Legal, Risk & Compliance
2021 Singapore Legal salary report
6 months ago by Legal practice / Back to all blogs
By: Ethos BeathChapman's Legal practice
2020 can be summed up in three words: Adaptability, Agility and Digitalisation.
The pandemic catalysed the legal industry’s pathway to digitalisation and law firms took it in their stride. Various work-from-home arrangements were swiftly implemented to ensure fee earners and support staff alike were well-equipped to operate from home with minimal disruption.
For the first time ever, a batch of newly-qualified lawyers were called to the Bar virtually, a clear indication of how well the legal sector responded to the unprecedented impact of Covid-19.
Last year, most law firms in Singapore implemented pay freezes to cope with the pandemic’s financial impact, while some put in place temporary salary reductions to tide through the trying times. On the bright side, these measures enabled most firms to retain full headcount and streamline their operational processes to increase efficiency while lowering cost.
2020 impacted each practice area differently. Law firms initially took a conservative hiring approach at the start of the pandemic, but recruitment demand became evidently linear, with hiring appetite for junior lawyers at associate level growing within high-demand practice areas the likes of project development, labour and employment, fraud and regulatory investigations, as well as restructuring and insolvency practices.
The disputes (commercial litigation and international arbitration) practice grew tremendously last year, with some practitioners describing their 2020 as the “busiest period in their career”. This stemmed from corporations eager to recover financial claims due to force majeure. It has also been observed that firms have been more frequently instructed on insolvency matters, especially across industries that suffered the most impact due to the pandemic.
In Singapore, as guided by the Temporary Measures Act, remote telecommunication solutions facilitated the continuation of court hearings, enabling the practice to operate effectively despite physical restrictions in courtrooms imposed by the pandemic.
Fraud and Regulatory Investigations.
2020 was a busy year for fraud and investigations lawyers and the practice will continue to thrive in 2021 to address the needs of businesses facing increasingly complex and evolving legislation and regulations concerning civil, criminal and regulatory risks, especially within highly-regulated sectors such as pharmaceuticals and life sciences, technology and the financial services. The rise of cybercrimes during the pandemic accentuated the need for regulatory framework and legal expertise to keep pace.
Key skill sets required within this practice include, but are not limited to areas of FCPA, compliance, investigations, regulatory counselling such as money-laundering regulations, data privacy and employment. Mandarin proficiency has proven to be an important criteria, especially with the increase in work from clients in Hong Kong and the greater China region. Common Law qualifications (UK/AUS/US) are also preferred.
Project Development and Finance.
There has been a spike in the number of projects roles in the market last year – particularly in the power, renewables, oil and gas, infrastructure and construction sectors. Project lawyers with strong experience in areas of project development, financing and its related mergers and acquisitions have been sought after by leading players in the market.
Singapore’s strategic location for outbound investments to reach Southeast Asian markets has been an attractive proposition for lawyers moving into the country. 2020 saw several prominent team moves and hires made across US and UK law firms in this field as part of strategic plans to develop their projects practice in the broader ASEAN region.
Labour and Employment.
While the nature of HR and employment advisory work remains unchanged, demand for the labour and employment practice rose in 2020 as businesses and the economy took a hit from the pandemic.
With that came a surge of queries and advice needed from employers and employees alike on their obligations and rights, retrenchment laws, wrongful terminations as well as workplace health and safety laws.
Since the pandemic, interest in lawyers with labour and employment skills have been noted and corporate practices have also started to take on work within this space.
Technology and Intellectual Property.
Despite ‘technology’ being the buzz word of this decade, the talent pool for technology lawyers within law firms stayed nimble in the last year. One reason technology practices have not been expanding at the same pace is because businesses have been recruiting tech lawyers directly instead to build and groom their in-house legal advisory teams.
Nonetheless, this is undeniably a growth area as technology lawyers remain sought after by the industry and the practice is an equally attractive one for lawyers to transition into. Skills required include the experience in data privacy, transactional and IP advisory, technology, media and telecommunications (TMT) – including Software-as-a-Service (SaaS), cloud computing agreements, software licensing and outsourcing agreements.
Since the launch of the variable capital companies (VCC) framework in January 2020, local law firms have started launching their funds practice. That said, lateral hiring across investment funds practices was limited throughout 2020 as these firms have been relying first on the expertise of their existing teams.
As work picks up in 2021 and Singapore continues to enhance its attractiveness as an international fund management centre for fund managers to establish their funds, more hiring is expected to take place at junior level within this practice, in addition to the grooming and training of existing junior lawyers. Skills required include the experience in upstream establishment and structuring of funds and downstream mergers and acquisitions (M&A).
Work within the capital markets practice slowed down in the earlier half of 2020 and with it, recruitment within the practice. However, with the market bouncing back and the distribution of Covid-19 vaccines restoring confidence, steady recovery is observed.
Recruitment had been for replacement roles but the practice will start to require junior to mid-level lawyers, particularly with Mandarin speaking ability for North Asian markets.
Banking Finance and Restructuring.
The practice dealt with more finance restructuring matters in 2020 as US law firms continue to be a go-to option for corporate borrowers while acting across counsels from the UK or local law firms.
Skill sets valued in this practice include banking restructuring and special situation financing, and conventional finance experience spanning across acquisition, leveraged and structured financing within the ASEAN region. The ability to speak and read Mandarin has become an increasingly important criteria for servicing large Chinese corporations.
Corporate M&A, Private Equity & Venture Capital (PEVC).
2020 was an apprehensive market with a slowdown of deals and cross border activity. As the global economy returns to a growth trajectory and Singapore continues to position itself as a strategic location for international law firms to develop their practice given the country’s proximity to the rest of Southeast Asia, an active market is expected in 2021 and beyond.
Hiring shifts from corporate M&A to PEVC have been observed as international firms pick up more private equity and venture capital work in view of investments into unicorn start-ups within emerging markets.
It’s interesting to note that international law firms have become more open to grooming and developing junior lawyers. In another positive move to retain their fee earners, law firms are also starting to create different career paths for senior lawyers.
As law firms in Singapore continue to win regional mandates, bi-lingual language proficiency remains a desired skill transferrable across private practice firms in Singapore.
The private practice in Singapore may not have been immune to effects of the pandemic but the evolving market will continue to demand legal expertise. Just as digitalisation, adaptability and agility kept the legal industry resilient, lawyers must also be prepared to upskill, adapt and pivot into growth areas to stay relevant in our post-pandemic world.
2020 started as a conservative hiring market for in-house legal jobs in Singapore. Permanent positions were put on hold in the first half of the year as a lack of clarity from the Covid-19 pandemic dampened hiring capacity in most companies.
The market rebounded with new jobs created in the fourth quarter of 2020. MNCs, conglomerates and state-linked enterprises were notably more selective about the candidate selection process during the pandemic, but Singapore’s job market for in-house lawyers has clearly demonstrated resilience.
It’s interesting to note that interim contract work has started becoming a realistic consideration for companies and lawyers alike. Some permanent roles turned into contract secondments facilitated by service providers in 2020 and contracting may well be the way forward for some industries in 2021.
2021 growth areas.
Key industry segments where in-house legal recruitment remained consistent in 2020 will continue on this trajectory in 2021. These industries include logistics and shipping, e-commerce and digital payments, private equity, renewables, asset management, healthcare, pharmaceuticals, life sciences and technology – specifically within enterprise software vendors and in cyber security.
The growth in demand for in-house intellectual property, data privacy and protection lawyers as seen in the past year will be sustained in 2021 due to amendments to Singapore’s Personal Data Protection Act (PDPA) in February (Read our article on pivoting into data privacy). Lawyers who wish to transition into growth areas the likes of software licensing and Software-as-a-Service (SaaS) companies can consider firstly gaining technology experience within system integrators and software vendors who have been receptive to transferrable generalist experience.
With digital banks in Singapore commencing operations in 2022, digital banking players will ramp up their recruitment for local talent in legal and regulatory functions this year. Recruitment for digital banking jobs began even before licences were awarded last December by the Monetary Authority of Singapore (MAS) and the industry has been seeing active hiring in this space since (Read our interview with The Straits Times to learn about the legal experience required by digital banks).
Key skills and experience required in Singapore.
Amidst Singapore’s strong local legal talent market, companies continue to prioritise local talent for their legal vacancies in Singapore. Next in line are foreign qualified lawyers with experience working in Singapore, specifically those with skills sought after by the market, possessing either data protection and privacy, cyber security, SaaS software licensing, structured or project financing experience. Commodity trading and structured finance transactions skill sets are also expected to be in greater demand in the second half of the year.
Singaporeans or Singapore permanent residents currently based overseas have also expressed willingness to consider career opportunities back in Singapore. These individuals with international work experience will be in demand here if they possess niche and regional (country counsel) experience.
Singapore’s in-house legal recruitment market has not been shielded from the impact of Covid-19 but for the reasons cited earlier, it has shown weatherproof buoyancy. Demand for legal expertise is ever-present within companies and work continues to be busy due to regulatory changes and counterparty disputes.
In-house lawyers and organisations continue to enjoy the best work-life integration and this year, with the roll-out of Covid-19 vaccines restoring market confidence, the recruitment outlook for 2021 is positive.
As the job market picks up, companies within growth areas will continue to experience a talent shortage of lawyers with relevant experience and portable skills. Employers do need to move swiftly in the recruitment process as the candidate-short talent pool does mean these lawyers will have multiple offers in hand.
To learn what companies in Singapore are paying their legal hires in today's market, download Ethos BeathChapman's 2021 Singapore Legal salary report using the form above.
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