In A rare move made within the legal circle, Singapore law firm Oon & Bazul has appointed its business development head, Abdul Malik Anwar Deen, as an equity partner. Law firms are typically owned by senior lawyers, also called equity partners, who are responsible for generating the firm’s revenue and entitled to
a share of the profits. Non-lawyers typically do not take on this role, with the exception of some patent attorneys and economists, even though regulations in Singapore allow for it. Mr Malik’s appointment as partner was approved by the Ministry of Law on July 13 this year, making him the
fifth equity partner at his firm.
The 45-year-old, who read economics and management as an undergraduate, has been at Oon & Bazul for over three years. At the mid-sized law firm, he manages a team of 16 professionals across the financial, information technology, human resources, marketing and business development functions. This is not Mr Malik’s maiden stint in the legal industry. He previously held the role of chief operating officer at RHT Taylor Wessing (now RHTLaw Asia). Bazul Ashhab, managing partner at Oon & Bazul, said he had been thinking about inviting Mr Malik to equity partnership for the last one-and-half years.
For a law firm to grow and do well commercially, non-legal professionals should be given an opportunity at the ownership table, Mr Bazul said in an interview with The Business Times. “Giving non-legal professionals a stake in the firm will send a signal to lawyers that their ideas should be taken seriously,” he said, noting that lawyers often stick to traditions and are “resistant to change”. “In addition, this arrangement of having non-lawyer partners will also free up the senior lawyers to focus on matters of the law. Lawyers are extremely good at what we do when we can focus on them,” he added. Mr Malik, who interacts directly
with the firm’s key clients, considers himself a bridge between the clients and his lawyer colleagues. “I like to read some of the memos that our lawyers write to clients and use myself as a litmus test of whether the clients will be able to understand all the legalese,” he told BT. Mr Malik works directly with Mr Bazul to identify prospective clients across a range of industries. Being titled a partner, Mr Malik said, also reassures clients that they are talking to someone who has authority. In Singapore, the Legal Profession Act was amended in 2015 to allow non-lawyer employees of law firms to become partners, directors or shareholders
in, and share in the profits of the firms where they work. This was among the recommendations set out by a committee reviewing the legal
services regulatory framework here with the aim of modernising it.
Still, partnership appointments like Mr Malik’s are unusual. Industry observers consider the appointment a progressive move. Legal recruiter Lee Shulin said this
recognises and rewards non-legal staff who play an important role in charting the course for law firms. “In order for a managing partner to be an effective lawyer, run his/her own practice and simultaneously ensure the law firm is profitable; it is crucial to have the support of a solid chief financial officer or chief operating officer. And if this CFO and COO is able to go one step further, and help manage the business as well, it would make commercial sense to promote the person into the partnership,” said Ms Lee, who runs ANSA Search. Clement Tan, a senior consultant at recruitment firm Space Executive, added: “It is often difficult to be excellent at both the practice of law as well as the management and operation of a large team. The appointment of a non-practitioner as a partner can bridge gaps between the lawyers and the support staff, both of which must operate smoothly and in tandem in order to provide truly top-class service.” As the demands of legal practice and business continue to evolve, more firms will start to realise the value that an exceptional non-practitioner can bring to the table, he said. Shobna Chandran, a partner at Dentons Rodyk, said promoting nonlawyers to partnership allows greater economies of scale and optimises services for end clients.
The question of whether someone who is not a lawyer can own part of a law firm is widely debated, even in other jurisdictions. Rules for professional conduct set out by the American Bar Association currently do not allow non-lawyers to own a stake in the firm, although there have been attempts in the past decade to change that rule – the states of California, Arizona and Utah, for instance, have assembled task forces to look into the prospect of non-lawyer partners.
The UK, on the other hand, has experimented with alternative ownership structures, including allowing law firms to solicit funding from external investors.
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