A new pilot programme by the Singapore Academy of Law aims to jump-start the legal sector’s digital transformation.
By Janice Lin
The legal sector and digitisation – never the twain shall meet? Not anymore.
Though technological advances have transformed many industries in Singapore’s economy, the legal sector has for the most part stayed untouched, with delivery of legal services largely remaining as they were 50 years ago.
This is an issue that the Singapore Academy of Law (SAL) is seeking to change.
“Digital disruption is real, but the scary thing is that a lot of people in our sector are either indifferent or complacent about it, because it has been insulated from it for the longest time,” said Mr Paul Neo, its chief operating officer, said at the official launch event of the Future Law Innovation Programme (FLIP) on 10 January 2018.
FLIP is a two-year pilot initiative that aims to promote the adoption of technology by law firms. With the purpose of driving innovation and fostering a vibrant ecosystem for legal technology, it will bring together lawyers, technology firms, investors, regulators and academics.
Since it was first announced in July 2017 by Chief Justice Sundaresh Menon at the SAL’s annual Appreciation Dinner, FLIP has attracted 31 participants from 23 entities, including big-name law firms such as Rajah & Tann, in-house counsel from corporations such as BNP Paribas, and legal tech start-ups like LexQuanta.
What it takes to digitise the legal sector
FLIP comprises three components, the first two of which were unveiled at the launch.
The first is the Legal Innovation Lab, located at co-working space Collision 8 at High Street Centre, which will incubate innovations by law firms and legal tech start-ups. Participating firms and in-house counsel can look forward to exploring ways to streamline their operations and digitise their processes.
LawNet Community, an online networking and collaboration platform, is the second plank.
This virtual tool aims to be the online extension of the physical ecosystem at Collision 8, and functions like a LinkedIn for local lawyers, providing the legal community free access to basic services such as professional and business profiles.
The final component of FLIP is a 100-day acceleration programme, called Accelerate!, which will help legal tech start-ups to scale up their businesses.
It is Southeast Asia’s first legal tech accelerator programme, and is slated to launch in April 2018.
Helping participants in tech adoption
The SAL has entered into partnerships with the Info-communications Media Development Authority (IMDA) and the Singapore Management University (SMU), which were also unveiled at FLIP’s launch.
Under the tie-up with SMU, the university will work with FLIP on student and curriculum development, thought leadership, case studies and research. One project its law students will embark on involves the identification of 100 problem areas faced by the legal sector.
This will be further expanded on by another project to be conducted by IMDA under its own partnership with the SAL. It will share these problem areas with other sectors as part of a cross-industry approach, to encourage solution providers to develop ideas that can be applied in different industries.
Additionally, IMDA will groom a team of legal technologists, who will be equipped with current cybersecurity and computer systems integration skills before being deployed across law firms here. Their task would be to help these firms pinpoint issues in their business processes and assist them in adopting the proper technological solutions.
“IMDA recognises that digital transformation is not limited to the tech sector, but affects all sectors. To drive a digital economy, it is imperative that we equip sectors with solutions which can raise productivity, enhance innovation, and equip workers with digitally transformative skill sets,” said Mr Tan Kiat How, IMDA’s chief executive.
Associate Professor Goh Yihan, dean of SMU’s School of Law, agreed that the legal landscape would not remain untouched by technology. “We are very pleased therefore to play our part and contribute our academic expertise as Singapore’s legal profession transforms in response to technology.”
Riding the wave of digital disruption
FLIP’s overall aim is to help local law firms ride the wave of technological disruption, said Mr Neo. This is already happening in economies like the US and the UK, where the culture of innovation is stronger, and law firms are the ones that take the lead in developing and investing in technology to improve the delivery of legal services.
“We are seeing this disruption happening in overseas jurisdictions, so we can’t just stand still and not do anything,” he said. “We are going to get disrupted, and we think it’s much better to be in the driving seat of disruption than to let other people disrupt us.”
Acknowledging the importance of being at the forefront of this phenomenon, High Court judge Lee Seiu Kin commented: “If there are any opportunities (arising from) developments in technology that will change the way we deliver legal services, then we want to be there as it happens, rather than get left behind.”
The hope is that FLIP’s participants can create digital solutions that will modernise and improve the delivery of legal services, as well as make it cheaper and more accessible.
“Right now, most legal services have to be delivered by a lawyer. But lawyers have other competing demands on their time … so if (there are tech solutions that can) do things that a lawyer need not do, that would bring down the cost of legal services,” added Justice Lee, who also heads the Legal Technology Cluster at the SAL.
Helping law firms take a closer look at their costs is among the services provided by LegalFab, a tech solutions provider that will be participating in the third track of FLIP. Its director, Mr Isaac Choo, said most law firms do not fully understand their cost structure, as they tend to get “too caught up in lawyering”. “With these firms, we would work with them to see if technology can reduce the time taken on certain tasks, which can hopefully then help lower costs,” he said.
Stressing the importance of digitising the legal sector, Mr Neo explained: “Singapore wants to continue to be a banking and financial hub, and for that, we will need the legal sector (to digitise as well). We hope that FLIP will help create the urgency to change, and then show the way to those who understand this urgency how to innovate and get themselves ready for the future economy, so they can not only survive, but also thrive in it.”
Photo Credit: Supreme Court of Singapore at Night by Socksiong licensed under CC BY-SA 4.0. Image has been cropped.