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“Our vision is to disrupt Big Law, even if in a small way” – NLSIU’s Azmul Haque, Collyer Law

Story originally featured in Bar & Bench

After a decade of legal practice in Singapore, Former Olswang Consultant, Azmul Haque has taken an entrepreneurial leap with his boutique firm, Collyer Law LLC.

One of the first Indian-qualified lawyers to be fully admitted to the Singapore bar, Azmul is the first Indian-qualified lawyer to be granted a law-firm license to practice Singapore law.

A graduate of National Law School of India University, Bangalore, Azmul spent four years at DSK Legal before moving to Singapore in 2006 to join WongPartnership as a Foreign Legal Consultant. In 2008, he moved to Berwin Leighton Paisner. In 2012, he joined Singapore–based firm Shook Lin & Bok as a Corporate Partner and was co-heading the firm’s India practice before moving to Olswang in 2014.

In this interview with Bar & Bench’s Pallavi Saluja, Azmul Haque talks about his decision to set up his boutique firm, the team, the growth of start ups and much more.

Pallavi Saluja: Can you tell us more about the decision to leave Big Law and set up your own law firm in Singapore?

Azmul Haque: There were two things that precipitated my decision to leave Big Law: one, I finished 10 years of law practice in Singapore earlier this year, and after working with two top-6 Singaporean law-firms and international law-firms in Singapore I thought I had imbibed much about what works (and what doesn’t) in a traditional law-firm structure.

It was time to try to do things a bit differently.

The second reason has to do with the evolution of the legal market – it has become more crowded (you can’t throw a stone without hitting a lawyer in Singapore!) but also more sophisticated and nuanced. The existing large and mid-size players in the market have a certain focus area and practice, based on their historical strengths and perspectives on the market. The smaller law-firms pretty much do anything they can get their hands on.

I thought there was a significant gap in the market for experienced “Big Law” international lawyers who combine breadth of experience for cross-border matters with a sector focus, and ability to practice Singapore law.

I thought there was a significant gap in the market for experienced Big Law international lawyers who combine breadth of experience for cross-border matters with a sector focus, and ability to practice Singapore law.

That to me was the big opportunity and I decided to throw my hat in the ring, being inspired by many bright entrepreneurs and founders that I work with regularly.

Pallavi Saluja: Tell us more about your venture.

Azmul Haque: I founded Collyer Law on October 1, 2015. I recruited James Wong (a

senior dual-qualified private equity and funds lawyer) as a Director the same month, and we have hired another 4 lawyers since, effectively trebling in size in less than 3 months. We hope to double again and grow to at least 12 lawyers in 2016.

The legal sector is usually not lauded for its ability to innovate – the basic business model of the large corporate law-firm probably hasn’t changed since World War II! Our vision is to disrupt, even if in a small way, “Big Law” and provide an alternative to clients tired of Big Law firms who cannot or do not adapt to cater to a changing marketplace for professional services.

Pallavi Saluja: How would you compete with Singapore law firms, and Magic Circle firms with a well-established India practice?

Azmul Haque: We are a fully-licensed Singapore law practice, but staffed with both Singapore-qualified and foreign-qualified lawyers. Our current senior lawyers are mostly dual-qualified and admitted in Singapore, England, India and New York. One of the things that set us apart is our breadth of international experience in Big Law, but available in a boutique law-firm setting, that doesn’t cost an arm and a leg. While we are boutique in size, we’d like to think that we punch well above our weight-category.

In our first month, we acted on Singapore-India deal corridor transaction: a venture financing for a fintech business with a Singapore holdco structure, by one of the largest Valley-based venture capital firms. We acted as company counsel and acted opposite a 2,500 lawyer AmLaw 20 firm – in our first month as Collyer Law!

We do not compete with large Singapore firms and magic circle firms in a number of areas (such as capital markets or banking work).

Where we do compete with them, we feel we may well be better-placed for that legal expertise, e.g., advise on transactions and advisory work in the India-Singapore deal corridor, where we have the ability to advise on inbound and outbound matters, knowledge of local laws and industry practice, and awareness of the cultural context in which deals get done.

In some ways, we understand the nuances of legal services in the “corridor” better than most, and therefore we think the value and user-experience of engaging with us goes far beyond just using another “brand-name” Big Law firm.

Pallavi Saluja: What are the major challenges you foresee?

Azmul Haque: Law-firms are very traditional businesses and this is partly because most lawyers are conservative folks, and partly because current regulation for the legal industry doesn’t allow for a huge amount of innovation. We have been lucky to hire some very talented and entrepreneurial lawyers in our first few months, and we hope to continue to do so as that our lawyers are our biggest assets.

We feel that current regulations on the legal services are a limiting factor to the growth of many legal services providers. Eliminating regulations on who may provide legal services and who may own and operate a law firm could result in substantial efficiencies.

Eliminating regulations on who may provide legal services and who may own and operate a law firm could result in substantial efficiencies.

All law-firms, not just us, need to deal with the changing marketplace; specifically, how can they innovate and reconfigure and adapt to new circumstances — when their owners, managers and workers don’t wish to deal with change.

Pallavi Saluja: Are law firms with Hong Kong and Singapore offices better positioned to do India deals than those out of London?

Azmul Haque: Certainly, without question. Qualification to advise on certain laws and expertise in area of law is a given. The differentiators are being available and responsive in time-zone, being able to work efficiently and in a creative manner, understanding the cultural context and other regulatory nuances that may not be available in text-books. Our senior lawyers who have in-region current experience doing deals related to India are arguably better placed than many law-firms that manage their India practice in London or New York.

Pallavi Saluja: You mentioned that you would be advising high growth start-ups. Do you think the growth of start-ups in India is going to lead to increased M&A in the long run?

Azmul Haque: The jury is still not out as to whether the current high valuations for Indian technology start-ups are really the consequence of a bubble. Irrespective of how many of them become a Unicorn or a Unicorpse, the law of averages suggests that many will indeed make the journey to becoming strong and viable businesses.

Strategic growth through M&A should be a natural consequence – I advised Indian e-commerce behemoth Snapdeal when it acquired Freecharge, and I expect many similar consolidations and strategic acquisitions in the e-commerce, fintech and other high growth sectors.

Pallavi Saluja: Should India open its market to foreign law firms?

Azmul Haque: In a word, yes. Though this is a probably the subject-matter of an entire interview or research paper! If we just look at Singapore’s example of liberalising gradually its legal marketplace, this is necessary and progressive process that can only be beneficial for all stake-holders in the longer run.

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