Duane Morris Enters Singapore Market; Firm Makes Plans for Vietnam Offices
By Gina Passarella
January 17, 2007
The Legal Intelligencer
Duane Morris Chairman Sheldon Bonovitz is making good on his plan to grow the 600-attorney firm to over 1,000 lawyers with offices across the globe.
The latest move gives the firm a six-attorney outpost in Singapore and plans for two Vietnam offices by the spring of 2007.
New York partner Eduardo Ramos-Gómez, the former Mexican ambassador to Singapore, will serve as managing partner of Duane Morris' office there with a group of five new partners culled from several international firms.
The firm will also open two offices in Vietnam within the next several months, placing one in Hanoi and the other in Ho Chi Minh City.
Ramos-Gómez was the ambassador from 1998 to 2001 and has been a partner at Duane Morris since 2004. He practices in the areas of international and corporate law with a focus on advising multinational and foreign companies in Asia, North America, Europe and Latin America on cross-border direct foreign investment, project development and project finance.
Joining as partners in the Singapore office are former DLA Piper partner Rudy Lim, former White & Case associate Lian Yok Tan, former Shearman & Sterling counsel Sandor E. Schick and former Jones Day counsel Adam Summerly. Chris Muessel, currently special counsel at Baker McKenzie, will join the Singapore office Feb. 1.
Bonovitz said he anticipates three or four associates to join the office in the next few weeks.
Duane Morris' interest in the Singapore market really began when the firm was talking to Coudert Brothers partners in that country as that firm was disbanding, he said. Bonovitz said he saw the benefits of Singapore's growing economy combined with Ramos-Gómez's experience in the country.
"The talks with the Coudert firm pointed out another way to get into the Far East than everybody saying China, China, China," he said.
Bonovitz said entering the Chinese market from the outset is more difficult, and Singapore will give the firm a better understanding of how it could capitalize on opportunities in China and Hong Kong. Duane Morris has some clients in China already, including an auto parts manufacturer, he said.
The office has been over a year in the making, and was important, Bonovitz said, to the firm's goal of having a true international practice.
Bonovitz said the firm expects to grow its energy practice through the Singapore office.
Douglas Woloshin, managing partner of Duane Morris' Washington, D.C. office, played an integral role in setting up the firm's Asian presence, he said. He will continue a liaison function with the new offices and will now lead the firm's project finance practice group. That group is a key component of the firm's Asian practice, the firm has said.
"We understand our Singapore office will place us among the top five U.S. firms in Singapore and at the time we open our Vietnam offices, we will be only one of two U.S.-based firms in Vietnam," Bonovitz said.
Baker & McKenzie has offices in Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City.
The Singapore partners will service clients in, or with interests in, Cambodia, China and Taiwan, India, Indonesia, Japan, South Korea, Laos, Malaysia, the Philippines, Singapore and Vietnam. The office and staff are fluent in most of the languages of the countries in which the firm services clients.
The firm pointed to the fast-growing economies in both Singapore and Vietnam as one of the reasons it looked to those areas for growth opportunities.
Bonovitz said he expects to have the Vietnam offices open by March or April, and already has a few attorneys lined up. The offices will be smaller to start than the Singapore office, he said.
The firm will open two offices, Bonovitz said, because Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh are two very separate markets. The Vietnam offices were more of a follow-on to the Singapore office, he said.
"We certainly wouldn't have done Vietnam without Singapore," Bonovitz said.
It was through the firm's discussions with Muessel that the possibility of Vietnam even came to be. He has been practicing there and will relocate to Singapore to join the new office. His clients in Vietnam will be a benefit to both the Singapore and Vietnam offices, Bonovitz said.
Ward Bower, a consultant with Altman Weil said having clients on the ground in these countries is really the only reason to enter the markets.
"You wouldn't go there and set up an operation and expect referrals," he said.
Bower said he doesn't see Singapore or Vietnam as springboards into China. He said, however, that Duane Morris has had "remarkable success" in its expansion efforts thus far.
The Asian market has been a hot topic for U.S. law firms recently, with many focusing on China specifically.
Reed Smith came closer to having a Chinese office with the completion of its merger on Jan. 1 with London-based Richards Butler. That firm has an affiliate, Richards Butler Hong Kong, which did not come as part of the merger package. Talks are still ongoing in terms of bringing the Hong Kong office on board officially.
Morgan Lewis & Bockius opened a Beijing office almost a year ago, and had created a third law firm — TMI — out of an affiliation with a Japanese firm. Morgan Lewis also has a Tokyo office.
Most recently, Blank Rome entered the Asian market through a merger with New York-based Healy & Baillie, which had a Hong Kong office.
Of firms with a Pennsylvania presence, DLA Piper and Jones Day are the only two with a Singapore office. Each has one fewer attorney now that Duane Morris has taken one lawyer from both firms.
Recruiter Michael Coleman of Coleman Legal Search said he hasn't heard of many local firms with an interest in the Singapore or Vietnam markets, but has heard some buzz nationally.
Some national firms with Singapore offices include Shearman & Sterling, Baker & McKenzie, Milbank Tweed Hadley & McCloy, White & Case, Heller Ehrman, Latham & Watkins, Hunton & Williams, Skadden Arps Slate Meagher & Flom and Morrison & Foerster.
Coleman said Bonovitz might be trying to take advantage of the fact that other firms haven't sought out either Singapore or Vietnam with as great an interest as other Asian markets.
"The fact that other firms have chosen not to be in certain areas … may be a plus, not a minus," he said.
Bonovitz's vision, Coleman said, has always been to create a global firm. He started with building out the New York and Washington offices, then moved to strengthen other U.S. offices, and is now working on international expansion, Coleman said.
"He has, in a short period of time, taken his firm out of the pack," he said.
Bonovitz has always been a leader in certain areas of law firm management, Coleman said, pointing to Duane Morris' success in ancillary businesses and taking on specific contingency fee cases. Entering markets not traditionally sought by others is another example of Bonovitz setting a "distinctive path."
DLA Piper gained its Singapore office through its triple merger in 2005, but the office has been open since 2000. Co-managing partner for the firm in the United States, Jeffrey F. Liss, said the office was one of the many positives that came out of the merger.
"We want to have coverage in the major financial centers," he said. "Singapore is one of those."
The office currently has 10 attorneys, and combined with the firm's other Asian offices, gives access to nearly 500 million people across Southeast Asia, Liss said.
He said latest estimates name close to 7,000 companies that are either headquartered or do business in Singapore.
"It, like the Asian economy in general, is vibrant," Liss said.
DLA Piper also has an affiliate in Vietnam through Australian-based Phillips Fox, an alliance created in 2006 through the firm's DLA Piper Group.
Bonovitz said the firm is not proactively looking at any other markets for possible expansion, but is open to expansion if the right opportunity comes along. Duane Morris will focus now on filling out its existing space, particularly in New York and the newly opened Baltimore office, he said.
This article originally appeared in The Legal Intelligencer and is republished here with permission from law.com.