AI will help lawyers deliver efficient and cost-effective services: Bazul Ashhab, Managing Partner of Oon & Bazul LLP

Ashhab shares his thoughts on the firm's journey thus far, the synergy between the legal systems of India and Singapore and more.
Bazul Ashhab
Bazul Ashhab

Bazul Ashhab is the Managing Partner and Head of Dispute Resolution and International Arbitration/Litigation of Singapore-based law firm Oon & Bazul LLP.

In this interview, Ashhab shares his thoughts on the firm's journey thus far, the synergy between the legal systems of India and Singapore and more.

Oon & Bazul has recently completed 20 years. How has the journey been so far?

Bazul Ashhab: When I started the firm in 2002, it was just two lawyers in a 500 square foot office. We started the firm to explore our true potential. We have grown beyond our initial expectations. This was only possible because of the good fortune of operating in a jurisdiction that places value on meritocracy, rule of law, neutrality and good governance. These are critical features for Singapore to succeed as a financial hub, which is the bedrock for a vibrant legal hub.

We are continuing to expand. We have just hired a partner who has expertise in tax practice. We are now seen as Singapore’s leading independent “conflict-free” law firm with the size to take on substantial value claims exceeding several hundred million dollars. We have secured a USD5 billion freezing order. In a recent survey done by a publication, we were ranked 8th largest local firm.

What are the factors that paved the way for Singapore to become a financial center and a legal services hub? What lessons can India take from the Singapore story?

BA: India and Singapore are good friends and have been collaborating for many years now. We share a similar colonial past that inherits similar legal systems. Indian companies and high net-worth individuals are confident that Singapore’s legal system guarantees that any disputes will be fairly determined without any bias. The legal ecosystem also brings together high-quality service providers including technical experts. Singapore has a business-friendly tax policy. It has more than 100 double-taxation agreements with other countries and is an ideal location for wealthy Indians to hedge against currency risks, geopolitical considerations and policy issues. Our firm has a growing Private Wealth and Family office, and many of our clients are Indians.

Further, Singapore has entered into many bilateral treaties which allow reciprocal enforcement of a judgment. Section 44-A of India’s Code of Civil Procedure provides for judgments of the superior court of a reciprocating territory to be enforceable in India in the same manner as that of an Indian court’s judgement. India has recognized Singapore as a reciprocating territory and has classified the Singapore High Court as a superior court, thus making its judgments enforceable in India. There are many large Indian law firms which have set up offices in Singapore.

India has already introduced many policies to make it attractive to foreign businesses. The recent amendment which allowed foreign law firms to undertake corporate work is a huge step in making India an attractive legal forum.


Do you see India becoming a hub for international arbitration in the near future?

BA: Law Minister of India Kiren Rijiju has noted that ease of doing business and efficient resolution of disputes go hand-in-hand.

Institutions such as the Singapore International Arbitration Centre (SIAC) are already involved in India and that speaks volumes about the general perception that India has the potential to set itself up as a dispute resolution hub.

With the International Arbitration and Mediation Centre (IAMC) in Hyderabad, the Mumbai Centre for International Arbitration (MCIA) and the newly formed Gujarat International Maritime Arbitration Centre (GIMAC) in GIFT City gearing up, there is potential for increasing institutional arbitration in India and for India to become a hub of international arbitration. 

Kiren Rijiju, Union Law Minister
Kiren Rijiju, Union Law Minister

Are there any plans to open an office in India or enter into a tie-up with an Indian firm in the wake of the opening of the Indian legal market?

BA: Global conquest is not in our DNA. Apart from our associate firm in Malaysia, which was set up at the same time as the Singapore office because one of the founding partners is called to the Malaysian Bar, we have avoided formal tie-ups. Our strategy is to work with the best lawyers in each jurisdiction, to ensure that we can always engage the most suitable professionals in the required practice area. 

It is always in the client’s interests that we collaborate with their Indian lawyers rather than take instructions from them directly, given that the trust and relationship have already been established. Trust and relationship are key to achieving the objectives of clients when resolving disputes. We prefer to work with our friends in Indian law firms rather than engage clients directly. This allows us to focus on what we are truly good at.

BCI, Foreign Law Firms
BCI, Foreign Law Firms

How do you see the growth of mediation as a mechanism for resolving disputes?

BA: I forecast that businesses will start looking at lawyers as service providers who are able to resolve their disputes quickly, in the most cost-effective way, without damaging business relationships and without affecting commercial reputation. Mediation can fulfill this need. I also believe that in the future, there would be more specialized mediation counsel trained in basic psychology to understand the unspoken pain points of the opposite side, to appreciate positions of strength and weaknesses and to deploy these skill sets to achieve a lasting and mutually favorable settlement.

I enjoy acting as mediation counsel, and as a mediator to facilitate settlements and I have a very high success rate of about 75%. This is testimony to the fact that mediation works very well.

The establishment of a specialist institution for mediation like the Singapore International Mediation Centre (SIMC), demonstrates Singapore’s commitment towards providing various mechanisms for resolving disputes outside litigation. This is in furtherance to Singapore being one of the first three states to ratify the United Nations Convention on International Settlement Agreements Resulting from Mediation (The Singapore Convention). To date, 11 countries have ratified the Convention.

Singapore is a competitive market with international firms having offices. As a firm how do you compete with these large firms?

BA: Singapore‘s competitiveness is the reason behind the firm’s success. We as a law firm need to see where we can contribute the most without trying to be everything to everyone. We have chosen the path of maintaining our position as the largest conflict-free law firm. We do not see international law firms competing with us in that space.

However, to maintain our position, we need to attract the best talent. This is where we compete with international firms. In order to attract talent, we offer attractive remuneration on par with top law firms and spend substantial time training our good lawyers. This has allowed us to retain our top talent.

An example of that is Prakaash Silvam, who initially joined me as a trainee and has now risen to the rank of an equity partner of the firm. He has an equal say in how the firm is run. Including Prakaash, we have recently welcomed 5 of our junior partners into the firm’s equity along with promoting 5 senior associates to junior partners. 

How do you see Artificial Intelligence (AI) changing the legal profession? 

BA: With the rapid advancement in technology, AI has the potential to significantly transform the legal profession. I believe AI will assist lawyers to become better at what they do, and clients will insist that law firms adopt AI and technology to deliver services that are more efficient and cost-effective. Although I believe that AI will never be able to supplement human judgment, it poses a challenge to how law firms resource, broadly speaking as well as matter-specific. We are exploring ways to improve our efficiency by adopting AI-driven projects in the way we work and think.

What are further growth plans for the firm?

BA: I end where I started. Singapore is driving to establish itself as a natural forum to provide legal services to business in Asia. The powers that be, including the government and the judiciary, are spending a lot of time and effort to grow the legal sector. I am confident that we in Singapore will establish a credible eco-system for legal users. I believe this will allow Oon & Bazul to grow. We are putting together the blueprint to run a post-Covid law firm and I am confident we will succeed. If we succeed, we have a real chance of becoming a top 6 local law firm within 2 years in terms of size.

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