Biggest mistake is to do nothing about disruptive technology, says Chief Justice Sundaresh Menon

Chief Justice Sundaresh Menon said the consequences of inaction can be dire, drawing on the "spectre of technological unemployment" as a warning to lawyers.
Chief Justice Sundaresh Menon said the consequences of inaction can be dire, drawing on the "spectre of technological unemployment" as a warning to lawyers.PHOTO: ST FILE

SINGAPORE - Chief Justice Sundaresh Menon has urged the legal profession to seize the moment and be at the front line of technological change, warning that the "biggest mistake" would be to do nothing.

Setting out the rapid tech-triggered developments that affect both industry players and regulators, he gave several examples in diverse areas to underline his call for unified action.

"There are many reasons that might tempt us to turn away from the change but, as these examples show, surrendering our fates in this way will only take us closer to undesirable outcomes - the obsolescence of our skills, the irrelevance of what we provide and the descent into ethical black holes," he said on Thursday (April 25).

CJ Menon made the point in a speech, titled "Deep Thinking: The future of the legal profession in an age of technology", at a gala dinner of the Inter-Pacific Bar Association Annual Meeting and Conference, which was attended by a record 1,250 people from across the world. The events were held at the Raffles City Convention Centre.

His address comes at a time when "technology will be the single most potent force to reshape our profession in the years to come".

The consequences of inaction can be dire, he added, drawing on the "spectre of technological unemployment" as a warning to lawyers.

The Chief Justice cited the reported case two years ago of a Japanese insurance firm, in which more than 30 members of its staff were laid off and replaced by an AI system said to have the cognitive ability to read tens of thousands of medical certificates and calculate payouts, among other things.

It dramatically reduced the number of man hours needed for the purpose.

"In much the same way, law firms too are fast incorporating AI into their work processes and who is to say that the same fate will not befall those of us who would rather deny the impact that modern technology is having on our profession?" he said.

Technology is leaving a "telling mark" on the legal profession through the new players it has spawned as well as the new products that have proliferated the market, he noted.

The impact posed challenges in at least four areas: how lawyers are trained and students are educated, how the profession is organised, how it preserves basic values and ethics as well as how the sound development of the law is safeguarded.

CJ Menon suggested that law firms should see themselves as places where lawyers go not only to work but learn their trade in digital terms.

Also, polytechnics could consider training a corp of allied legal professionals as legal services will increasingly involve others from related disciplines, such as data science and project management, process analysis, he said.

He cited the analogy of medical practice where doctors commonly work with those in related disciplines, such as speech therapists and physiotherapists.

At the industry level, the advent of alternative service providers online posed the challenge of how they should be regulated.

"Are we comfortable, for example, having online platforms like chatbots provide not just legal information but legal advice? Even if we were prepared to allow machines to go that far, who would liability attach to if such advice turned out to be wrong?"

Stressing the need to ensure there is no dip in the overall quality of legal services, the Chief Justice said regulators have to think about striking a suitable balance but not postpone a "necessary exercise".

"The problem is an outsized one and we will make little headway if we concentrate only on fixing those issues that are apparent from where we each stand."

He added: "Our greatest strength lies in our unity and, if we can draw on that to broaden our field of vision, to collaborate across borders and exchange perspectives on the lessons we have each learnt, I think that will offer us the best prospect of creating holistic and durable solutions that might prove fit for a time of epochal change."