Singapore has had a burgeoning reputation in LegalTech for some time now, well before the pandemic struck its shores. Whether it is the government or end-users like law firms and in-house teams, they have taken strides to embrace and launch initiatives to advance the use of LegalTech. The pandemic has unsurprisingly quickened the pace of LegalTech innovation, but there is reason to believe that the technological evolution of the country’s legal sector will continue long after the impact of COVID-19 has passed.
Over the past few years, Singapore has put in place multiple initiatives that have made it conducive for the growth of LegalTech innovation. These include a growing number of centres of excellence (COEs) related to technology and LegalTech as the country strengthens the existing infrastructure to facilitate digitalisation in the legal industry. “Singapore has an excellent ecosystem for LegalTech innovation in recent years as there is strong government support, growing talent in both legal and technology fronts as well as increasing demand and interest here and in the region for LegalTech,” said Patrick Ang, managing partner at Rajah & Tann Singapore, one of the country’s largest law firms.
To that end, the most recent initiative is the Technology and Innovation Roadmap (TIR), which was launched by the Singapore Ministry of Law (MinLaw) in October 2020.
The TIR is a sectoral plan for technology adoption and innovation in the Singapore legal industry for the coming decade till 2030, and was developed by MinLaw in close collaboration with the legal industry. Aimed at law practices and in-house legal teams, the TIR highlighted key trends for industry players to be aware of in deciding the best way forward, and the types of solutions to consider in planning their transformation journey. The TIR also built on existing initiatives to support industry players in their technology adoption and development efforts.
One of the priorities of the TIR is introducing longer-term funding and curation of suitable technologies that law firms can adopt. This would help make technology adoption accessible, and encourage law firms to keep up to date with new developments in LegalTech software.
Other priorities in the TIR include introducing new frameworks for tools that will be increasingly important in the future, such as Artificial Intelligence (AI) and cybersecurity. Law firms that are deploying AI can look out for a new guide by IMDA and the Lee Kuan Yew Centre for Innovative Cities (at the Singapore University of Technology and Design). The guide aims to assist organisations such as law firms to use AI to prepare their employees for the future of work through work redesign, reskilling and upskilling.
MinLaw also intends to review legal education to infuse technology elements into the curriculum, to better equip law graduates with relevant digital skills, and seed progressive mindsets that embrace technology. The goal is to provide employers with a quality pool of tech-ready lawyers for the long-term.
“We are closely studying other leading jurisdictions in LegalTech, to bring in ‘top-of-the-class’ LegalTech solutions to Singapore and learn new ways of promoting innovation and tech adoption in the legal sector,” said MinLaw.
These follow the country’s earlier efforts to support the digitalisation of its legal industry. In 2019, MinLaw, along with the Law Society of Singapore (LawSoc), Enterprise Singapore, and the Infocomm Media Development Authority (IMDA), launched the ‘Tech-celerate for Law’ programme. The programme partially offset the costs paid by Singapore law practices for technology solutions. With a budget of S$3.9 million ($2.9 million), the scheme covered up to 70 percent of the first-year costs of adopting both basic and advanced LegalTech solutions. This was enhanced to 80 percent in 2020, to further support law firms in accelerating digitalisation during the COVID-19 period.
These pre-approved LegalTech solutions cover baseline solutions such as practice management, online legal research, and document management technologies. They also include advanced services powered by AI that can help in document assembly and review, eDiscovery, and client management.
WEATHERING THE IMPACT OF COVID-19
The TIR and other LegalTech initiatives have come at a particularly important time. The ongoing COVID-19 pandemic is, without a doubt, the biggest economic disruptor in recent memory. Many businesses and sectors have been hit hard by it, but many have used this crisis as an opportunity to rethink and upgrade their operations.
A joint survey by Microsoft and market research firm IDC Asia Pacific found that in response to the new reality, 87 percent of APAC’s business leaders will speed up digitalisation. Similarly, some of Singapore’s law firms and in-house teams are likely to accelerate their digital transformation, having already put in place the necessary infrastructure.
Max Ng, managing director of boutique firm Gateway Law Corporation, said that Gateway was able to develop and adopt technology in its daily workflows and processes, with the support under the Tech-celerate for Law programme. Ng added that his firm’s early adoption of technology and work from home (WFH) solutions allowed it to make the complete switch to WFH more easily when the pandemic struck.
The pandemic also brought about a change in mindset across the board. “COVID-19 has forced our clients and some others who would previously have been tech-averse, to be more open to the idea of digitalisation. This in turn, helps law firms and the more tech-savvy amongst us, to collaborate and use these digital platforms more,” said Ng. “For example, previously, some clients or even senior lawyers would have been resistant to meeting or doing things through Zoom. Today, it is accepted as the de facto way of doing things.”
For in-house lawyers such as Mark Tan, general counsel at logistics and real estate-focused investment manager GLP Pte. Ltd, technology was a key focus pre-COVID-19, but the crisis has helped his team re-focus some of its priorities. His view is echoed by other general counsel such as Yip Weng, vice president of legal at electronics company Razer. For Weng, his team is seeking technology solutions that can help better manage project workflow as well as contract database management.
CHALLENGES OF DIGITALISATION
COVID-19 may have accelerated the need to increase the use and adoption of technology in lawyers’ day-to-day work, but some hurdles remain. “Not everyone is tech-savvy, even in this day and age. There is a learning curve that comes with each new program or device.
Then again, not everything can be done purely online. “There are some processes that simply cannot be duplicated online entirely. It is, for example, not easy to train or mentor young interns, trainees and lawyers if you do not get to speak to them or look them in the eye. It is also quite difficult to build or foster client relationships online,” said Gateway’s Ng. “To use an analogy, virtual or online dating is not quite the same as dating in person.”
Additionally, there is the need to invest both time and money to procure and learn new software and platforms. “You need time to research what will work for your company, time to experiment with and learn the programs, and time to teach this to the rest of your team. And of course, you need the budget for such technology adoption,” said Azmul Haque, managing director of local firm Collyer Law.
However, help is at hand from the state, with government-funded initiatives making the path to technology adoption easier. A spokesperson for cloud-based management system Tessaract.io said that it has been adopted by several firms and attributes the high adoption rate to support received from key stakeholders in the Singapore legal ecosystem. “The Tech-celerate for Law programme has made it easier for companies to start their digitalisation journey,” said Tesseract. “Grants in Singapore have been a strong factor pushing the adoption of technology among law firms. Due to COVID-19, the need to go digital has been further increased and with that the government has extended and enhanced the availability of grants.”
Another issue that has been top-of-mind for LegalTech adopters – whether with law firms or in-house teams – has been that of cybersecurity when it comes to use and storage of electronic documentation. “An increasing number of digital solutions are cloud-based, which means that storage is offsite and not in physical custody. Increased emphasis on cyber security and cyber-hygiene is required, primarily because compromised or leaked electronic documents can easily be disseminated instantaneously in an unlimited number of copies,” said Razer’s Weng.
To overcome this, he feels corporate education and people processes must also be tailored to ensure an appropriate degree of care when handling electronic documentation. On this front, LawSoc launched a cybersecurity guide in early 2020.
LAW FIRMS TAKE DIGITAL STRIDES
Despite the challenges, certain law firms are already powering ahead in their digitalisation journey, with some even looking to develop their own LegalTech solutions.
Rajah & Tann cites the example of Luminance (AI-powered due diligence) as one of the key LegalTech tools that it uses. “We also use various applications and software in the firm for mobile time entry, client management, reimbursement of expense claims, leave application, e-billing and other work processes,” said Rajah & Tann’s Ang.
Gateway’s Ng says that while the firm has been using a mix of technologies to provide a “seamless service” to clients, it has also ventured into proprietary software to develop a platform to track, manage and streamline its work processes. “Our proprietary LegalOne software for example, enables us to invoice, track and prepare management reports much more efficiently than in the past,” he noted.
Haque at Collyer Law says that apart from using technology tools to turbo-charge its productivity, service quality and client reach, the firm has also been working with technology companies like Minutebox to help organize client information and manage corporate administration, and Anduin Issue Tracker to track changes and issues on deal documents amongst multiple users in real time.
Meanwhile, some LegalTech solution providers are stepping it up by actively collaborating with law firms. INTELLLEX – an AI knowledge management platform – has been working with Magic Circle firm Clifford Chance in Singapore to pilot a new knowledge management system that automates categorisation and retrieves documents based on context, not just keyword searches.
“The legal industry is undergoing a major transformation and cutting-edge knowledge systems will play an increasingly important role in the law firm of the future. Create+65, our innovation lab, created a collaborative environment which allowed our lawyers to be actively engaged in the problem exploration and product design process, working with INTELLLEX to design and build a product that addresses their needs,” said Laura Collins Scott, innovation lead at Clifford Chance.
The spokesperson for Tessaract.io said that the move towards digitalisation will only continue with the emergence of more areas that need solutions. “There is an increasing preference to promote interoperability among the different tools used and among the different functions in a law firm,” they said. They also identified automation as another emerging area within the LegalTech space.
MORE TO COME
As 2021 dawns, Singapore is not resting on its laurels in the LegalTech push; in fact, far from it.
As part of the TIR for the legal industry, a Legal Technology Platform will be developed over the coming year. The aim is to leverage the platform to advance the digitalisation of the legal sector in Singapore. To kick-start the development of the platform, a series of industry engagement sessions will be held in the first quarter of 2021. “The platform aims to make it easier for lawyers to adopt and effectively use LegalTech so that they can focus on their clients and work,” MinLaw said.
As Singapore’s Minister for Community, Culture and Youth and Second Minister for Law, Mr Edwin Tong SC, said at a dialogue at TechLaw.Fest 2020, “We want to invest in technology, we want to upskill in technology. We want to ensure that the Singapore law practices embrace it, and we’ll find ways to assist them to embrace it. We’ll work with industry players, big or small.” The upcoming platform is yet another visible signal of Singapore’s commitment to working with its legal industry, to digitalise, transform and thrive.