Lawyers more efficient with technology but cannot be replaced by AI: Edwin Tong

Second Minister for Law Edwin Tong during a fireside chat with Professor Steven Miller, who is professor emeritus of information systems at the Singapore Management University.
Second Minister for Law Edwin Tong during a fireside chat with Professor Steven Miller, who is professor emeritus of information systems at the Singapore Management University.PHOTO: MINISTRY OF LAW

SINGAPORE - Will technology - which is increasingly used in legal work - eventually make lawyers redundant?

This question was addressed by Second Minister for Law Edwin Tong at a fireside chat on Wednesday (Sept 22).

"I think technology helps lawyers be a lot more efficient... and service-oriented," he said, noting that tech can help with back-end operations such as billing and accounting.

But artificial intelligence (AI) cannot replace lawyers in finding better ways to fulfil their clients' needs, such as formulating the best possible case for them.

"It can help you with the base material, but it cannot replace the creativity that the lawyer can bring to the team," Mr Tong said.

The minister was speaking at the opening segment of this year's TechLaw.Fest, an annual conference on law and technology.

The three-day event features speakers from the law and technology scene, academics and government officials.

It will cover topics such as responses by the legal sector and regulators to cyber-security threats, and " cookies" - online trackers that collect user data.

During Wednesday's fireside chat, which was attended by conference participants via Zoom, Mr Tong said that technology will be part of substantive laws.

"No longer can we be satisfied with just having knowledge of hard letter law, absent technology," he said.

Hard letter law includes well-established legal principles on contractual, criminal and property issues.

He gave as an example clients engaging in contracts involving cryptocurrency.

"You need to be familiar with that - how does it work, what is often (considered) acceptance (of the contract) in the context of a Bitcoin transaction?" he said.

Another example given was that of an autonomous vehicle that knocks someone down.

"What is the legal liability as far as that is concerned? How do we have accountability of AI systems?" Mr Tong asked.

"I would say technology... is very much front and centre of almost everything that a lawyer either wants to do for himself and his practice, or should be involved in - in the context of the substantive part of his practice."

On Wednesday, Mr Tong mentioned the Legal Industry Technology and Innovation Roadmap (TIR), a 10-year plan by the Ministry of Law (MinLaw) that aims to help the legal industry harness technology.

The TIR was launched at last year's conference, and includes plans to create a legal technology platform for law firms.

Legal technology refers to the use of technology and software that increase the productivity of legal service providers and help consumers access legal expertise.

Among other things, lawyers will be able to start Zoom calls with their clients, check their e-mails and manage their cases via the cloud-based platform.

MinLaw is also working with the Infocomm Media Development Authority and industry partners to develop a plan to help law firms assess their digital readiness and identify technology they can adopt.

The plan is expected to be launched along with the legal technology platform in the first quarter of next year, Mr Tong said.

The minister also said lawyers in Singapore are now "quick on the uptake" on how to improve themselves and what kind of technology they can use in their work.

"The adaptability... (and) the resilience of our lawyers to pivot to new modes of transactions and dealing with clients... is a real game changer for us - we have a lot to work with," he said.