It is astonishing that only 9 per cent of small and medium-sized law firms here use technology-enabled productivity tools. The implications of that dismal proportion are multiplied by the fact that of the 874 law firms in Singapore, 852 are small and medium-sized practices with fewer than 30 lawyers. More than larger firms, it is these practices which could be challenged by the rise of disruptive technology in the legal sector.
This includes the use of artificial intelligence to offer services to those who wish to draft their own legal documents and thus avoid bills from a lawyer who might do no more than just create a standard-form contract.
To give a nudge to technological illiterates and cost-conscious law firm owners, there is a scheme providing them with a 70 per cent subsidy in initial costs for an online knowledge database. This will help reduce the time needed for legal research by up to 20 per cent. The initiative accompanies a larger push for the use of legal technology through a $2.8 million programme, announced recently by the Ministry of Law, the Law Society of Singapore and Spring Singapore.
The public would wonder why lawyers need to be cajoled in this way when they enjoy an elevated status and should be well aware of the value of technology. Indeed, clients might well resist time-based billing when extra costs can be attributed to outdated research or administrative methods. Thus, a change of mindsets is necessary.
There was a time, and not very long ago, when technology was seen as a threat only to labour-intensive and routine clerical jobs. Later, fears arose that administrative positions in middle management could be rendered obsolete by advances in computing. Professionals, such as those in medicine, law and other cerebral industries, were thought to be "untouchable" - beyond the destructive reach of software that can replicate brain activity and reduce the dependence on human inputs. Now, higher-order functions across the economic board are being recast by the ascendancy of cheaper and faster ways of uniting demand and supply. Led by artificial intelligence, technology is playing a role by altering the traditional role of the professional.
The legal sphere is not immune to this "uberisation" of economic life. A study of the law firms of the United States - a notoriously litigious society - notes that a seller's market has become a buyer's one. It adds that the new market environment represents a risk to operating and pricing models that worked well in the past but which are being undermined by sluggish demand, reduced pricing power, and falling productivity.
For all the differences between that country and this one, Singapore's law firms are also vulnerable to technological change and thus must go with the flow.