In retrospect, 2017 might be regarded as the year in which law firms in the Asia-Pacific region began wholeheartedly embracing technology. Of course, budgets vary between firms, and some have more hesitant than others when it comes to adapting to the new landscape, but this year will probably go down as the watershed in this regard. 

The time for evaluating, strategizing and preparing for the inevitable technological revolution might be over. Law firms across the Asia-Pacific region are beginning to understand that unless they jump on the tech bandwagon pretty soon, they remain at risk of being left behind. 

And as a slew of technologies for lawyers emerged and then gradually became mainstream, firms across jurisdictions decided that the time was finally ripe to take the plunge. The year 2017, thus, could go down as the year law firms finally began embracing technology in a big way.  

And they have a variety of options to choose from. Primarily led by artificial intelligence (AI), the legal industry is driven by advances in cloud and cognitive computing enabling the creation of digitised and customised legal solutions as clients’ demands are soaring at an all-time high. These technologies also enable legal professionals to work anytime, from anywhere and on any device, thus creating truly mobile lawyers. 

NOTHING ARTIFICIAL ABOUT IT

Among the most exciting technologies at the moment are AI and machine learning, which, according to Baker McKenzie, could help law firms achieve business process optimisation and ensure efficiency. 

“They are not a 'replacement' for human judgment but they can, when used wisely, help engender better human judgment,” points Andy Leck, the managing principal of Baker McKenzie Wong & Leow, and member of Baker McKenzie's Innovation Committee.

Already AI has had a major impact in the disputes space. Currently, there are several products in place that avoid disputes, with most employed in the complaints processes in technology companies. The software is said to review the merits of a complaint on the basis of several objective data points and then decides what remedy, if any, to offer to the complainant. The use of this form of AI is seen to filter out a large number of smaller cases that are relatively clear-cut. 

Latham & Watkins anticipates that AI will play an increasing role in informing arbitration funders, insurers and corporate clients in assessing the prospects of a case before it proceeds to arbitration. “AI is well suited to conduct this sort of analysis, and its use will affect the number of disputes that end up in arbitration,” says Yang Ing Loong, a partner in the firm’s Hong Kong office.

Another firm that is embracing new technologies is King & Wood Mallesons, which is involving technologies like blockchain, smart contracts and distributed energy, and AI technologies including machine learning and expert systems, into its offerings to clients. The firm claims to be the first in the Australian market to deliver digital legal advisor apps which automates or semi-automates rules-based decision-making processes.

“We are leveraging artificial Intelligence to drive efficiencies in help create our work. An example is our enhanced contract review methodology which combines legal expertise with cutting-edge contract analysis technology to create an enhanced contract review process for our clients,” adds King & Wood Mallesons’ executive director of innovation Michelle Mahoney.

And it’s not just the big boys who are getting into cutting-edge products. Singapore’s Colin Ng & Partners, a mid-tier domestic firm, says it is concentrating now on using task automation technologies.  

“Automating some of our file management processes will allow our lawyers to use their time on activities which deliver better client experience.  We are also looking into greater use of technology in our back-office functions such as accounts and admin, and use cloud computing for some aspects of running the firm,” says the firm’s COO Kristie Yeong.

The firm already uses document management software for storing emails and documents along with accounting software timekeeping and billing. It is now exploring mobile and web-based solutions for both the software.

CHANGING MINDSETS

Adopting newer technologies requires an open mindset in exploring new ways of doing things.  It requires everyone in the firm to adopt the perspective of solving clients’ business challenges than just provide legal advice.  However, training may be required to learn newer skills in certain cases. 

The major challenge of adopting new technologies is that technology rapidly evolves over time. To address this, Baker McKenzie has a two-part approach to technology investments. The first approach comprises of partners across a range of practice groups and sectors where its innovation committee of global and multi-jurisdictional innovation architects bring in ideas together. Secondly, the firm has a machine learning taskforce which has a brief to understand and monitor where technology is heading in the next four years or so.

Mahoney of KWM adds that the key challenge digitalisation introduces for any organisation is not the new technology in itself but rather encouraging people to change and adapt their ways.  “We are deeply focused on helping our people become future-ready. We are seeking to build strong problem-solving muscles in our people, to help them be able to gain a deeper understanding of client pain points,” she says.

Her firm has also embraced design thinking by running experiments for its lawyers to test their ideas, teaching prototyping and refining thinking. “We also run a coding course for our lawyers so they can deeply immerse themselves and get comfortable with digital,” she adds.

Law firms are additionally working with clients to co-develop customised legal solutions. They are interested in adopting any technology – not just those specific to the legal industry, which can lead to a more effective legal practice.  

“We try to combine both legal and non-legal aspects of our practice to create value for clients.  We have recently upgraded our computer hardware, and are looking at software solutions that streamline our processes which can increase the efficiency and productivity of our support infrastructure by automating routine tasks.  Our lawyers are also taking the lead in augmenting their legal expertise with technology – such as those related to the creation of standard contracts and other legal documents,” Yeong of CNP adds.

THE FUTURE

With the delivery of legal services, technology will continue to be a critical driver and enabler. In the near future, law firms are looking forward to take better advantage of mobile and cloud computing.  

“We are looking forward to flexible, web-based solutions that offer multiple, integrated functions with convenient and secure mobile access,” adds Yeong.

In the next 10 years, AI will develop to a more sophisticated level and the legal industry anticipates seeing this technology increasingly and effectively assisting lawyers with their legal tasks. 

“Additionally, advances in technology will continue to influence how we engage with clients, how we create our legal work, how we provide our services and what services we offer,” adds Mahoney.

Baker McKenzie sees the legaltech landscape breaking down into six buckets including legal knowledge, presentation/ delivery, liquid workforce, search & find, task automation, and machine learning platforms.  

“Search and find technology is most developed, with task automation and presentation/delivery tools fast improving. Real disruption will only occur, though, when machine learning is integrated into legal knowledge tools and the liquid workforce becomes a reality. We see this as still three to five years away. We also see a vertical future for machine learning in the law,” says Leck.

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