Strategic leadership in Legal Tech: Singapore throws down the Gauntlet

Singapore has issued a call for leadership in its legal technology sector in a Legal Technology Vision. This was published by the Singapore Academy of Law (an overall body for those in the legal professions and judiciary) and launched by Chief Justice Menon at the opening of the new legal year in terns that would terrify lawyers in many other jurisdictions: he expressly welcomed the ‘uberisation’ of legal practice: ‘This Legal Technology Vision is a call to action for lawyers – whether practising in law firms or serving as in-house counsel in corporations – to become part of the disruption that faces the legal industry today.’ Internationally, the vision might also beneficially act as a wake up call for other jurisdictions to take a similarly strategic approach.

The  Singapore vision faces up to the challenge of what we might call the Susskind analysis; ‘The wave of disintermediation brought about by the Internet continues to  find new and higher watermarks. The World Wide Web makes legal information much more easily accessible to the man on the street and as a profession, lawyers have had to deal with increasingly sophisticated and well-informed clients. The natural progression of this trend is that there will be demands for more legal information services that are accessible online to serve the needs of the public.’ The concerns of the Academy reflect Singapore’s engagement in the commercial world but the implications are recognised as affecting wider practice as well: ‘Legal technology will likely usher in an era of unprecedented legal self-help and collaboration, with grandmothers eventually being able to write and execute their own wills without assistance from legal counsel (or less-than-well- intentioned relatives).’

The Academy announces a ‘four pronged strategy’:

The  first prong defines the baseline suite of legal technology, encouraging widespread adoption of certain technologies that may later act as a springboard for future technology advancement. The focus for this phase, which should start taking place over an estimated 18 months, will be on achieving a baseline level of productivity and communications capabilities for lawyering in the digital age.

The second prong focuses on identifying enhancements and improvements to baseline legal technologies as driven by the needs of the legal sector. Under this phase, for which visible results are expected to start appearing in approximately two to three years, a broader and more sophisticated demography of lawyers will play a crucial role in helping the Singapore legal sector ramp up its capacity for providing next-generation legal services …  enhancements and improvements that are sought under this prong should represent a significant improvement over the baseline; we are not after minor incremental improvements to the services that should continue to be delivered through regular updates.

The third prong is a veritable crystal ball: a process to engage stakeholders in identifying technologies which are speculative or even unknown today, out of which prototypes will be put through the phases of proof-of-concept and test-bedding, with the aim that new legal technology solutions will be adapted from the existing state-of-the-art, and perhaps even applied to the legal industry. The process can start now, but public betas for technologies under this phase are expected to go live in the three-to-five-year time frame.

The fourth prong has no fixed time frame, and focuses on the landscape of legal technology, as opposed to specific technological products or services. The goal under this prong is the incentivisation and acceleration of an ecosystem that is conducive to the development of legal technology solutions in Singapore.

The vision proceeds to give detailed description of current products; to set out a suite of programmes which it identifies as the ‘baseline’ to be implemented by practices within the next 18 months or so. It comes from a committee with a clear mandate to ‘Set global objectives and policy guidelines for the promotion, adoption and development of technology to enhance the efficiency and capabilities of the legal sector and to cement Singapore as a legal hub.’There is a refreshingly no nonsense approach to implementation, pulling all the levers including education:

the Academy will ensure that both infocomm media literacy and legal technology competency will be incorporated in its Legal Industry Framework for Training and Education (“LIFTED”). At the initial stage, this framework will concentrate on training law practice staff and lawyers to use a baseline suite of legal technology solutions. The Academy’s competency programme will offer basic proficiency certification in the legal technology solutions that make up the baseline suite; the baseline suite should fully coincide with the Academy’s Modular Training (which may include relevant SkillsFuture courses). A pathway to build competencies leading to baseline competence certification can also be established on the basis of 18-, 24- and 36-month time frames. As one progresses up the competency ladder, more advanced training for legal technology solutions pertinent to different areas of practice, eg evidence management and trial presentation, can be offered.

This document goes way beyond the rather gentle and largely implicit calls for technological innovation in equivalent studies of new developments in the US and England and Wales where the ABA and Law Society respectively are careful not to antagonise their membership too much. The Academy is telling its members what they should be doing; not just encouraging them. And, it is seeking to provide comprehensive leadership in the process. The vision covers not only practice but also online courts – with brief description of the Dutch Rechtwijzer and the plans for England and Wales.  The explicit aim is to establish Singapore as a world leader in the field.

The vision ends by raising the issue of strategic leadership of initiatives across sectors – without getting specific about what institution might take this role (though it might have itself in mind):

a key advantage which Singapore has is a particularly differentiated type of public sector/private sector partnership. … innovative Legal Tech ideas in Singapore can be rapidly socialised and supported through law firms, investors, technology experts, potential customers and public policy channels faster than in other jurisdictions. This advantage should be exploited.

… the conditions for an ecosystem will evolve over time …  These factors in turn build a case for an overall governance/leadership mechanism by which the ecosystem for Legal Tech can be monitored, new initiatives assessed, inflight performance of initiatives measured, and, as appropriate, incentivised or disincentivised accordingly.

… the development of the Legal Tech ecosystem will require a concerted effort by multiple stakeholders over a significant period of time. Cooperation and collaboration between Legal Tech start-ups, lawyers, subject matter experts (innovation, computing, cybersecurity,  financing and investment), the public sector, other industry stakeholders (in particular, the Ministry of Law, the Judiciary, the Academy and the Law Society) and potential customers will be of paramount importance if the digital disruption of the legal profession is to lead to positive outcomes for all.

All this is probably a bit too corporate and directive for more laissez faire jurisdictions like those of the US, Canada, UK and Australia. But it does pose a bit of a challenge though, doesn’t it? Who will lead a comprehensive approach to the implementation of new technology in these countries?

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