‘Tech-celeration’: lessons from another island state

For Brexit- beleaguered Brits, Singapore should be a bit of a role model. It is a small island economy that has made a success of independence from its larger neighbours. There are, of course, significant differences. For a start, Singapore is very clear about its global role and does not hanker for an imperial past. It is also unphased by regulation – being a famously dangerous place to drop chewing gum. Both these traits are visible is in its latest technology initiative, ‘Tech-celerate for law’, jointly run by the government and the Singapore Law Society .

The ‘Tech-celerate’ project follows from a ‘Legal Technology Vision’ published by the Singapore Academy of Law a couple of years ago. This appears to have vanished from the web in its original form but was reported here. It posited a ‘four-pronged strategy’ to encourage the take up of technology by Singapore’s legal community. The first two prongs were the identification of a ‘baseline suite’ of legal technology and the second the identification of more advanced ‘enhancements and improvements’. 

The project is now moving to implementation and the Law Society of Singapore has produced an attractively presented downloadable brochure on the project. My advice: click on the link and have a look at it now because it brings it all alive.

The brochure is very clear about the purpose: ‘To compete in the global landscape, law practices have to strengthen your capabilities in order to deliver higher value services as the demand for routine legal work diminishes. The success of your international foray hinges on your ability to position your practice as providing sophisticated, high-level legal work such as complex negotiations, cross-border transactions and mergers and acquisitions. Tech-enabled legal solutions can help reduce administrative work and manual processes, improve productivity and offer innovative ways of delivering legal services, leaving your law firm more time to provide bespoke legal services that add significant value to your clients.’

This is more commercially-orientated than would be most access to justice provision in other countries. But, there is a lot of common value here.

The scheme works by providing partial subsidy for Singapore firms to take up technology. For example, you can get a grant of up to $Singapore30,000 (£17,000 or $US22,000) towards the partial costs of implementation for a product in the ‘baseline category’. The subsidy is more generous for products in the advanced category. The application period opened on 2 May and lasts for a year.

For those outside Singapore, the programme has three interesting features. First, it demonstrates how a government might intervene in the legal services market to strengthen provision – seen, in Singapore’s case, as an international requirement. Second, those behind the project have done some useful work both on categorising the sort of solutions available. Thirdly, it identifies potentially suitable products. The project only applies to approved suppliers – most of whom are international and would be available in most other countries.

Tech-celerate for Law divides baseline provision into three categories: practice management systems; document management systems; and online legal research systems. The latter, for example, includes Thomson Reuters and LexisNexis as familiar names. Interestingly, the programme assumes that small firms will already have the basic productivity tools like Microsoft Office. And the legacy of legal aid is probably that most UK small practices have both basic office tools and practice management systems that incorporate features like time-recording. The Singapore example suggests perhaps that they – and the more advanced not for profit agencies – might look at the potential benefits of document management and online legal research.

There is a similar interest to be derived from Singapore’s list of advanced categories. These are document assembly, document review, e-Discovery and automated client engagement. The commercial bias of these is evident but it is worth noting that the original Singapore vision predicted that the impact of technology would extend more widely to more traditionally access to justice fields: ‘‘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 needs of access to justice extend, of course, well beyond lawyer-shy grannies seeking tax-efficient ways of disposing of their property. But, those providing for those broader needs of all genders and ages in both the not for profit and low-cost profit sector might benefit from considering the kind of technology being boosted by the Singapore initiative.

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