Congratulations on your awards at the 2009 Chambers’ Bar Awards (International Arbitration Silk and Junior and Lifetime Achievement). It seems you’ve had a very good year, rising two places in the top 30 and well written up in the Legal 500 and Chambers & Partners. Are you pleased with where things are at?

Yes indeed, we are very pleased although not resting on our laurels. With the advent of the credit crunch, the market for litigation has changed substantially, and business is currently booming at all levels, particularly in the field of banking (structured products, derivatives), shipping and arbitration. We’ve also recently taken on a highly regarded public international lawyer, David Caron of California University (Berkeley) to enhance further our presence and reputation in the international field. Also we have two new members from pupillage.

I know it’s been brewing for a while, how have things developed regarding your invitation to be a part of Maxwell Chambers in Singapore?

We open in January 2010 and already have a junior member of chambers, David Lewis, in situ. He intends to practice from Singapore for the whole of next year. Members have recognised the opportunities that the project provides and are committed to its success. In addition other members will be there on a rolling basis so we can provide good service to the legal community. We have been pleased by the uptake as the vast majority have volunteered and considering individuals’ personal commitments we couldn’t be happier to know we will be well represented in the future. We also intend to practice in Singapore as we do in London – with everyone here involved.

This is a very unique offering?

Absolutely, this is ground-breaking. It is unique due to the deregulation of Singapore and with the full support the Singapore Government is giving to developing an important market. The Singapore Government and, indeed we, are very keen to make it a great success. We want to be seen as proactive with our presence there and it is fair to say we have been fully supporting the invitation given. We have been working closely with the Singapore Government on certain issues as well as member bodies. Michael Pryles, an arbitrator member of 20 Essex Street, has recently been appointed Chairman of the Singapore International Arbitration Centre (SIAC).
Yes, I’ve actually spoken to Michael Pryles and the Ministry of Law. Michael is the first non-Singaporean citizen to be in post as Chairman (a decision by the SIAC board to make it fully international) and he believes “Singapore has the opportunity to be a (possibly the) leading international arbitration centre but only if matters move on from being parochial as the appetite is growing momentum”. MinLaw stated “The presence at Maxwell Chambers of a highly regarded set of chambers like 20 Essex Street will help to meet this demand and enable Maxwell Chambers to be a ‘one-stop shop’ for clients from the region and beyond”.

Are you heartened by these comments?

We think it shows the high regard in which all the members of 20 Essex Street are held.

It must be encouraging to already have work coming through at such a rate?

We are delighted, but not surprised, with the initial response. David Lewis is proving a very popular choice; he has already picked up a number of significant cases. We’re getting work both in London and Singapore, not only from UK law firms in Singapore, but also from local lawyers. We firmly believe our presence in Singapore will give us a real advantage in obtaining work in Asia and the Far East.  We have every confidence that our local presence and our clear commitment to the Maxwell Chambers initiative will ultimately result in a significant increase in work.  

Am I right in thinking about 20% of your fees come from abroad?

Much of our work is for international clients, and 18% of our fees at the moment come directly from overseas lawyers. By spreading out further to the Far East we will be looking to use Singapore as a springboard to other areas. Indian companies appear, for example, to arbitrate in Singapore and that is a region of interest to us. Also Hong Kong is only 2 hours away, so working in Singapore there is no reason why we couldn’t extend here as we would be well able to meet the demand. We already receive significant instructions from Hong Kong so if opportunities came along, we would indeed do the same in Hong Kong.

What other implications might this have for your chambers?

We have every confidence that we can not only develop the global reach of members’ practices, but also enhance their professional reputations. The profile and success of members of chambers will obviously assist with recruitment, as for many young barristers the opportunity to spend some time working abroad will be very attractive. That is something which few chambers can offer. International arbitration is a dynamic and expanding field and we expect this venture to play a significant role in developing the practices of all our members, whether acting as counsel or as arbitrators.

Iain Milligan QC and Brian Lee were interviewed by Guy Hewetson, LPA Legal