Myanmar: last stop for law firms on the Eastern tour

If we had to pick one jurisdiction that has seen the most significant change and opportunities for the world’s legal profession in the past year, Myanmar would be a strong contender.

Burma Myanmar

The country, formerly known as Burma, has undergone sweeping political and economic reform since 2012. These dramatic changes have ignited huge interest from US and other global investors wanting to invest in the country.

Widely dubbed ‘Asia’s last frontier’, Myanmar officially opened its doors to foreign investment and began reconnecting with the outside world when it enacted the Foreign Investment Law in October 2012.

Its status among the most underdeveloped and poorest countries in Asia means it has the potential to grow quickly. After decades of military dictatorship and international sanctions, the country needs almost all basic infrastructure, including power, roads, railways, telecoms, sophisticated oil refineries and a modern financial system.

Potential also lies in its vast natural resources, its geographic position between China and India and its domestic market of about 60 million people.

The oil and gas sectors are attracting the highest attention from the global investors.

Prior to its reform, 30 foreign oil companies were already active in onshore exploration. Most recently, Chevron, Shell, Total, British Gas and Statoil have emerged as the winners of a landmark auction of offshore oil and gas exploration rights granted by Myanmar’s government.

The government’s intention to catch up on developments has generated huge opportunities for foreign engagement. Therefore although it is still a nascent market, Myanmar has become one of the most attractive jurisdictions in Asia for both Asian and international law firms.

Since Malaysian firm ZICOlaw set up in Myanmar’s largest city Yangon in January 2013, there have been 12 new entrants to the market. There are three UK firms, three US firms, two Japanese and two Singaporean firms, and one each from Thailand and Malaysia.

The UK’s Stephenson Harwood and Berwin Leighton Paisner (BLP) have both linked up with a small local firm, and Allen & Overy became the first magic circle firm to enter the jurisdiction in May 2014.

But growing demand for legal services and increasing cross-border business means firms without a physical presence there can still grab a slice of the market.

For example, prior to its arrival Allen & Overy advised Norwegian telecoms company Telenor on winning one of the first two licences for foreign companies to provide telecoms services in Myanmar. Norton Rose acted for the other licence winner, Qatar-headquartered global telecoms company Ooredoo.

With more reforms and legal and regulatory updates in the pipeline, Myanmar will continue to generate new opportunities for law firms and their clients, making it another exciting emerging jurisdiction for international lawyers.

Foreign firms in Myanmar

Firm Country of origin Local association Arrived in Myanmar
Allen & Overy UK Myanmar Legal Services May 2014
Berwin Leighton Paisner UK Legal Network Consultants March 2014
Allen & Gledhill Singapore Allen & Gledhill (Myanmar) February 2014
Baker & McKenzie US N/A February 2014
Mori Hamada & Matsumoto Japan N/A January 2014
Rouse UK N/A November 2013
Tilleke & Gibbins Thailand N/A November 2013
Herzfeld Rubin Meyer & Rose US N/A October 2013
Duane Morris & Selvam US N/A September 2013
Stephenson Harwood UK Tin Yu & Associates May 2013
Nishimura & Asahi Japan N/A April 2013
Rajah & Tann Singapore N/A February 2013
ZICOlaw Malaysia N/A January 2013