Law Practice 3.0
As Singapore opens up from the pandemic, I ask myself when the legal profession will open up.
Before I receive hate mail, I would like to ask if the legal profession has kept up with the times and evolved? And did we evolve out of choice or due to circumstances pushed on to us? How did we react back then when the Electronic Filing System was introduced? How did we feel when scale fees were removed for conveyancing practice? When changes were made to personal injury and property damage work, we worried about how it would affect our practice. The same happened when mediation was introduced in the courts and when many other changes were made to various practice areas. When foreign lawyers were allowed to have limited practice, we again became worried. When the Rules of Court was about to be changed, we rose up and vocalised our thoughts about costs of litigation.
The basic response is always fear and worry about our rice bowl. I agree that these are legitimate fears. We became unhappy, struggled and found it difficult to adapt to the changes pushed on to us.
But is there only one way to practise law?
Why should we be tied to the shackles of practising law as we have done since the independence of Singapore? I feel that we are being left behind whilst Singapore is embracing change and becoming a modern 21st century city.
More than 10 years ago, I wanted my Firm to be a modern law firm. I did not enjoy the old fashioned law firm office, having to come into work every day whilst managing matters in the personal front. Although I am a technology dinosaur, I was cognizant that technology plays a significant role in law practice. I was hanging out and often talking to my IT support services and Bizibody. We started using practice management software since the inception of the Firm in 2003. We then planned to go paper less.
A few years ago, when we became paper less, the traditional law firm space suddenly became too big. We had empty shelves staring at us. We then decided to move to a co-working space. On the day we moved to the co-working space, Justice See Kee Oon who was then the Presiding Judge of the State Courts came to visit our co-working space to learn about the new way of operating a law firm. Wow, what a great way to kick things off! Operating a law firm in a co-working space is now becoming popular.
I am grateful to the pandemic and the Circuit Breaker. I got to test out working from home, followed by hybrid working. Whilst many were scrambling to pack their files and computers before the commencement of the Circuit Breaker, my team and I enjoyed a peaceful weekend. We simply brought our laptops home and plugged in and started working. The verdict: our clients fitted well into the new work system, and our young team loves the flexibility. Our financial growth was the same as when we were in a physical office. Like everything else in life, this may not work for everyone. But I believe the hybrid working model is the future of law practice.
Such new ways of working will make law practice more attractive to the young lawyers who will be joining our law firms. They will embrace and enjoy the modern law practice, and the freedom and flexibility that such a work environment will provide them.
Of course such changes require a huge mindset change, walking into the unknown and taking risks. We may fail and we have to be prepared to accept the consequences, shift and explore different ways of doing things. Looking at the way the practice of law is evolving and slowly becoming different, one thing is clear: we cannot afford to hold on to the past. In today’s lingo, that will be uncool and show us up as being boomers!
The old way of practising law is just not going to work anymore. It is now necessary to not only foresee the changes ahead of time, but start planning how to adapt to the changes before the changes are introduced.
Access to justice is now top on the agenda of the Ministry of Law. The interest of the man in the street has become important. Their rights must be protected and at a reasonable cost. More and more litigants in person are fighting for their rights in the courts. A few years ago, I was defending a husband against a wife who was represented by two sets of lawyers. The wife eventually discharged her lawyers and started to act for herself in the divorce proceedings. She was capable and fought for her rights on maintenance and division of matrimonial assets up to the Court of Appeal. There is a growing number of disputants who are choosing to represent themselves in court.
These litigants receive legal support services from law firms whilst they advocate their case in court. Litigation support services are sought after by many clients nowadays. Clients are now very savvy as they not only get advice from family and friends who have been in a similar plight, but also do extensive research on the internet, obtain advice pro bono at Community Legal Clinics and then work with their chosen lawyer. They are equal partners in the legal relationship, offering views and solutions, and have no qualms questioning the lawyers.
Clients’ expectations and needs are ever changing. Even products setting out the legal advice, processes and strategy are now being seen as a norm by clients.
Technology plays a very major part in law practice. Many systems are being put in place to provide legal services and support for lay persons to obtain legal advice and to prepare their cases in court. There is a lot of mention about legal technology. What does it really mean to the small and medium sized law firms? It must go beyond implementing practice management software, or participating in video conferencing platforms. It would be more meaningful if legal technology can help us in other ways as well.
We also need to be trained in soft skills besides the hard letter of the law. Skill sets such as how we manage practice and life, being aware of how practice affects our mental health, personal branding and harnessing social media to share who we are and what we stand for in our law practice, how to run a law firm have become necessary skills for us to learn.
So, you may ask what is the new way of practising law? We have to know what law practice is not. It is not about traditional litigation, furnishing legal opinions, corresponding with the opposite side and drafting legal documents. We have moved from the concept of survival of the fittest where those who excel in litigation are the lions of the forest.
Let’s look at the current state of law practice and the hints of changes to come. Let our imagination go wild, think out of the box and find ways to change our law practice to one that will excite us, while ensuring that we are not left behind, and provide the kind of services that our clients would wish for and even expect. Clients want to know who we are, our personality, our values and how we will be there to care for them and help solve their legal problems.
It is also about the unbundling of legal services. Some clients may just need specific legal services – reviewing legal documents, entering into negotiations on their behalf, acting as their mediation advocate, drafting specific documents and just giving piecemeal advice.
Once we understand what the future of law practice is about and are willing to change the way we operate as individuals and lawyers, then I think the future of law practice will be very exciting, stimulating and challenging for us.
Let’s embrace the future.