enterprise Singapore are spending time and funds to grow the professionalism in the sector. I am confident that we in Singapore will establish a credible eco-system for legal users. I believe this will allow Oon & Bazul to grow. We are putting together the blue print to run a post Covid-19 law firm and I am confident we will succeed. If we succeed, we have a real chance in becoming a top 6 local law firm within 2 years in terms of size.