Le­gal­tech will rev­o­lu­tionise Sin­ga­pore’s law firms

The launch of Sin­ga­pore’s first le­gal­tech ac­cel­er­a­tor is just the be­gin­ning of the law in­dus­try’s trans­for­ma­tion as it for­ays into dig­i­tal­i­sa­tion.

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Allen & Gled­hill re­tains the top spot in the Sin­ga­pore Busi­ness Re­view’s 25 Largest Law Firms with 386 le­gal pro­fes­sion­als last year, com­pared to 372 in 2016, fol­lowed by Ra­jah & Tann Sin­ga­pore LLP with 366 le­gal pro­fes­sion­als in 2017, a 5.5% in­crease from the 347 recorded in 2016

Round­ing out the top 5 are

Wong Part­ner­ship with 302 le­gal pro­fes­sion­als in 2017, un­changed since 2016, whilst Drew & Napier LLC and Den­tons Rodyk & David­son LLP saw de­clines in the num­ber of their le­gal pro­fes­sion­als year-on-year to 256 and 200, re­spec­tively. Pre­vi­ous fig­ures (in 2016) for the top 4 and top 5 largest law firms in Sin­ga­pore were 267 and 206 le­gal pro­fes­sion­als, re­spec­tively. To­tal num­ber of lawyers dropped by 11.7% from last year’s 2,855 to this year’s 2,520. Mor­gan Lewis Stam­ford LLC suf­fered the big­gest de­cline with its to­tal head­count slashed by 11.

The de­ci­sion of the Sin­ga­pore Academy of Law (SAL) to launch the Fu­ture Law In­no­va­tion Pro­gramme (FLIP) in early Jan­uary, a two-year pilot pro­gramme to en­cour­age the adop­tion of tech­nol­ogy, drive in­no­va­tion, and cre­ate a vi­brant ecosys­tem for le­gal tech­nol­ogy in the city-state, marks the con­tin­u­ous ef­forts to bring the le­gal sec­tor in Sin­ga­pore to the next fron­tier: the tech­nol­ogy space. This tran­si­tion is, by all means and pur­poses, a nec­es­sary move as the le­gal land­scape in Sin­ga­pore looks to ce­ment its po­si­tion in the Asia-pa­cific re­gion.

The rise and in­te­gra­tion of tech­no­log­i­cal tools in the le­gal in­dus­try, of­ten termed as “le­gal tech” is gain­ing ground in Sin­ga­pore as more law firms find ways to get ahead of the com­pe­ti­tion and pro­vide more ef­fec­tive and con­ve­nient le­gal ser­vices to its clients. Philip

Je­yaret­nam, global vice chair and re­gional CEO of Den­tons Rodyk & David­son LLP, noted that tech­nol­ogy can rev­o­lu­tionise the le­gal space in Sin­ga­pore—and, pos­si­bly, beyond.

“In the past year, law firms have in­creas­ingly adopted the lat­est tools to im­prove op­er­a­tions as tech­no­log­i­cal ad­vances con­tinue to change the way lawyers work,” he said. “Le­gal­tech can rev­o­lu­tionise the client-lawyer re­la­tion­ship—al­low­ing work­ers to work faster, use fewer re­sources, and col­lab­o­rate seam­lessly with clients.”

This is echoed by Win­ston

Seow, Part­ner from With­ers Khatthar­wong. “The key­word for the le­gal sec­tor in 2017 was tech­nol­ogy. A greater em­pha­sis was placed on the adop­tion of tech­nol­ogy into the le­gal sec­tor and us­ing in­no­va­tion to grow the sec­tor,” he said.

The launch of FLIP, first an­nounced by Sin­ga­pore’s Chief Jus­tice Sun­daresh Menon in July last year, is a tes­ta­ment to this. Ba­si­cally, FLIP will al­low—in three dif­fer­ent com­po­nents—le­gal stake­hold­ers and pol­icy mak­ers to sup­port the de­vel­op­ment of a model for the de­liv­ery of le­gal ser­vices in the fu­ture econ­omy. SAL’S chief op­er­at­ing of­fi­cer and chief fi­nan­cial of­fi­cer Paul Neo noted that the le­gal com­mu­nity in Sin­ga­pore is al­ready warmly em­brac­ing le­gal tech ini­tia­tives like FLIP. The Jan­uary an­nounce­ment also saw the launch of two of the three com­po­nents of FLIP, par­tic­u­larly the Le­gal In­no­va­tions Lab and a vir­tual col­lab­o­ra­tion plat­form called Lawnet Com­mu­nity. The third com­po­nent, which is con­sid­ered South­east Asia’s first le­gal tech ac­cel­er­a­tor to groom promis­ing le­gal tech star­tups, is slated for launch in April.

The Jan­uary an­nounce­ment also saw the launch of two of the three com­po­nents of FLIP, par­tic­u­larly the Le­gal In­no­va­tions Lab and a vir­tual col­lab­o­ra­tion plat­form called Lawnet Com­mu­nity.

Rise of le­gal­tech

Adrian Chan, part­ner and head of cor­po­rate at Lee & Lee, noted that tech­no­log­i­cal ad­vances will reap long-term ben­e­fits de­spite the per­ceived dis­ad­van­tages in shoul­der­ing the costs of be­ing at the fore­front of the im­ple­men­ta­tion of th­ese tech­nolo­gies. “Th­ese in­ex­orable trends in tech­no­log­i­cal ad­vance­ment may see a slow ini­tial take-up rate in Sin­ga­pore, as some­times there is a ‘first­mover dis­ad­van­tage’ when the advancements speed up and over­take a firm’s prior in­vest­ments, mak­ing early in­vest­ments ob­so­lete too early,” he said.

Chan, how­ever, noted that there will be wide­spread adop­tion when the tech­nol­ogy sta­bilises and the

play­ing field lev­els up. “This is to be wel­comed as this means more pro­duc­tive le­gal prac­tices which trans­late into cost ef­fi­cien­cies for clients,” he ex­plained. Some of th­ese avant-garde ar­eas where le­gal tech is and will con­tinue to flour­ish in­clude the re­view of doc­u­ments to as­sess rel­e­vance and “red flags”, con­tract au­to­ma­tion, and the au­to­matic “tag­ging” of prece­dents and ex­per­tise to help lawyers scale up their le­gal prac­tice.

For in­stance, Paul Land­less, part­ner for Clif­ford Chance, shared that his firm’s le­gal ex­perts are al­ready blaz­ing trails in ad­vis­ing on le­gal tech is­sues in­clud­ing an­titrust, data pri­vacy and cy­ber­se­cu­rity, and fi­nan­cial reg­u­la­tion, amongst oth­ers.

This is on top of the po­ten­tial of tech­nol­ogy to rev­o­lu­tionise the way lawyers and clients in­ter­act and do busi­ness with one an­other. Je­yaret­nam noted that de­spite the rise of tech­nol­ogy, at the very heart of the in­dus­try is help­ing peo­ple with their le­gal is­sues.

“Re­gard­less, the essence of the pro­fes­sion re­mains un­changed— which is to fa­cil­i­tate trans­ac­tions and then man­age dis­putes,” he elab­o­rated. “Lawyers will con­tinue to serve clients as trusted ad­vi­sors, ad­vo­cates, and prob­lem-solvers.”

Seow agreed, say­ing that with time, lawyers may start to in­cor­po­rate such tech­nolo­gies into their prac­tice and daily work. “We have seen the in­tro­duc­tion of tech­nol­ogy used to au­to­mate le­gal pa­per­work. While such a tool will not be able to re­place a lawyer com­pletely, it can help speed up te­dious amount of ad­min­is­tra­tive work, but leav­ing the fi­nal de­ci­sion and judg­ment to the lawyers. Such tech­nol­ogy would free up lawyers’ time, and en­able them to fo­cus on ad­vi­sory work,” he said.

An­other early tech­nol­ogy that should be looked at and can have a sig­nif­i­cant ef­fect to the le­gal in­dus­try mov­ing for­ward, is blockchain tech­nol­ogy. Je­yaret­nam noted that blockchain tech­nol­ogy may po­ten­tially over­haul the pro­cesses cur­rently in place at gov­ern­ment reg­istries, fi­nan­cial in­sti­tu­tions, and even the ex­e­cu­tion of con­tracts, par­tic­u­larly in the realm of con­tract law in the case of the le­gal in­dus­try.

“Sin­ga­pore aims to be not just a re­gional leader in the field of le­gal­tech, but a world class player in this field,” said Lee & Lee’s Chan.

This is echoed by Je­yaret­nam, say­ing that Sin­ga­pore pro­vides a sta­ble and sup­port­ive en­vi­ron­ment for le­gal­tech ef­forts to flour­ish, par­tic­u­larly with the launch of the FLIP ini­tia­tive. Seow also em­pha­sised Sin­ga­pore’s long-placed fo­cus on prag­ma­tism and ef­fi­ciency. “As such, if the use of le­gal­tech con­trib­utes to the ef­fi­ciency and ef­fi­cacy at which lawyers serve their clients, there can be no doubt that it will be in­cor­po­rated into the daily work of lawyers,” he said.

But the rise of tech­nol­ogy in the le­gal in­dus­try may also pose risks and threats to the pro­fes­sion­als within the com­mu­nity and even dis­ad­van­tage the whole sec­tor it­self. So how can th­ese tech­nolo­gies be reg­u­lated and used in the most ben­e­fi­cial way?

Tra­di­tional skills

The Den­tons Rodyk se­nior of­fi­cial noted tips in­clud­ing the need for lawyers to re­main com­mit­ted to han­dling clients’ evolv­ing needs, par­tic­u­larly with their em­brac­ing of tech­no­log­i­cal ad­vances and in­no­va­tion.

“Lawyers should there­fore en­sure they are able to dili­gently and com­pe­tently en­gage widely-used tech­nolo­gies and client-spe­cific tech­nolo­gies in en­hanc­ing their ser­vices to clients,” he said, adding that lawyers should not un­crit­i­cally rely on tech­nol­ogy so­lu­tions and con­tinue to em­ploy tra­di­tional lawyer­ing skills to con­firm the ac­cu­racy of the re­sults.

Lastly, Je­yaret­nam noted that lawyers should en­sure com­pli­ance with data pro­tec­tion laws of the var­i­ous ju­ris­dic­tions in which they op­er­ate, as well as data se­cu­rity best prac­tices— es­pe­cially con­sid­er­ing the sen­si­tive na­ture of le­gal work.

Launch of Fu­ture Law In­no­va­tion Pro­gramme (FLIP), Photo from IMDA

As of Jan­uary, 31 par­tic­i­pants have signed up for FLIP.

FLIP’S le­gal in­no­va­tion lab will be housed at the Col­li­sion 8 cowork­ing space.

Win­ston Seow

Adrian Chan

Paul Land­less

Philip Je­yaret­nam

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