Doing nothing about disruptive tech would be biggest mistake: CJ

In his speech, Chief Justice Sundaresh Menon warned lawyers of the "spectre of technological unemployment".
In his speech, Chief Justice Sundaresh Menon warned lawyers of the "spectre of technological unemployment".

Two years ago, a Japanese insurance firm laid off more than 30 people, replacing them with an artificial intelligence (AI) system with features that include the cognitive ability to read tens of thousands of medical certificates and to calculate payouts.

It dramatically reduced the number of man hours needed for the purpose, said Chief Justice Sundaresh Menon yesterday.

"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 added.

The Chief Justice cited the case when he urged the legal profession to seize the moment and be at the frontline of technological change, warning that the "biggest mistake" would be to do nothing.

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

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 in a speech titled "Deep Thinking: The future of the legal profession in an age of technology".

REGULATORY CHALLENGES

Are we comfortable, for example, having online platforms like chatbots provide not just legal information but also 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?

CHIEF JUSTICE SUNDARESH MENON, on the advent of alternative service providers online posing the challenge of how they should be regulated.

He was speaking during a gala dinner at the Inter-Pacific Bar Association Annual Meeting and Conference that was held at the Raffles City Convention Centre. The conference was attended by a record 1,250 people from across the world.

The Chief Justice's address comes at a time when "technology will be the single most potent force to reshape our profession in the years to come".

He noted that 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 in the market.

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.

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

Also, polytechnics could consider training a corps 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.

 

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 also 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 quality of legal services, the Chief Justice said regulators have to think about striking a suitable balance but not postpone a "necessary exercise".

He added: "Our greatest strength lies in our unity and, if we can draw on that... 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."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on April 26, 2019, with the headline 'Doing nothing about disruptive tech would be biggest mistake: CJ'. Print Edition | Subscribe