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The Singapore Law Gazette

What Will Your Legal Practice Be Like in 2039?

Collaborating to Secure the Future of Legal Practice

It has been one year since the Law Society of Singapore and the College of Law (the College) signed a Memorandum of Understanding in Singapore on 19 March 2018, to collaborate on legal education policy and programme initiatives to foster the career-long professional development of the legal profession in Singapore.

Since then, the College and the Law Society have been working closely on curriculum development, legal innovation and technology and continuing legal education. In February 2019, we launched a collaborative online CPD programme and a collaborative online legal practice management module as part of the Law Society’s 21st run of its annual legal practice management course. Legal practice management and legal innovation and technology were identified early as high priorities for the initial areas of collaboration.

At the time, Law Society president Gregory Vijayendran SC said, “the collaboration with the College as historic, as this is the first time the Law Society has collaborated with a legal education provider. Usually, the Law Society collaborates with other bar associations. The collaboration with the College will drive thought leadership in legal education policy.” —JusNewSG (March 2018).

Skillset of the Lawyer of the Future

An important consideration was how the College could assist the Law Society to meet its goals, as referenced to the April 2017 Report of the Working Group on Legal & Accounting Services. In particular, the goals around the skillset of the lawyer of the future.

The Legal & Accounting Services report was one of an industry-by-industry series arising from the Government of Singapore’s Committee for the Future Economy (CFE) initiative, which identified seven strategies, to achieve the nation’s vision for the future. 

The CFE Legal and Accounting Services working group made 15 recommendations for strengthening Singapore’s position, as a global leader for legal and accounting services, with four key thrusts:

  1. Strengthening global market position;
  2. Transforming the legal and accounting sectors;
  3. Building thought leadership; and
  4. Equipping legal and accounting professionals to be future-ready.

The CFE working group’s vision of the skillset of the lawyer of the future is as “holistic trusted business advisers with the ability to ’see around the corner’ to guide clients in making strategic business decisions.”

“Today, lawyers (and accountants) are expected to not only provide legal and accounting advice but to also use their professional expertise to bring value and help clients shape business strategies. Lawyers (and accountants) need to have deep regional knowledge and networks; regional legal expertise; and knowledge of their clients’ industries and needs.”

At the opening session of the Law Society’s July 2017 Future Lawyering Conference – ”Law Firm Leaders – What to Expect in the Next 50 Years” – panel speakers agreed that “… domain knowledge in relevant industries expertise was an important skillset for the lawyer of the future. Lawyers should also leverage on technology and move up the value chain. They must be able to interpret and strategise research done by a machine. The lawyer of the future would require a higher order skillset encompassing not only technical skills but soft skills including people skills, domain skills, judgment and strategy.”

Predicting the Future?

In fact, it is very difficult to predict the future of legal practice, or anything else for that matter, 50 years hence or even 20 years from now. The only certainty is change itself and that the rate of change is accelerating ever faster.

We cannot possibly know what the world will be like in 2069, any more than someone in 1969 could have predicted the world we have today.

I first started work as a graduate law clerk in 1976, in the offices of New Zealand’s largest and most modern law firm. It was in Auckland’s newest high-rise, in offices spread over three levels that were equipped with very the best that modern technology had to offer. Your own landline telephone extension linked to the world (at very high cost) and to your colleagues through a PABX. Legal secretaries had amazing electronic typewriters that could erase and fix mistakes, as they typed before your very eyes. A Xerox colour-photocopying machine. [Goodbye to the manual typewriter, typewriter ribbons, twink and carbon copies of law student days.]

Your mail arrived twice daily and was posted at the end of each day. Urgent messages came via rare and sparsely worded telegrams or telex messages. Paper documents were filed daily. Land subdivision plans were drafted by hand, on large sheets of special drafting paper. Conveyancing settlements took place on a Friday, with an exchange of real bank cheques and real Certificates of Title. The land transfer registry was in hard copy only. Clients were billed as per the Law Society standard scale of conveyancing charges.

Paper time sheets, with six-minute intervals (these had “recently” replaced 10-minute time sheets), had to be completed, by hand (pencil was best) before the end of each day, ideally recording while you worked, with every telephone call allocated at least six minutes.

Law clerks’ weekly wages were paid in terms of a union-organised collective agreement; and their hourly charge out rates were nearly half as much as their weekly pay.

Who could possibly have predicted in 1969, or in 1999, the legal workplaces and legal practices that we have today?

Who can therefore predict the future? Artificial intelligence (AI) is today revolutionising almost every field of human endeavour. AI’s impact on the Information Revolution has been compared to the impact of electricity on the Industrial Revolution; it is supercharging the revolution. So who can predict where AI will take us by 2039?

Embracing Change – the Centre for Legal Innovation

Although the future is unpredictable, the secret to future success lies in understanding and embracing change.

The College of Law established the Centre for Legal Innovation (CLI) in 2016, to help the legal profession to understand and embrace change, with the mission of helping lawyers prepare, connect and develop.

  1. Prepare – by bringing together leading thinkers, practitioners and legalpreneurs from around the world to identify trends, interpret their implications, document best practice and anticipate what’s next.
  2. Connect – by providing opportunities to connect with professionals at a range of events throughout the year, including seminars, public forums, workshops, exclusive member events and invitation-only roundtables. Our network is global, multi-disciplinary and we want to share it with you.
  3. Develop – by focusing on developing practical solutions to the changes taking place in the practice and business of law. The Centre releases regular blogs, insights and white papers to inform the thinking of its members.

On the CLI website at www.cli.collaw.com/clic you can find an interesting range of video recordings on topics such as:

Late last year, the CLI launched its Chief Innovation Officers Forum, a membership based group for those of you who are leading innovation and change within your firm or organisation. You can find information about this forum on the CLI website.

Are Lawyers Ready for the Future?

Lawyers face significant challenges to their future in legal practice. Are you ready for the future challenges of disruptive change? For example:

  • The big four accounting firms, which are growing fast and are now the world’s largest employers of legal staff. These firms can perform legal services (e.g. due diligence) using AI-assisted technology in a fraction of the time and at a fraction of the cost of a traditional legal practice.
  • Legal entrepreneurs who are harnessing technology and capital to provide commoditised legal services to customers at a fraction of the cost you can possibly charge.
  • AI-assisted legal research that can do within minutes what used to take new graduates days or even weeks to complete.
  • AI-assisted platforms that will inform potential litigants of the likely outcome of prospective litigation.
  • Blockchain technology and the impact it will have on contracts, banking, land registries, etc.

Lawyers must embrace change and harness technology and innovation to ensure they have a future. Lawyers need to acquire the skillset of the lawyer of the future – as envisaged by the CFE working group.

The Business of Law

Many (if not most) lawyers enter the profession with the centuries old mind-set of entering a learned profession, with high ideals, rather than starting a business. However, the reality is they are unlikely to succeed, unless they think the same as any other person setting up a business.

This reality led many law societies (e.g. Singapore, most Australian states, and New Zealand) to mandate legal practice management courses for those setting out to become principals, after their mandated period of tutelage. Mandatory short courses covering a few basic management-related topics were typically seen as meeting the minimum needed. New Zealand took this a step further and requires new principals to prepare a business plan and attend an interview with a law society panel before commencing practice. However, these mandated requirements should be seen as a bare minimum for lawyers who want to succeed in the business of law.

The College and the Law Society have long recognised the need to better educate lawyers in the business of law. The College’s new Master of Legal Business programme aims to provide lawyers with a post-graduate equivalent of an MBA. Its list of subjects includes topics such as: Building trusted client relationships; Innovation and entrepreneurship; Operational excellence; Finance and accounting; Aligning people; Leading self and teams; Business strategy; Creating and sharing value; Digitisation and Digitalisation; and Managing the impact of technology.

The College of Law and the Law Society will continue working together to help keep Singapore practitioners abreast of the rapid change in legal practice that we can expect in the coming years and to equip them with the skillset of the lawyer of the future.

Director, Asia-Pacific
The College of Law
E-mail: ptritt@collaw.edu.au

Peter Tritt is Director, Asia-Pacific for the College of Law and based in Kuala Lumpur. He is responsible for the College’s postgraduate legal education and professional training in Asia, with a focus on ASEAN. The programme portfolio includes three jurisdictional streams within the College’s Master of Laws (Applied Law) programme – ASEAN+6 Cross-Border Practice, Malaysian Legal Practice, and Common Law (New Zealand) Legal Practice, designed for foreign lawyers seeking admission in New Zealand. A new stream in Singapore Legal Practice is being developed, in collaboration with The Law Society of Singapore.

Peter has previously been the College’s Director of Practitioner Education in Australia (2012-14) and its CEO in New Zealand (2005-2012).

The College of Law is the largest provider of postgraduate legal education and training in both Australia and New Zealand and the second largest provider of LLM programmes in Australia.