(Published by Singapore Trade Development Board)
Vol 5 Issue 3/2001
Business of maritime law sets sail
Singapore’s position as a maritime hub is complemented by the development of a growing maritime law business. Local practices have gained international recognition and one of them has even started franchising.
The port of Singapore is one of the world’s biggest and busiest, and has won numerous international awards. The hive of maritime activities has spurred the development of the business of maritime law, dovetailing with the government’s vision to turn Singapore into a truly international maritime centre that offers a full range of services for the shipping community.
Maritime law is a very complex business that requires high levels of expertise. It often involves disputes between parties in different countries, as well as collisions, sinkings and environmental damage that may occur in international waters.
London and New York, which long ago had bigger ports than Singapore, remain the clear leaders in the field. In Asia, Hong Kong is also well regarded.
However, recent years have seen considerable growth in maritime law in Singapore – in the size and quality of law firms that specialise in admiralty and shipping, as well as in the number of maritime cases handled here.
In July this year, the Singaporean firm Joseph Tan Jude Benny (JTJB) achieved a rare first when it successfully “exported” its expertise in maritime law to Canada.
Through a unique franchise agreement, JTJB sold its brand name to the Vancouver-based law firm of Koh & Buchan, which subsequently changed its name to JTJB Vancouver.
JTJB is now looking to franchise its name elsewhere, as well as open more foreign offices, as part of its global expansion plans. It already has offices in Piraeus, Greece; Hamburg; Germany; Bangkok, Thailand; and Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia.
While it is quite common for well-established international law firms to open offshore branches, or team up in joint-venture partnerships abroad, franchising is a lot rarer.
The franchisee has to drop its own identity and also pay an annual fee for the rights to use another name. Not many firms would want to do that, even if they stand to gain from the expertise of the franchisor.
JTJB could well be the first in the world to successfully franchise its name. Founding Partner Dato’ Jude Benny said that, to the best of his knowledge, no other firm has ever done so.
A major reason for JTJB’s success is the fact that Dato’ Benny is regarded within legal circles as one of the world’s top maritime lawyers. His firm is well-known in London, New York, Hong Kong and other maritime hubs.
“JTJB is a brand name in the international shipping sector,” said Mr Peter Koh of Koh & Buchan. It was Mr Koh’s desire to work with JTJB that lead to the franchise.
Dato Benny is not up there alone. Another Singapore lawyer, Mr Steven Chong, of the firm Rajah & Tann, is also recognised as one of the world’s top maritime lawyers.
But having good lawyers alone is not good enough for the business to grow, as Dato’ Benny explained. “While most will tell you that a good legal system, good support, good lawyers, et cetera, will allow Singapore to become a maritime centre, I say these are givens that must be there. We have them.
“What you need is marketing, We have a catch-up game to play. We must market strongly. Be seen and be heard. that is what I am doing anyway.”
JTJB certainly markets itself aggressively. Its glossy brochure and well-designed website provides, among other things, a 24-hour telephone hotline for shipping emergencies plus three different ways to contact each and every lawyer – direct office line, mobile number and e-mail address.
It is also worth mentioning that when Singapore Trade News e-mailed Dato’ Benny a list of questions, he responded swiftly by the following morning, with detailed answers.
Through a unique franchise agreement, JTJB sold its brand name to the Vancouver-based law firm of Koh & Buchan, which subsequently changed its name to JTJB Vancouver. JTJB is now looking to franchise its name elsewhere.
JTJB embarked on an aggressive plan at the end of 1999, when it beefed up its practice by luring over seven shipping lawyers from the rival firm of Khattar Wong & Partners.
This group included Khattar Wong’s head of shipping Mr Danny Chua, his deputy, Mr Timothy Tan, and a former merchant navy officer, Mr Mohamed Goush Marikan. This resulted in JTJB emerging as Singapore’s biggest maritime practice, with 25 shipping lawyers.
Incidentally, this followed the move by Steven Chong, who was previously head of shipping at Drew & Napier, to Rajah & Tann.
JTJB and Rajah & Tann are now the two biggest names in Singapore’s maritime law sector. More importantly, the become contenders to the well-established UK firms, several of which have set up offices in Singapore recently.
While foreign lawyers are not allowed to practice in Singapore’s courts, they are allowed to handle arbitration cases. Arbitration is popular in shipping especially when only one party in a dispute is from this region.
Dato’ Benny said: “The true body of shipping is ‘wet’ work. These are ship collision cases, sinkings, etcetera”.
“We are looking at other franchise partners for sure in strategic locations,” Dato’ Benny said. The firm is eyeing locations such as San Francisco, the US East Coast, Europe, North Asia and The Middle East, either for off-shore offices or franchise partners.
“JTJB is a known name in London, New York and Hong Kong,” Dato’ Benny said. “and so we don’t have a problem selling our name. We need to find the right partner who is facing difficulty branding himself, yet is good enough to meet our requirements, that is, be a sound service provider.”
Meanwhile, JTJB has just earned another reason to be well-known – it won the Best Shipping Practice award at the 2001 Asian Law Awards.
“I think we are groundbreakers. And that is good. Lawyers are generally unable to think out of the box, when it comes to business. We work hard at thinking out of the box.
“Our aim is to be a truly Singapore-bred international law firm.”