Jon Ansten and Christian Bjørtuft Ellingsen are lawyers and directors of Vogt & Wiig Singapore Branch. Together with a third Nowegian lawyer, Pia Grude, they run the Singaporean department of Vogt & Wiig, a Norwegian law firm with its headquarters in Oslo, Norway. The firm is leading in the maritime field having a number of large Norwegian and foreign shipping companies as its customers. Throughout the years, Norwegian companies have increased their businesses in the shipping metropolis Singapore and because of the increasing need for legal assistance in South East Asia, Vogt & Wiig started a local department of the firm in Singapore in January 2007. The Singapore Branch remains to date the law firms only branch outside of Norway.
Request from the shipping industry
The idea of opening a local branch of Vogt & Wiig in Singapore was actually not the firm’s own idea. It was the customers’, the shipping companies’:
“We saw more and more Norwegian companies and other companies involved with shipping moving down from Norway to Singapore. Consequently, several of our major customers requested that we move out here with them. They simply asked us to establish ourselves down here so we could help them more often and more up close and personally, and so we did in January 2007,” Jon Ansten explains, adding:
“The personal and close relationship is very important to the firm, so it was quite logical that we listened to our customers’ wish.”
Vogt & Wiig started out with only one lawyer in January 2007, and are now three. In total there are 85 lawyers in the firm.
Both companies and privates
The law firm in Singapore helps their shipping customers with things like purchases and sales of vessels and new building contracts. Vogt & Wiig also has a lot of private Norwegian customers who need help regarding the system of taxation in Singapore. These are primarily expats who are interested in the low Singaporean tax compared to the much higher Norwegian tax.
“When you are Norwegian and want to build, purchase, sell or finance a ship in Singapore or Asia, come to us,” Jon Ansten says.
“We have been involved in over 100 shipbuilding contracts since we moved down here, and we also help in the overall buying and selling of already existing ships. We work closely with major banks in relation to the financing,” he explains.
Jon Ansten originally obtained his law degree from the University of Bergen 10 years ago. His expertise within the firm includes financing of vessels, taxation and corporate matters.
Norwegian customers and Norwegian law
Jon’s permanent colleague in the firm is Christian Bjørtuft Ellingsen from Oslo, who joined the branch in August this year. He is Vogt & Wiig’s expert in shipbuilding contracts and maritime insurance. Even though the firm practises in Singapore, they are not allowed to advice on Singaporean law. Their customers are mainly Norwegians companies many with Singaporean subsidiaries, but also include Singaporean and Asia based companies and banks seeking advice on Norwegian law.
“We are Norwegian lawyers, and we are working for a Norwegian law firm. We are not allowed to advice on Singaporean law, so our business has from the starting point always had Norwegian context,” Christian Bjørtuft Ellingsen says. As a result Christian and Jon work closely with a number of local law firms. In addition to Jon and Christian, partner at the Oslo office, Erlend Lous, and English solicitor, Adrian Moylan, are lawyers who dedicate much of their time to the Singapore office.
Expanding plans for the future
Vogt & Wiig has ambitions to expand the office with another lawyer. They have already gone from one employee in 2007 to three now, even though there have been several challenges involved in starting up a business outside of Norway.
Despite the financial crisis really has embarked, Vogt & Wiig has been spared from a decrease in the number of cases or turnovers this year compared to last year. They have actually even had a small increase in the number of cases.
“The contents of the cases have obviously changed a bit because of the financial crisis, and if we can continue in the same positive style in the future it is certainly realistic that we will have several new colleagues down here,” Jon Ansten says.
The volume of work has therefore not changed so much because of the crisis. In contrast, clients’ needs have changed, and there has been a change in emphasis from the predominantly transaction related work to assistance relating to disputes and distress.
Networking and seminars part of the plan
The two lawyers estimate that they have approximately 200 cases a year, but they feel they can manage even more.
“I think we could have more private Norwegian customers. We try to attend the cocktail parties and the seminars held for the Norwegian community in Singapore, and we even organizes our own seminars to tell about the system of taxation for Norwegian expats and of course relevant maritime topics which is our core business,” Jon Ansten says, adding that the seminars have been a positive experience and that they probably will continue organizing them.
“It means of course a lot that the help comes from someone who can speak the same language. You feel immediately that you know each other, and so the first barriers are gone,” Jon Ansten states.
Vogt & Wiig has no plans to expand the company with offices in other parts of Asia. If the time comes, it would be the office in Singapore that would be expanded.