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The Singapore Law Gazette

President’s Message

This speech was delivered by the President at the Launch of Smart Law Guild on 15 May 2019.

Guest of Honour, Minister S Iswaran, Minister for Communications and Information;
Distinguished Guests;
Ladies and Gentlemen;

It gives me great pleasure to kickstart today’s proceedings with some Opening Remarks before we hear from our Guest-of-Honour.

Our story begins with a Legal Needs Study in 2016. Principally a diagnostic involving focus groups and face to face interviews, it was a strategic research by the Law Ministry and the Law Society. Three key findings made that I shared in my 2017 Opening of Legal Year Speech are:

  1. If you run a virtual office and go paperless, you save two-thirds of Costs.
  2. If you repose knowledge in law firm precedents in an online knowledge management repository, you save 50 per cent of your time. As everyone knows, time is money in a solicitors’ office.
  3. If you have a niche expertise, you can command 25 per cent premium in your charge rates.

We used these data analytics to persuade our members to see the light. But how did we apply them?

Enter Tech Start for Law on 1 March 2017. A tripartite collaboration over a year long between Spring Singapore (now known as Enterprise SG), Law Ministry and Law Soc saw a rollout of 70 per cent funding for first year subscription for our Singapore law practices for a practice management system, online legal research and an online marketing tool. A total of S$2.8 million was earmarked for lawyers to adopt baseline technology solutions. These were available across the board for all Singapore law practitioners but the benefits were felt the most by small firm practitioners who participated in this journey. Some of their testimonials speak great volumes. These include the following straight from the horses’ mouth:

  1. Some examples of the qualitative productivity gains are:
    • We can now access our clients’ matters from any computer as long as there is internet connection. Previously, we can only do so in the office as the access can only be done through the database stored in a physical server.
    • We can save costs and office space as we do not have to keep a physical server to maintain/support the software
  2. “… lawyers can do legal work without having to worry about the back end administration work seen in a traditional law firm setting.”
  3. The knowledge management system helped us to retain knowledge. Inefficiencies associated with finding information are eliminated at the firm-level. The online workspace which combines an intelligent search engine with a knowledge management system allow information to be shared and accessed collectively.”
  4. “[the marketing tool] saves us a lot of time and it reaches potential clients faster and quicker. Because of all the processes that have now have been reduced, we can use the time to meet more clients or to develop strategies as to how to build the firm.”

At the Tech Road Show in April 2017, I cited Stewart Brand’s famous quote “Once a new technology rolls over you, if you’re not part of the steamroller, you’re a part of the road”. Thankfully, we were not steamrolled!

Law Soc came alongside Tech Start for Law to initiate a project called Smart Law Assist. We unlocked our Education Fund to subsidise the first year payment of a Knowledge Management module. Two anecdotal examples of the benefits suffice. From one law firm: “The knowledge management system helped us to retain knowledge. Inefficiencies associated with finding information are eliminated at the firm-level. The online workspace which combines an intelligent search engine with a knowledge management system allow information to be shared and accessed collectively.” Another managing partner said: “… the knowledge management system … that we use for our backroom operations have been very useful. It frees the lawyers to be true lawyers, what we were really called to do, to help people with their problems.”

As a trilogy of offerings, in a master stroke by our then newly set up Legal Productivity and Innovations Department, we developed a Smart Law Assist Recognition mark. For law firms that ticked three boxes: (1) online practice management (2) online marketing and (3) online knowledge management, they were conferred given an early mover advantage by receiving a Smart Law Assist service mark. They could use that on letterheads and collaterals for marketing purposes. Like a special certification, this was designed to recognise the legalpreneurs in our midst.

The take up for Tech Start for Law? One hundred and fifteen Singapore law practices applied for, and adopted, 143 technology solutions. Of these, 99 per cent were small and medium-sized Singapore law practices.

Last year, after Tech Start for Law ended, we commissioned a comprehensive Black box survey with the Law Ministry’s support to assess the current level of technology adoption in Singapore law practices and their perception of the relevance of technology for their practices. The survey results showed that law firm decision makers clearly recognise the value of legal technology:

  • 88 per cent agreed that technology helps to improve the delivery of legal services.
  • 85 per cent agreed that legal technology is crucial to the future development of the profession and the sector.
  • 82 per cent agreed that technology adoption is crucial for their firms to stay competitive in the legal sector.

However, two sobering reality checks to note about this survey. First, lawyers did not get the innovation piece. Second, both law firms and in-house counsel currently do not view legal technology as a key priority. Legal technology helps to increase productivity and save costs but is not yet seen as a business “game changer”.

I am sure it will not surprise to many in anyone in this audience here that a key area of concern in the survey was data security.

Key challenges for law firms to adopt technology cited in our survey include (a) the high cost of adoption and maintenance; (b) lack of know how to decide which solution to adopt; and (c) how much to invest.

[Sixty-eight per cent of decision makers view legal tech as simultaneously an opportunity and a threat.]

The Honourable Chief Justice Sundaresh Menon, in his recent speech on 25 April at the 29th Inter-Pacific Bar Association Gala Dinner, said and I quote “technology will be the single most potent force to reshape our profession in the years to come”. In that speech, Chief Justice Menon outlined three tangible ways in which change is taking place around us – a massive proliferation of new products, the spawning of new players and the adoption of new processes to facilitate wider access to – and more efficient delivery of – justice.

And so in an exciting development, a fortnight ago, we moved from first base to second base. Tech-celerate. As its name implies, we are not only start mode, certainly not stop mode, but hurtling at the speed of life. And so we move with a faster velocity towards our end goal. An end goal that may look very different for different law practices.

Tech-celerate is a joint initiative by the Law Ministry, Law Soc, Enterprise Singapore and Infocomm Media Development Authority (IMDA), a multi-agency partnership, to provide Singapore Law Practices with up to 70 per cent support for the first year cost of using technology solutions. ESG has allocated up to S$3.68m for this initiative. This is more money and this sequel, a significant step up. The solutions were pre-approved by IMDA under the “SMEs Go Digital” programme in consultation with Min Law, Law Soc and ESG.

For some, this next stage of acceleration could be man + machine in the sense of harnessing the technology to boost speedy delivery of legal services or improve efficiency of backroom services (finance, research and so on). For others, it could mean more cutting edge ideas, e.g. disrupting yourself by innovating. Clients win because they get the benefit of innovative legal services.

A review of industry needs show for example:

  1. Software with artificial intelligence capabilities can rapidly review large volumes of documents and present significant time and cost-savings for law firms and clients.
  2. Chatbots can answer basic legal queries, allowing law firms to interact with clients in new ways.

And so, Techcelerate for Law comprise nine baseline (practice management systems, online legal research and document management for efficient performance) and seven advanced (AI to help law practices strengthen capabilities in document assembly, document review, eDiscovery and client engagement) technology solutions. The application period is open until 1 May 2020.

This is what I said in conjunction with that launch and it bears reiterating here:

“The Tech Start for Law Programme has certainly achieved its objectives in the course of its year-long duration to catalyse our Singapore law practices to start or continue their technology journey principally by (1) reducing the pain points of costs; and (2) the careful curation of appropriate legal technology practice-oriented solutions. The new Tech-celerate for Law Programme will accelerate our lawyers’ advancement of that journey especially for our smaller law firms. This sequel offering demonstrates the firm commitment by, and strong collaboration between, Min Law, Enterprise Singapore, IMDA and Law Soc to assist our members future-proof and future-ready their legal practice to brave the new challenges and future shocks posed by radical disruptions.”

Disruption could lead to existential fears by lawyers. But I believe that an AI attempting empathy by saying “I am sorry to hear that” cannot come close to the real thing. Being human entails having empathy, one of the finest qualities lawyers can bring to a case. AI and legal technology will certainly ease the burden of mundane repetitive work. But it is imperative for junior lawyers to develop soft skills that machinery can never match. For high touch clients, lawyers will need to develop core people skills including attributes such as insight, ingenuity, creativity, counsel, judgment, leadership and risk assessment. We need to work on artificial intelligence with real intelligence.

And so today, 15 May, we celebrate another milestone of this journey. We turbo-boost the early mover advantage through the inventive approach of a Smart Law Club. A Smart Law Guild. Among other fascinating presentations today, you will hear about the future of the legal workforce and implications of AI and the digital era on the millennial legal workforce and legal technology strategies for Singapore law practices. You will also have an invaluable opportunity to interact and learn from pre-approved vendors under the Tech-celerate for Law Scheme.

Later on this morning, you will have a panel discussion moderated by our steamroller driver (!), I mean CEO, Delphine Loo Tan, on sharing on experiences with SmartLaw Firms – The SmartLaw Journey. This is admittedly tech evangelism but we intend to tease out the meaningful and memorable aspects of the tech adoption journey of our SmartLawyers. And in the final panel session moderated by Tech Cluster Council Member, Paul Seah, on sharing by innovative thought leaders from non-legal sectors. Innovation is more than technology.

But returning to technology, it is not about hype; it is about hope. The write up on Smart Law Guild says the following:

“Staying on top of the game is daunting enough in this age of digital disruption, but the journey does not have to be a lonely one. For the lawyer who is open to the challenge of re-inventing him or herself, the SmartLaw Guild creates a platform to share strategies, best practices, trends and resources to gear our law practices up for the future.”

Among Membership Privileges, you will get, among others:

  • updates on the latest technology and business innovations;
  • an opportunity to join overseas mission trips and showcase to an international audience;
  • publicity through the Law Society website and Singapore Law Gazette;
  • rich interaction with a global “Smart” community of like-minded legal practitioners

So, don’t deny yourself or delay for a minute longer. Techcelerate. And join the SmartLaw Guild for a gilt edge in your practice today.

Thank you.

President
The Law Society of Singapore