Mindset change needed for legal tech scene to take off

Experts point out key hurdle as S'pore seeks to grow culture of innovation in the industry

Singapore has made its strongest push yet to get more lawyers to harness technology in their practice, said lawyers, observers and experts.

These include recent efforts led by the judiciary and the Government, such as the Legal Technology Vision and the $2.8 million Tech Start for Law scheme.

But more remains to be done to change mindsets among lawyers while growing a culture of innovation in the sector, they added.

At the official opening of the Singapore Management University law school building on March 15, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong said lawyers will not be immune to disruption.

Many routine legal tasks can now be automated while law firms overseas have begun using data science to tackle legal questions, he added.

However, Singapore law firms still "have a way to go", compared to those in the United States and Britain, said Mr Mark Goh, managing director of boutique law firm MG/Chambers.

Like many others who spoke to The Straits Times, he added that it begins by getting law firms here to adopt baseline technologies.

TECH'S THE WAY TO GO FORWARD

We have to hire people with an open mindset to learn new things. We will keep upgrading our systems and it can be troublesome but we will not shy away from it.

VIA LAW CORPORATION DIRECTOR WANG YINGYU, on her law firm's commitment to adopting technology.

These include practice management systems that allow case updates, timekeeping and billing to be carried out online as well as online legal research and marketing tools.

"The courts are aware that legal technology issues are far more complex, especially in terms of cyber security, responsibility and liability," noted Mr Goh, who created in-house legal document assembly software VanillaLaw last year.

"But first, you need to have people come up to the baseline.

"If stakeholders are not working in that environment, how can they debate and discuss these issues?"

Last month, the Ministry of Law, together with the Law Society (LawSoc) and Spring Singapore, launched a new scheme - Tech Start for Law - to help law firms adopt technology by subsidising part of the initial costs.

This comes after a study commissioned by LawSoc last year found that only 9 per cent of small and medium-sized law firms have adopted technology.

The managing director of Eden Law Corporation, Ms June Lim, said the scheme provides an incentive for law firms to try out the technology products.

But it is also crucial for "someone to set the tone and to want to put these things in place", she added.

She has been running her practice in a virtual workspace for the past three years.

"Frankly, mindsets have to change too," Ms Lim noted.

Some law firms continue to do most processes manually due to lack of time to train staff or "simply the fear of things going wrong when automated", said LawSoc chief executive Delphine Loo Tan.

However, as wages continue to rise, firms will be forced to turn from manual labour to technology, she added.

Furthermore, "legal services are now contributing to a greater proportion of the country's gross domestic product than ever before".

Via Law Corporation director Wang Yingyu said: "We have to hire people with an open mindset to learn new things.

"We will keep upgrading our systems and it can be troublesome but we will not shy away from it."

As part of the wide-ranging Legal Technology Vision, Chief Justice Sundaresh Menon has called for the incubation of a legal tech scene in the years ahead.

Mr Lee Ji En, 23, who started Facebook group Legal Hackers SG in January last year, said the legal tech scene here is still at a nascent stage.

"For instance, in the big US cities, there are podcasts, weekly meet- ups and chat groups about how to use technology to resolve problems in the legal industry," said Mr Lee, who is a practice trainee at Bachoo Mohan Singh Law Practice.

Legal Hackers SG, which has about 300 members, began as an informal platform to discuss legal innovation. He added that it is encouraging to see two local start-ups - Asia Law Network and Intelllex - on the Tech Start for Law scheme, and hopes more products will be included over time.

He remains positive that the legal tech community will grow over time. "Our push for legal innovation has started well but we will need to ensure that we keep the momentum going," he noted.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on March 23, 2017, with the headline 'Mindset change needed for legal tech scene to take off'. Print Edition | Subscribe