LL.B. (Hons) University of Singapore
Mr. Too Hing Yeap graduated with honours from the University of Singapore and joined the firm in 1972 as an associate. He became a partner in 1977 and later served as the Chief Executive Partner from 1998 to 2012.
Mr. Too is the founder and the former Department Head of the firm’s Banking and Finance Litigation Department established in the early 1980s. This was a pioneering team dedicated to banking litigation. It remains today one of very few teams of lawyers in law firms in the country, whose lawyers focus exclusively on litigation work for banks and financial institutions.
We reproduce below an interview conducted in 2010 with Mr. Too who shared with us his recollections on the history and insights on the objectives of this department.
Q. How did the banking litigation department come to be set up?
The department was created in the late 80’s. I was the sole lawyer in the department then. Prior to that, all litigation were handled by the firm’s litigation department, which dealt with all litigation matters. In those days, the firm’s portfolio was mainly corporate and conveyancing work, including bank documentation. The setting up of the banking litigation department arose when the partners recognized the needs of its banking clients who increasingly required representation for their litigation cases. It soon became obvious that the needs of banks and financial institutions were different and they were better served by lawyers focusing on banks’ and financial institutions’ problems. Now we even customize our services to the needs of specific banks or financial institutions.
Q. How different is banking litigation now?
In the early days of the Department, commercial life was much slower. Banking litigation then involved mainly vanilla products like term loans and overdrafts, with some syndicated loan recovery as well. Then over the years, two things happended. One – the advent of technological advances. Everything became faster, more urgent and with the use of the internet and cell phones, speed became of the essence. All partners in the Department now carry Blackberries – we take accessibility of our lawyers to clients very seriously. Secondly – globalization. This spurred a huge growth in the types of bank facilities and transactions, including, for instance, trade facilities (arising from Malaysian borrowers going global and requiring credit), private debt securities (where borrowers sought new ways to raise funds and bankers took the role of corporate financing advisors instead of the traditional lender), forex transactions, and in the last few years, we have seen the meteoric rise of Islamic banking in Malaysia. Bank mergers also took place, changing the face of the banking landscape. Different types of litigation surfaced and with sometimes millions of ringgit at stake, the need for lawyers with litigation expertise (in banking) and deep knowledge of banks’ products rose. We found that lawyers with extensive knowledge in banking litigation had a decided advantage over others in contentious matters. One byproduct of so many types of financing transactions is the fact that banks (with their deep pockets) became targets for disgruntled borrowers, security providers and third parties and many filed suits against the banks. The need for competent lawyers to defend banks against claims grew. Our departmennt was renamed Banking and Finance Litigation Department a few years back, in the light of these changes.
Q. How has the firm prepared itself to meet those challenges?
Our banking litigation department is a dedicated unit geared towards resolving all problems faced by financial institutions. We recognized that the needs of our banking clients were very different and thus, the department was set up with our lawyers trained and steeped in banking and finance issues. For instance, in the case of a facility that has turned bad, the focus is on recovering the money for the bank in the shortest possible time or adopting and executing a strategy that will get the customer to run to and settle with the bank in the shortest possible time.
Q. How does having a dedicated banking and finance litigation department help?
This brings with it experience and knowledge. The team has encountered the whole gamut of defences, claims and strategies by debtors and has developed an answer for each of them. We need not reinvent the wheel every time. When our clients consult us on a problem, our lawyers are already familiar with such problems. Where lawyers new to the area face a steep learning curve, our team is already ahead of the curve. Our economies of scale also allow us to continually invest in training the lawyers and enhancing research capabilities and information technology tools.
Finally, the depth of knowledge of the senior lawyers in the department is constantly tapped and shared with other members of the team. And the advantage of our firm is that we also consult the bank documentation colleagues in our firm and vice versa on various issues. There is constant sharing of experience and knowledge, plus vast resources for research.
Q. What are the areas of work of the department?
Apart from debt recovery across the whole spectrum of banking products, we provide advisory and litigation services in relation to, inter alia, banking and securities laws, private debt securities, receiverships and insolvencies, restructuring of debts, mergers of financial institutions, vesting of non-performing loans to non-bank institutions, asset-management corporation recoveries, Islamic financing and stock-broking. In addition, we defend banks against all possible legal actions.
Q. What are some of the challenges faced by the department?
Arising from the financial crises over the years, clients have become very cost-conscious while maintaining their high expectations. There is downward pressure on fees but we have not compromised on maintaining quality of service. We have to balancee the pressure on fees against the increasing cost of recruiting good lawyers and maintaining a high quality practice. These days, young lawyers have many options including employment in other countries and going inhouse. Thus far, I am proud to say that we have managed to maintain the standards of our department which our clients have become accustomed to.