Lawyer's software comes in handy for SMEs

Mr Goh has launched Vanilla Law - interactive software that helps clients to draft their own legal documents. It is aimed at helping SMEs, which often cannot afford in-house lawyers.
Mr Goh has launched Vanilla Law - interactive software that helps clients to draft their own legal documents. It is aimed at helping SMEs, which often cannot afford in-house lawyers.ST PHOTO: KUA CHEE SIONG

Corporate lawyer Mark Goh was looking to hire a secretary when starting his practice in 1994, but chanced upon what he jokingly termed as a "secretary in a box" instead.

With the help of what was in fact word-processing software, he successfully ran a "one-man show" on his personal computer in the 1990s.

The 49-year-old said it was his first brush with technology at a time when most law firms typically kept a large pool of typists and legal clerks who worked on typewriters.

Now the director of boutique law firm MG/Chambers, which serves mainly small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) hopes to put yet another spin to the traditional law practice.

In late February, he launched Vanilla Law - interactive software that gives clients a hand in drafting their own legal documents, such as employment agreements.

It aims to help SMEs that often cannot afford in-house lawyers and instead, replicate templates or contracts found online to save on legal fees.

Mr Andrew Sng, managing director of management consultancy firm DPI Asia, said: "Agreements are drafted to prepare you for the worse-case scenario. If that happens, you become vulnerable. And for a typical SME like us, this could potentially ruin the business."

The software contains preset basic clauses and an interactive clause selector allowing users to customise legal documents for an annual subscription fee of $250.

The first draft can be done in the client's own time, after which a lawyer will help to refine it.

Mr Goh added: "It reduces the need for multiple exchanges between a lawyer and client during the drafting stages, which is where the bulk of time and money are spent."

For instance, writing up a simple tenancy agreement with a junior lawyer can take at least six hours and cost around $1,800.

Shareholders' agreements, which are more complex and require senior lawyers with more than 20 years of experience, can total around $14,000, with the process lasting between 20 and 30 hours.

Vanilla Law aims to reduce both time and money spent by more than 50 per cent. "Generating an agreement at the lowest tier would now cost the client about $800," Mr Goh said.

Currently, Vanilla Law has 12 companies subscribed to the software and is working to tie up with various trade associations, such as the Singapore Precision Engineering and Technology Association, to introduce the software to other SMEs.

Declining to reveal his target market share, Mr Goh said: "I just want to grow it as much as I can."

And while there has been other software entering the market in recent years, such as Singapore's Law Canvas and Hong Kong's Dragon Law, these are mainly template- driven with a fixed set of clauses.

Instead, Vanilla Law runs on complex algorithms allowing for more flexibility for clients.

Mr Goh had to pick up coding during the two years he spent developing the platform.

He believes that the push towards using technology in legal practice will help rather than harm lawyers and businesses.

Last year, Mr Goh was part of a focus group set up by the Singapore judiciary to look at how information technology could shape the courts of the future.

Chief Justice Sundaresh Menon had stressed at the opening of Legal Year 2016 in January that the legal community would have to embrace technology to be "future- ready".

A task force to explore the possibilities of using artificial intelligence and technology in Singapore courts is expected to complete its work by this year.

"What technology has done is to give David the strength to go after Goliath," Mr Goh said. "It gives small companies that are lean on resources the power to compete with the big guys."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on July 07, 2016, with the headline 'Lawyer's software comes in handy for SMEs'. Print Edition | Subscribe