Commentary: Becoming future-ready, inside the quiet revolution of Singapore’s legal sector
Technology is transforming the ways lawyers do their jobs, says Azman Jaafar and Erwan Barre at RHTLaw Taylor Wessing LLP.
SINGAPORE: As we prepared to board a morning flight to Dubai for meetings just last month, the trill from the vibrating smartphones in our pockets signalled a flurry of incoming messages on our messaging app.
To respond to these messages only upon our arrival in Dubai might have been the norm a few years ago. But with Wi-Fi available on board many long-haul flights, client expectations have moved up several notches.
Rapid advances in technology and the higher demands of cost-sensitive and increasingly discerning clients are forcing lawyers to transform the way they work. Understandably, speed is perceived today as the most visible metric of efficiency.
New and evolving technologies has given the legal profession a much-needed shot in the arm.
Artificial intelligence-driven platforms have instilled new discipline among lawyers, as the process of discovery in litigation and due diligence exercises involving voluminous documents can be accomplished in a fraction of the time it used to take, with fewer lawyers and paralegals involved using a machine-learning platform that gets better as you teach it.
Having such platforms saves firms and clients time and money, but challenges lawyers on two very critical fronts: First, in taking ownership of change; and second, in learning to move up the value chain so that they can channel their newfound bandwidth elsewhere to serve clients better.
Today, the document management system represents the quintessential backbone of a law firm’s filing system. Hosted in the cloud, it enables lawyers to file emails, voice messages, documents and other records digitally into searchable databases and in appropriate cases, with managed client access.
Cloud-based services have made it easier for law firms to deploy document assembly software, AI-driven document review solutions and automated workflows, to enhance the role of lawyers.
In a typical merger and acquisition transaction, document drafting and preparation, and the due diligence review of records and documents are now expected to be completed in less time for lower fees. Technology and project management skills have become important tools of efficiency in legal practice.
Indeed, the disruptive force of technology has been keenly felt across many industries including the legal sector. However, this is not the first time lawyers have had to confront the arrival of new technologies and fast-evolving megatrends.
Not too long ago, most correspondences between lawyers and their clients relied on telex, facsimile machines and the postal service, with response time ranging from three days to a week. In contrast, as transactions today are largely cross-border, lawyers are expected to work from anywhere and at any time.
Further back in history, lawyers have always had to navigate change to improve, evolve and survive; from the use of typewriters, dictation and transcription machines, to “Wang machines” for word processing and personal computers and the Internet.
The pace of change has increased exponentially, prompting lawyers to think radically very far ahead to reinvent their business as incremental improvements are no longer capable of meeting new needs.
INTERNATIONALISING LAW PRACTICE
As globalisation continues to radically change the business landscape, law firms are quickly evolving to meet the changing needs of clients to stay competitive.
Singapore law firms, many of which were previously independent local practices focused on domestic work, have now reached out to forge deep partnerships with foreign law firms and regional networks to better serve clients with complex cross-border needs.
Today, there are desktop solutions that can facilitate multi-party voice and video conference calls with options to share documents and review the same in real time, obviating the need for a physical meeting.
Increased competition has also brought about the creation of new roles at Singapore law firms.
Ten years ago, few firms saw the need to establish marketing and business development teams. Today, law firms with digital marketing and specialised business development teams, public relation consultants, including specialised technology teams, have proliferated, arming law firms with new capabilities to keep ahead of the game.
Increasingly complex client projects require the collaboration of a team of lawyers with diverse expertise across various fields in various geographies. Lawyers are now recognising that a customised suite of services across all practice areas can offer an efficient and cost-effective solution for clients. This sectoral approach is a departure from individual silo practices of the past.
A NEW PLAYBOOK
The Singapore law practice has to write a new playbook, where this new normal has given birth to tremendous opportunities for enlightened digital lawyers – one premised on the lawyer’s ability to accept change and adapt quickly to evolving market trends.
Lawyers are no longer mere practitioners. They must reinvent their practice and develop new technology-enabled solutions for their clients. They must grow their business to support the evolving professional services ecosystem.
In areas where the work is repetitive and voluminous, technology solutions can automate entire workflow processes, and make tedious work free from the need of human intervention. Whether technology is being used in conjunction with artificial intelligence to review standard documents as part of a due diligence exercise or to issue mere standard letters, the possibilities are infinite.
Managing cost is a serious on-going challenge for firms and clients alike. With technology, lawyers are able address the client’s needs by providing a solution-oriented and client-focused approach with a deep understanding of the client’s business.
When acting for a client, for instance, technology enables the firm to assemble its entire global expertise on a dedicated messaging platform with managed document sharing and filing capabilities. All updates are automatically posted onto the platform, providing seamless collaboration and communication between lawyers and clients, and giving clients a high level of engagement and intimacy without the inefficiencies of a traditional engagement.
Changes to legal delivery, in particular its disaggregation, have also transformed the way lawyers work and brought about the proliferation of related professional services. Other professionals (paralegals and non-practising lawyers) with the right skillsets can do segments of the work.
The most forward-thinking law firms are developing additional engines of growth to offer clients a broader spectrum of professional services.
With technology and current market trends, the law firm of the future is likely to be lean and digital.
These right-sized law firms would have re-engineered their business model, having built an extensive non-law professional service ecosystem so that they can deliver other professional solutions to their clients across the entire value chain, including cost-effective legal support services, company secretarial services, payroll services, and bespoke subscription-based technology solutions.
On hindsight, this seems to be the right and logical response to the Big Four muscling in on legal services - competition that many never saw coming ten years ago.
LAWYERS OF THE FUTURE
Future lawyers will be digital natives, using technology to augment themselves, from file-opening, the conduct of Know-Your-Customer checks on clients, document assembly to chat bots.
At some point, smart contracts built on a blockchain may be deployed for certain types of transactions, for example, in the insurance industry. One doesn’t really need a lawyer to execute a smart contract but a lawyer who can write codes for smart contracts will be in great demand.
Unfortunately, the university curriculum today does not seem to address the requirements of the evolving digital landscape. Proficiency in basic word processing applications are basic skills and no longer enough to help law graduates stand out.
Future lawyers must keep track of technological changes and evolving market trends as these impact clients and the business landscape. New developments in financial technology, cryptocurrency and blockchain technology can have a disruptive effect on clients.
Singapore’s growth as an international financial centre has also created demand for globally-connected strategic and holistic legal services tailored to meet clients’ specific needs.
MAN VS. MACHINE
Technology is transforming every aspect of our legal practice and changing our legal culture.
It has enhanced efficiency in the way we deliver legal services and will continue to fuel Singapore’s ambition to become the premier legal services hub for Asia, as outlined earlier this month by Senior Minister of State for Law Edwin Tong.
Discussions around the future of technology and its impact on industries have predominantly been framed in an adversarial manner, with job loss being the predicted outcome.
We do not believe in a zero-sum outcome as salvation comes in the form of a human client. We should remember that client intimacy ultimately demands a technologically-savvy human lawyer to face the client.
The legal services sector cannot hold out too long in this disruptive market environment. Law firms need to embrace change as a first step.
Azman Jaafar is Deputy Managing Partner at RHTLaw Taylor Wessing LLP. Erwan Barre is Partner at the same firm.