Our Ship Has Many a Storm to Weather
Today’s lawyer is expected to have many more skills than legal knowledge alone. So put your textbooks away, as there are many other competencies such as problem-solving skills, technology skills, communication skills, people skills, project management, and time management skills that you should harness and weave into your skillset. These life skills will keep you afloat in your careers, legal or otherwise.
I am writing this article in my capacity as a lawyer-turned-legal-technopreneur, so my focus is on one essential skill that you need to stay the course: Legal Technology (“LegalTech” – keeping it short and simple!). I share, here, my thoughts on LegalTech, shedding light on Singapore’s LegalTech landscape, the tools and concepts that fledgling lawyers need to master to remain buoyant, as well as LegalTech as a career option.
Sailing into the LegalTech seas was not easy but I made it ashore!1 Let me tell you about some of the storms that I weathered with my next port of call being LegalTech.
What is LegalTech? Importance and Impact
LegalTech encompasses a broad range of technologies designed specifically for law firms, with four goals in mind: To enhance efficiency; minimise repetitive, manual tasks; reduce the cost of delivering legal services, and ameliorate client experience.
While most lawyers still prefer to use generic productivity applications such as Microsoft Word, Outlook, Adobe Acrobat, Windows Explorer, One Drive, I believe that digital-native Millennials and Generation Z lawyers such as you will be the ones harnessing LegalTech’s game-changing potential to effect radical change and to do things that previously were not possible (or even conceivable). As Richard Susskind said: “The role of technology here is not to support and enhance our old ways of working but to overhaul and often replace our practices of the past”.2
Chief Justice Sundaresh Menon emphasised that: “Technology will be the single most potent force to reshape our profession in the years to come.”3 As a generation that is “especially proficient with technology”, you have an important role to play “in paving the way towards greater efficiency in the delivery of legal services”.4
You are the helmsmen of our LegalTech Armada.
AI, AI Captain
Today, most of the LegalTech that law firms use is rules-based (i.e. if x, then y). AI-based software is an “enigma”, and as far as I know, the only people using AI-based LegalTech are still at the experimentation stage; costs and lack of transparency being real issues. My take: It makes sense to look at what technology law firms already have in their arsenal and put that to good use before turning their attention to shiny new AI.
Nevertheless, AI, smart contracts, data analytics and robotic process automation will be woven into the fabric of legal service delivery during your watch. These technologies will become the baseline, everyday technologies because increasingly, your clients will demand that you use it, and prices will have come down to make them accessible to all.
So again, you will be the coxswains of this regatta!
How Does the Legal Profession Perceive LegalTech?
The Law Society of Singapore’s 2018 Legal Industry Technology Study5 revealed that 82 percent of decision-makers in Singapore law firms considered using technology as crucial for their firms to stay competitive. Additionally, three-quarters of them agreed that there was a need to increase the level of technological adoption at their firms.
What is the LegalTech Agenda at a National Level?
Good news! Singapore provides more LegalTech support, encouragement, and incentives at a government/institutional level than any other country. In the last five years, we have had two government grants (Tech Start for Law and Tech-celerate for Law), and two LegalTech roadmaps (Singapore Academy of Law’s (SAL) Legal Tech Vision and the Ministry of Law’s Technology and Innovation Roadmap 2030 (TIR)6). SAL’s TechLaw Fest7 has now become the leading LegalTech event in the region.
TIR is a sectoral plan for technology adoption and innovation in the Singapore legal industry aimed at law practices and in-house legal teams, with TIR highlighting key trends for industry players to be aware of, and the types of solutions to consider in planning their transformation journey.
These are potentially game-changing initiatives that may have a major impact on your journey, so do keep abreast of TIR and other LegalTech initiatives by SAL and the Law Society of Singapore.
What is the Law on the Use of Technology by Law Firms?
Technological skills are a must-have – no prizes for guessing that – but you must choose to work in firms that invest in LegalTech tools and training for its staff. In this regard, although the Legal Profession (Professional Conduct Rules) 20158 (PCR 2015) does not expressly specify that lawyers must use LegalTech in the delivery of legal services, it does stipulate that:9
A legal practitioner must –
act with reasonable diligence and competence in the provision of services to the client;
ensure that the legal practitioner has the relevant knowledge, skills and attributes required for each matter undertaken on behalf of the client, and apply the knowledge, skills and attributes in a manner appropriate to that matter.
Hence, law firms should, to their best effort, equip lawyers with the appropriate technology tools and training to deliver better and faster services.
A Peek into Your LegalTech Toolkit
As to the Toolkit your law firm or legal department should be equipping you with, do refer to TIR’s Baseline LegalTech Solutions below. There is no one-size-fits-all solution. Firms that undertake more routinised and process-driven work (e.g. Conveyancing, Personal Injury, CorpSec, Wills and Probate) will need systems Case Management and Document Automation) which are very different from those used in litigation firms eDiscovery, eBundling and eHearings) and corporate firms (Document Automation, AI-powered contract extraction and analysis).
A. TIR Baseline LegalTech Solutions
The TIR categorises baseline solutions into three categories. They have mentioned, by way of illustration, some of the more popular LegalTech tools. I have added the items in green, to complete the list.
B. Generic Software
For completeness, your Tech Toolkit should also include mastery of the below baseline generic productivity tools and digital skillsets.
How Does a Young Lawyer Learn About the Tech Capability of a Law Firm?
Today, almost all law firms will acknowledge the importance of LegalTech. However, the level of tech adoption is patchy and fragmented across the legal industry.
Discerning the level of tech adoption in a law firm:
- Find out what LegalTech software the law firm is using (see tables above). This will help you discern if the firm’s LegalTech is current or obsolete.
- Take a quick peek into the backroom of the law firm. Is it a “paper everywhere” firm? Does each workstation have at least two monitors or a large monitor?
Are larger law firms more technologised than smaller ones?
- Being big does not necessarily mean that a law firm has adopted more LegalTech, as size can be a significant hindrance to software changes and upgrades. Retraining, process re-engineering, resistance, and higher risk aversion associated with size can work against innovation and agility.
- The tech quotient and progressiveness of a law firm are determined by the firm’s corporate culture and business strategy, its primary areas of practice, and the type of practice (specialist or generalist).
What Does the New Legal Workplace Look Like?
Today, we see digital collaboration technologies and a new workplace culture that encourages innovation and embraces digitalisation, replacing the old norms of physical offices and traditional face‑to-face meetings. The COVID-19 crisis broke down barriers to digital adoption, accelerating varying degrees of digital transformations in law firms. Epiphanies abounded.
COVID-19 has caused law firm owners to question the wisdom of the traditional law office and to reimagine the workplace of the future. Conveyancing law firms now realise that their paper-full ways (and trays) pose a huge risk and a business continuity stumbling block. Courts and dispute firms now realise that virtual hearings are a surprisingly workable alternative to in‑person hearings.
In all cases where we assisted, work-from-home (WFH) solutions were set up more quickly and easily than our clients had thought possible. Going forward, law firms expect most of these changes to be long-lasting and are already making investments for making them permanent.
In fact, the enforced WFH experience has been so successful that now, legacy partners are thinking more like millennials. They want more remote working, fewer working hours, and more flexible work schedules. Welcome to the new age of LegalTech!
By all accounts, one area which is likely to be changed for good is the Hearing experience.
COVID-19 brought about a massive technological upheaval last year in how it forced us to move from a world in which almost all court hearings were physical to one in which there were almost none.10 The use of remote hearings during Singapore’s “Circuit Breaker” has been so well received as being “convenient, cost and time-efficient”, that in the first Mass Call held via Zoom3 in Singapore on 25 August 2020, Sundaresh Menon CJ urged new lawyers to embrace technology and remote hearings in these “unprecedented times”. He commented that COVID‑19 has dissolved resistance to virtual courts and that the increased frequency of remote hearings means that litigation lawyers will have to adapt to new forms of advocacy and be proficient in arguing cases not just in person, but virtually.
Cost-effectiveness and efficiency are the key benefits of conducting hearings virtually. This is particularly the case in large multi-jurisdictional disputes, as counsel, parties, experts, and witnesses are no longer required to travel.
Engaging effectually with eHearing technology will be key to facilitating remote hearings. Dispute teams will now have to manage video conference software and electronic bundles (eBundles), incorporate pre-trial equipment and technology dry runs into their pre-hearing preparations and discuss eHearing protocol and platforms with opposing counsel.
Junior lawyers will no doubt be the ones in the hot seat for facilitating dry runs and setups and calling up bundle documents quickly and effectively.
Will Lawyers be Automated Away?
I honestly do not see that happening. But there are certain tasks that can and should be automated away. For example, manual bundling, document listing, identifying and removing duplicate documents, eyeballing clauses in a due diligence exercise, calculating completion accounts in a conveyancing transaction.
I suspect that the drudgery of manual processes is the least favourite part of your job and that you would be overjoyed for them to be automated away. Rather than replacing you, technology is helping you to be better at your jobs.
Technology is your indispensable ally.
Is LegalTech a Career Option?
I reinvented myself from lawyer to LegalTech professional. My many roles in Bizibody Technology and Litigation Edge have encompassed software design, software curation, software consulting, training and project management, workflow consulting, HR management, strategic planning, business development, legal counsel, COO and CEO.
My journey into LegalTech started with a headfirst dive from the dot.com springboard. After 11 years in legal practice, I started a dot.com called “Bizibody.com” with three other lawyers. It was a B2B marketplace (in the form of a Q&A format) for the sale of business information. Bizibody.com would have sunk, like a thousand others, but driven by survival instincts, we abandoned the “dot.com” moniker and pivoted to something we knew better: law firms and the practice of law.
Some exciting recent transactions in the LegalTech market indicate that LegalTech is entering a new phase. For example, LegalTech stalwarts Intapp + LegalZoom have filed for IPOs; several other LegalTech companies, including Clio, have hit unicorn status. We can expect more investments into LegalTech M&As and IPOs in the coming years.
These developments coupled with Covid-19’s reinforcement of the importance of technology in the legal profession, auger well for the LegalTech industry.
So, yes, the LegalTech industry is looking good and provides a viable option for lawyers who like LegalTech.
Is it Difficult to Transition from Lawyer to Legal Technopreneur?
Going from lawyer to techie was like learning a new language.
I am a digital immigrant. I graduated from law school in 1987, pre-internet, pre-email and pre-personal computers. Legal research meant reading hardcover law reports in the law school library.
Initially, I found tech terminology, concepts, methodologies, communications perplexing. Like how is it acceptable for software to be shipped with bugs?
But when I found my sea legs, I discovered that, in many ways, programming is similar to legal drafting – there is an underlying logic, a formalised language with a pre-defined structure. Digital natives like you will have an easier time.
What has been a greater challenge is getting lawyers to adopt tech. Lawyers are traditionally conservative when it comes to change. Being risk-averse is part of the lawyer’s DNA, as they have been hard-wired (Thanks, stare decisis!) to look backwards. It took an unplanned catastrophic global pandemic to change that.
When I started Bizibody in 2000, LegalTech was not yet a “thing”. It would take another 15 years before startups and funders would make it a distinct tech genre. Legal technologists are now seen as an essential part of legal practice. It has been a difficult and sometimes harrowing journey but today, LegalTech is transforming the practice of law at profound levels, from how we practise law to what constitutes the practice of law. I am blessed to have a great crew to deep dive with, into new depths of legal practice transformation.
Is it Necessary to Learn Coding?
Well, I did not. It would have been useful but it is not essential.
Instead, I contributed to product development in other ways: I used my 11 years in real estate/corporate legal practice, 10 years in litigation/hearing support, my experience in running a law firm in Hong Kong, and a well-honed workflow and tech sensibility, to identify and analyse workflow pain points, and to design a technology solution to eliminate them. During product development, we would create user stories, where I often played the role of the “client”.
Is it Necessary for New Lawyers to Have Practised Law Before Becoming a Legal Technopreneur?
Personally, I found that my 11 years in a law firm equipped me to play the many roles that I have undertaken in Bizibody and Litigation Edge. The legal practice also provided me with a solid base of corporate structuring, negotiation, legal drafting, problem-solving, decision making, consulting, communication and client servicing skills.
It makes great sense to practise law for at least three years before zooming in on what problems you want to solve. It is much better to start with the problem than to start with a solution looking for a problem.
Lawyers of the future, helmsman of the LegalTech Armada, I wish all of you the very best in your journey. May you have many opportunities to embrace and experiment with LegalTech. I look forward to hearing about your LegalTech adventures.
This article was originally published in the Singapore Law Gazette.