Asian Legal Business July 2002

Singapore has one of the world’s largest and busiest ports, so it should come as little surprise that maritime law has achieved the status it has in the Lion City, or that local shipping law firms have been able to develop a profitable niche business.

As well as nurturing the necessary expertise in-house and having the ability to think ‘out-of-the-box’, Benny says Joseph Tan Jude Benny (JTJB) has also, along the way, enjoyed “some very fortunate breaks”.

JTJB was established in 1988 and has become one of the country’s leading shipping practices.  “When people in major shipping centres around the world mention the top Singapore shipping firms,” says Benny, “our objective has always been to be one of them.  And we’ve achieved that… to a certain extent.”

Benny heads JTJB’s admiralty and shipping practice, along with Danny Chua.  The former received his ‘Dato’ title from the Sultan of Pahang for his many celebrated cases for the Malaysian government.  The latter migrated from Khattar Wong & Partners with his team in September 1999.

The arrival of Danny Chua and his team (including Mohd Goush Marikan who was a merchant navy officers as well as a qualified lawyer) was quite a coup and a major factor in the growth of the practice.  With 15 lawyers, JTJB’s shipping practice is one of the largest in Singapore and is hoping to expand further this year.

JTJB has been involved in high-profile maritime cases such as the Seismic Ship collision off China, the sinking of the Calypso in Singapore, and has represented the Crown Price of Abu Dhabi.  JTJB also handled the first ship collision trial to be heard locally for 40 years (Ming Galaxy / Herci Novi).

Bring it on

Still, the firm is only too aware that the competition is getting fiercer and there’s only so much a specialist firm can do.  Says Benny: “We must always be on our toes and have to be conscious of our limitations.  We are far from saying that we’ve achieved the market standing for which we aspired.  We’re not the largest of firms and we have budget constraints.  It is all the more important that we should use our limited resources in a very focused approach: in marketing, client relations and the delivery of quality work.”

The delivery of quality work has helped the firm expand its business throughout the region and across the globe.  JTJB now boasts five international offices in major ports including Hamburg, Piraeus, Bangkok, Kuala Lumpur and Taipei.

Benny says that while the offices offer interesting and unique origins, they are admittedly small.  “But they’re our own and we work together with the nationals.  The primary objective of the offices is to repatriate work back here.”

And it seems to be working.  According to the firm, the number of cases it has taken on has increased, and the shipping industry as a whole remains dynamic.  Benny says he continues to see litigation work coming out of Singapore, while there is enough regional work from Malaysia and Thailand – to keep the firm busy.

The shrinkage in the volume of work, says Benny, simply means that the nature of the work becomes more recession-driven.  “Whether the danger signs are out for the shipping practice – I don’t think so, “he says.  “But caution is critical now.”

The present climate has put expansion plans on hold for JTJB and Benny is aware that clients are becoming more selective.  The lull in activity has already forced some consolidation in the market place but there will be no such deals for JTJB.  Says Benny: “We’re very happy with our own identity.”