Musings on the announced closure of Clifford Chance’s Bangkok office

At the end of last week I read with sadness the decision by Clifford Chance (CC) to close its Bangkok office. While I’m always saddened to hear that a law firm will be closing the doors on one of its offices, in the case of CC Bangkok it’s personal.

Let me take you back to 1998

The year was 1998, and what would become known as the Asian Financial Crisis (AFC) had just come crashing through the door like an unwanted drunk guest to spoil what as a pretty good party. At the time this was still known as the ‘Tom Yum Goong‘ crisis in the local Thai press and the horrific murder of Australian accountant Michael Wansley (shot 8 times) was still a few months away (10 March 1999).

In short, the full measure of the financial mess, both in Thailand and the region, was only just becoming known.

What was clear however was the fact that a number of international law firms were making serious noises about entering the local market. Allen & Overy, Linklaters, Herbert Smith, Mallesons, White & Case, Freehills, Freshfields, Coudert Brothers, as well as Clifford Chance all had some form of ‘fly-in, fly-out’ operation and were either opening a local offices or expressing an interest in doing so.

Meanwhile, Baker & McKenzie had been around for so long that almost anyone who was anyone in the local Thai legal world had ‘graduated’ from that firm.

Working with one of Thailand’s leading local firms at the time – Wirot International – I was privileged to have had a front seat to much of this activity.

If you had asked me early in that year (1998) who Wirot Poonsuwan – Founder, Managing Partner and Owner of Wirot International – would have merged with (and yes, he was fortunate enough to have several dance partners), my answer would likely have been Herbert Smith.

In the end Clifford Chance offered him a sweater that he simply couldn’t refuse and we all moved over to what would become known in Thailand as Clifford Chance Wirot (CCW) on 1 January 1999.

I often wonder what would have happened if Wirot had gone with Herbert Smith? Local legal history would have been very different, that’s for sure.

As it is, over the course of the next two years core members of what was Wirot International would leave CCW for Linklaters, Freshfields, Courdert Brothers (anyone remember them? They took on Freshfield’s operations when they departed Thailand)  and, eventually, Norton Rose (which itself was a sort of offshoot of Linklaters).

1999 would be a big year for CC. Not only was it the year the firm ‘merged’ with Wirot International, but they would also merge with Rogers & Wells in the US that year (we would joke that it was a three way merger and some may argue with the same level of success!). It would also be the year that CC’s Managing Partner at the time, Tony Williams, would step down and go on to found the highly successful Jomati Consulting (probably a wise move in hindsight).

And yet, from the start I was never quiet sure what CC’s strategic aims were in having a Bangkok office.

Were they looking to pick-up a large amount of debt recovery/restructuring work that was going on around town? Possibly, Wirot Poonsuwan had been at the forefront of discussions to changes to Thailand’s insolvency law to allow for US-style Chapter 11 restructurings to occur (Wirot wrote a weekly article in the Bangkok Post at that time [1998]).

Were they looking for the growing amount of divestment work going on? Possibly. Wirot did some of this work, but Simon Makinson and his team did more of it and they would go and join A&O (with whom Simon had a relationship as a trainee lawyer).

Were they looking for the NGO / Infrastructure work? Not really, Linklaters picked up Wilailuk Okanurak – who would go on to succeed Chris King as Managing Partner of the Bangkok office – to run a very successful infrastructure practice (although she does lots of other things).

What they did do was bring in the wonderful Andrew Matthews from Italy (along with his Ferrari if I recall correctly). But his practice at the time was aircraft financing, not the sort of thing you’d have expected to see done from Bangkok: but hey, why not…

My own view at that time then was that CCW’s strategic reasoning for being in Thailand was muddled. In part that was one reason I would leave CCW to join my good friend (and previous colleague at Wirot International) Pichitphon Eammongkolchai at Linklaters (where I would go on to enjoy 7 more years of fantastic times and memories).

Fast forward to 2017

Despite this, and despite the fact that there was some real hitters on the local scene at the time (late 1990s) in Siam Premier (to have a JV with Australia’s Allens – must be something with Allens and JVs!) and Chandler & Thonk-Ek (now part of the Japanese firm Mori Hamada & Matsumoto) to name two, the firm that was CCW would go on to to survive almost two decades.

That’s quiet and achievement in this marketplace.

And while much has changed – Wirot is no loner there, nor is Tim Jefferies; much remains the same – Andrew was there the last time I checked and current Managing partner Fergus Evans was a very junior lawyer back in the day.

So clearly something worked.

And so I will be very sad when I hear the firm has closed its doors for the last time. Particularly so given I believe the strategic decision for doing so is [probably once more] completely wrong.

Moving their ASEAN focus to Singapore is something CC should have done in 1998, not 2018. Having persevered to 2017, it seems short-sighted to close the office so shortly after the establishment of the ASEAN Economic Community (AEC) gives it access to a market of US$2.6 trillion and over 620 million people.

But that’s just my view.

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