Lawyers perform many roles. Amongst other things, clients depend on lawyers to advise, analyse, strategise, crisis-manage, draft, represent and advocate on their behalf. In other words, a lawyer resolves a client’s problem and designs solutions for the client.1https://www.lawsociety.org.sg/publication/analysing-the-traditional-roles-of-lawyers-in-light-of-technology-in-singapore/
Law firms should be able to access and deploy a range of specialised resources in order to deliver comprehensive solutions. These solutions will increasingly, and sometimes inevitably, involve technology.
This is an important issue in today’s context, but it is not new. “Worldwide, non-lawyers are venturing into areas of work that have been traditionally reserved for practising lawyers. Not only are non-lawyers doing legal work, but increasingly, lawyers doing that same work are employed in non-traditional organisations.” These wise and cautionary words were said by the late Mr Palakrishnan SC, then-President of the Law Society, over 20 years ago.2https://v1.lawgazette.com.sg/2002-8/Aug02-president.htm He called for the legal profession to evolve and adopt Multi-Disciplinary Practices (MDPs) in order to provide an open-market approach in what he described as a “technology-enabled globalised village”. This is even more important today.
There is no doubt that the practice of law in Singapore must reflect the broad and multi-faceted scope of a lawyer’s role. Past discussions about law firms and MDPs focused on the provision of legal services by the “Big Four” accounting and other professional services firms. Today’s discussions revolve around the extent to which lawyers can (or even must) deploy technology and artificial intelligence, and how legal solutions should be delivered through a multi-disciplinary combination of lawyers, knowledge engineers, legal tech experts and even marketing and business professionals.3https://www.ibanet.org/article/A407B3E1-7083-48C2-AD9A-6BE7B7C934C5
The Singapore Lawyer is adaptable, ethical, client-centric and results-oriented. As trusted advisors to our clients, we are uniquely placed to deliver comprehensive solutions for our clients. However, law firms in Singapore remain strictly confined to providing legal advice, and multi-disciplinary services that go beyond legal services are currently not permitted.4https://www.lawsociety.org.sg/publication/the-regulation-of-alternative-legal-service-providers-in-singapore/
It is time to expand the scope of services that law firms in Singapore can provide to their clients. This should not require law firms to provide every conceivable service that a client may require. This will instead allow law firms of all sizes to deploy a wider range of expertise and services, including in specialised practice areas. Moreover, law firms will deliver these solutions in accordance with the ethical and professional conduct standards that apply to lawyers as officers of the Court. That is a significant safeguard that does not apply to solutions that are delivered by any other professional service provider.
Mr Palakrishnan, SC suggested many years ago that MDPs of lawyers and other professional or non-professional firms “will see us taking many steps away from medieval guilds which were built on selfish, anti-competitive restrictions on entry, the conduct, and the pricing of work”.
More recently, past President Mr Thio Shen Yi, SC put it even more bluntly: “Some protest, ‘Barbarians at the Gate’! I think the “barbarians” are already inside. Resistance is futile.”5https://v1.lawgazette.com.sg/2016-06/1588.htm I agree. We need to develop the regulatory landscape and our own mindsets to ensure that law firms in Singapore remain at the forefront of legal practice today and tomorrow.