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The Big Read: Rise of the machine — how technology is disrupting Singapore’s law firms

20 top corporate lawyers from across the country were pitted against an artificial intelligence (AI) software developed by legal technology firm LawGeex, where they reviewed and approved everyday contracts over a period of two months.

VanillaLaw’s founder and managing director Mark Goh likened the firm’s office at Tai Seng to that of a “taxi dispatch centre”, where his current group of six lawyers clock in in the morning, then head out to meet their clients and work remotely.

“The technology and tools are there, so why not?” Mr Goh said, referring to the firm’s move to digitise its operations, and create its own smart document assembly and management software which has resulted in time and cost savings.

As technology continues its relentless march forward, law firms big and small here are not spared from its impact — and the disruption it brings.

It has also made available credible and cheaper alternatives for legal clients requiring general tasks, such as document review or project management, he pointed out.

“In tandem with this, a culture of ‘self-sourcing’ will likely take hold amongst members of the public,” said CJ Menon, adding that such trends will “impact the practice of law and the demand for legal services”.

He cautioned then that while the legal practice has not experienced the same extent of disruption as other industries and professions, “the day of reckoning can no longer be put off, because dramatic developments will force us to rethink entire areas of practice”.

He also noted that the US and Canada have already seen the emergence of “legal technicians” who, though not legally trained, are able to provide services for less complex legal tasks with the help of technology.

The article also cited how AI can help automate divorce proceedings, such as through Wevorce, an online solution that provides couples on the cusp of separation with self-guided modules.

In the United Kingdom, “tech innovation spaces” and legal tech start-ups have emerged to support the legal technology development, according to its law society.

The online publication — which examines the role of technology, law and policy in South-east Asia — said that comparatively, some countries within the Asia-Pacific region, such as Australia and New Zealand, have seen increasing levels of interest translating into adoption of new technology.

Still, it noted:  As the technological priorities of each country’s economy and legal profession can be different, the uptake rate of legal technology for each country may vary across the region.

The 2018 Legal Technology Survey, which the LawSoc commissioned, found that 72 per cent of decision makers here indicated that they saw the need to increase the adoption of legal technology.

But while technological adoption carries much promise for the larger firms, it is a different story for their smaller counterparts where some are having difficulty investing in new technologies, which can be costly at the outset.

Mr Goh described it as “just a simple algorithm” that helps its clients — usually small and medium-sized enterprises — draft agreements for their businesses.

Mr Goh, who started his law firm as a sole proprietor in 1994, said that technology is “meant for the smaller (firms) to collaborate”, but smaller companies are “too fearful” to exploit its benefits.

The traditional mindset of many lawyers, such as their preference for a precedent-based approach, and inertia on the firms’ part are also hindering Singapore’s legal sector from taking bold strides into the technological arena, said the observers and practitioners.

LawTech.Asia also cited the industry’s highly-regulated nature as a factor, which may cause some practitioners to wonder about “the regulatory consequences of adopting new and untested technologies”.

Similarly, Denton Rodyk’s innovation and knowledge management solutions manager Rocio Perez urged law firms to “avoid ‘magical thinking’ around technology, or undertake technology projects because they ‘might be interesting’”.

After all, unless a problem or opportunity — such as one that is related to technological adoption — is of “high-enough priority”, an organisation will rarely want to endure the “growing pains that accompany change”, he said.

THE RISKS OF INERTIA While law firms here should leverage technology in the best possible ways, LawTech.Asia noted that those that do not may risk being outgunned by their international competitors, many of whom have already made strides in technological adoption.

Moreover, as clients become increasingly sophisticated and knowledgeable about technology, “they will be more discerning about the law firms that are utilising technology to provide better services at lower cost”, LawTech.Asia said.

In December last year, OCBC Bank also rolled out a free online service for Singapore citizens and residents aged 21 and above to prepare their wills within 10 minutes on their computers, laptops or mobile devices.

“We shouldn’t be surprised if members of the public come increasingly to attempt to resolve at least some legal issues with the aid of technology, in the same way that many individuals today seek out medical information themselves using the Internet,” said the Chief Justice.

He added: “Ultimately, a mindset change needs to come from within — legal practitioners must themselves be convinced that partnering with, rather than resisting, technology and other types of structural changes will be beneficial in the long term.” Templars Law’s Mr Shen believes that market forces will sort themselves out.

A new technology will eventually be widely available and adopted, and firms that take the lead in embracing cutting-edge technology will have “both the high risk and high reward of being the first-mover”, he said.

But the jury is still out on whether technology can help resolve some pressing issues plaguing Singapore’s legal industry, such as a glut of law graduates and long working hours leading to burnout among young lawyers.

“The upshot is that law firms can expect to feel the pressure to operate on a leaner basis and they should start rethinking their traditional billing and cost structures as technology obviates certain forms of legal work, and in many other ways alters the face of legal practice,” he added.

LawSoc’s Ms Lim noted that technologies such as AI can help reduce lawyers’ workload for routine tasks, “so that they can be freed up to deliver higher-level and bespoke legal services to their clients”.

Gledhill, meanwhile, said that the adoption of technology will “invariably reduce the number of traditional legal roles”, but could give rise to new roles — and more varied opportunities — for law graduates.

Instead of a ‘machine-vs-human’ perspective, the legal profession should be looking at a ‘lawyer plus machine’ value proposition, (like) how machines can augment lawyers to deliver better legal services to their clients.

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He's a phenomenal actor that is able to bring out the humanity in a character while at the same time portraying the raw nature of man.

However, as the episode progressed, I thought nothing of that movie, as while the premise is not an original idea, here it is presented in a way that does not seek to imitate.

Without spoiling much of the pilot, the premise is based off the massive security and surveillance undertaken by the government, and what would happen if that system were able to identify potential murderers and murder victims before a situation occurred.It's obviously inspired by several other films and television shows.

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But beyond that, it has a passion behind it—which is what I think drew so many people to LOST, as well as other shows like Firefly and Arrested Development—that this is something that the people behind it want to see succeed and to be good.

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