This article traces the trend of specialist boutique disputes firms. This will cover some examples from the UK, Singapore and Malaysia. This article sets out some trends and how boutique disputes firms are also establishing their foothold in the market.
The London Boutique Disputes Firms
In 2010, a 11-member team left Addleshaw Goddard and formed Enyo Law. It is a specialist disputes-only firm with an international focus in its practice. Here is an interview in June 2019 with one of its partners:
I think there is definitely a bright future for disputes-only firms, as we play a valuable and increasingly well-recognised role in the market. Full-service firms can refer conflicts to us in the knowledge that their clients get a first-class service and the firm referring to us will get their client back at the end of the matter. We’re not interested in developing our own roster of corporate clients; what’s important to us is the relationships we have with the firms referring matters to us. We’re respectful of their clients and their relationships.
We also like teaming up with the fullservice firms to execute strategies which those firms might not feel comfortable fronting themselves, where for instance the client’s interests require an assertive strategy against a major City institution. Firms like ours can take on those mandates where full service firms can’t or won’t, for understandable reasons.
2014 saw the launch of Three Crowns with six high-profile founding partners from top international law firms. At the time of its launch, Three Crowns operated with offices in London, Washington DC and Paris, and has since opened an office in Bahrain. It focuses exclusively on arbitration, commercial, investment-treaty and inter-State work. Some quotes from an article one year after its launch:
“We had a conviction that, having worked for blue chip clients, what they were most interested in from arbitration service providers was something they weren’t getting in big law,” says Partasides. “They wanted distinguishing advocacy and a structure that gave weight and support to their big disputes.”
“Those disputes lawyers who win the most difficult cases tend to be big name individuals,” Partasides continues, “more so than corporate partners and transaction lawyers. It made sense to create an environment that would allow those types of individuals to survive and be more comfortable than they would be in large institutions.”
There are other articles featuring the rise and evolution of the boutique disputes firms in the London market. This article features other boutique disputes firms like Signature Litigation, Cooke, Young & Keidan, Stewarts (now UK’s largest disputes-only law firm with more than 68 partners), and the UK launch of Quinn Emanuel.
From the article, one factor easing the setting up of such specialist firms is that it is now easier to get off-the-shelf solutions to help set up your firm:
While many lawyers initially find the range of decisions you have to make when launching a boutique bewildering – offices, IT, professional insurance and registration – the availability of off-the-shelf technology and help from advisers means it has become easier in recent years to handle the logistics.
Powell Gilbert founder Penny Gilbert recalls: ‘We started off in serviced offices and found space in what used to be the Patent Office. That made life a lot easier – there was a lot of support there. Being able to do all your IT on the cloud now and not having to have a huge in-house infrastructure helps. The market is very sophisticated. You have a lot of support in London.’
One last article on the London market summarised the ten years of the boutique disputes scene:
Overall, boutiques occupy a clear place in the market that is increasingly inhospitable to generalists. The challenge ahead will be to work out how best to manage their growth and the inevitable governance challenges they will face, as they mature and initial founders take a step back.
But Zietman is predictably bullish about the position he and his peers have carved. ‘We won’t see a lot of firms rushing to move into our space. It takes a leap of faith to set up your own firm.’
In Singapore, there is also the growing trend of specialist boutique litigation firms.
In early 2017, Senior Counsel (SC) Lok Vi Ming left Dentons Rodyk after more than 30 years of practicing there. He then set up his litigation boutique firm of LVM Law Chambers. As reported in another article, SC Lok felt there was room for more disputes-focused law firms:
SC Lok, LVM Law’s managing director, believes there is “room for more conflict-free, independent, disputes-focused law firms here”.
“Due to the growing complexity of disputes, as well as the emphasis on speed and responsiveness required for litigation and arbitration, such firms will need to have considerable bench strength. Single practitioner and small practices will find coping with high value and high tempo disputes challenging,” said SC Lok, who learnt the ropes at Rodyk & Davidson under the tutelage of senior lawyer P. Selvadurai.
Later in 2017, Essex Court Chambers Duxton was set up. It was a specialist advocacy chambers set up, with each member being similar to a self-employed barrister. This chambers practice had as its founding members Singapore’s former attorney general Senior Counsel VK Rajah and Queen’s Counsel Toby Landau.
VK Rajah mentioned in the article:
He said: “Singapore’s first pure chambers practice introduces a different concept of specialised legal services that will focus on advisory and advocacy work. This new platform will give Singapore and the region a wider choice in first-tier legal services, in both domestic litigation and international arbitration briefs. I look forward to this exciting venture.”
“Renewal in the commercial world cannot meaningfully take place under a shadow. If you train the young to take over, you must trust them to do so,” said Mr Singh.
“I have overseen the transition and am convinced that the new team is ready and the firm is in capable hands. I therefore believe that it is the right thing to do to move on. I am also very blessed to be able to do that at a time of my choosing.”
Audent Chambers will be established as an advocates-only set-up. This means it will not take on clients directly but will work with solicitor firms. It will focus on the work of representing clients in the open court as well as before arbitration tribunals.
This also means that the firm will take charge of strategy, submissions to court and oral arguments in court, thus allowing it to focus on the kind of work that it is interested to do. It is a unique model for law firms here, as most play both the solicitor and advocate’s role.
In Malaysia, there are a growing number of boutique litigation firms, with the litigators having moved from the larger firms to establish their own set-up.
In 2010, Mohanadass Partnership was set up as a construction and arbitration disputes focused firm. Mohanadass Kanagasabai and some of his lawyers left Shook Lin & Bok to set up their boutique firm.
In 2015, Tan Sri Cecil Abraham set up the litigation and arbitration practice Cecil Abraham & Partners. Cecil Abraham had served 38 years at Shearn Delamore & Co and joined Zul Rafique & Co for 8 years before setting up his practice.
In 2015 as well, Ariff Rozhan, who was then heading Zaid Ibrahim & Co’s dispute resolution, and his partners left to establish Ariff Rozhan & Co.
Finally, in July 2020, the three founding partners of Dato’ Lim Chee Wee, Lee Shih and Kwan Will Sen left Skrine to establish the boutique disputes firm of Lim Chee Wee Partnership, focusing on commercial litigation and international arbitration.