Digital frontier beckons for Singapore’s legal sector

By Woo Hoi Yuet

The city-state’s legal industry is undergoing a digital transformation. But smaller law firms face resource constraints that can hold back change. How is the government helping practices adopt legal tech?

The realm of common law is not known for rapid change, with precedent established incrementally and age-old processes enduring for reasons central to the notion of justice itself. Yet digitalisation is ushering in new norms in the legal system, with procedures such as Zoom trials and artificial intelligence on the rise.

The rise of legal technology has changed many of the ways in which lawyers and other legal professionals work, increasing the efficiency and productivity of legal workflows but also causing difficulties for small and medium-sized firms lacking in IT expertise and funds.

One of the most obvious recent changes has been the shifting of court hearings online in response to the Covid-19 pandemic, and lawyers conducting arbitration and meditation sessions virtually, says Alyssa Toh, Director of the Professional Services Programme Office at Singapore’s Ministry of Law.

Remote working has also allowed clients to engage counsel from all over the world, intensifying competition for legal work, Toh says, adding that ensuring that Singapore remains a legal services hub, law firms must “stay ahead of the curve in terms of technology adoption, or more broadly, digitalisation”.

Other examples of legal technology include, for instance, artificial intelligence systems that can generate standardised templates for legal documents such as non-disclosure agreements, relieving lawyers of such repetitive tasks.

Legal tech firms are using AI and machine learning to categorise documents according to topic based on keywords, meaning that lawyers no longer have to manually classify them and perform multiple keyword searches to find documents.

Yet despite legal tech’s considerable potential, digitalisation presents its own challenges for some law firms that are struggling to keep up with the technological changes occurring around them.

Toh says cybersecurity is a particularly key concern, with data breaches leading to potentially serious consequences thanks to the highly confidential nature of much legal information. Legal documents shared digitally must be kept secure, which requires that law firms have robust cybersecurity systems in place.

Small and medium-sized law firms are frequently unable to benefit from economies of scale and IT resources, said K. Shanmugam, Singapore’s Minister for Home Affairs and Minister for Law, at last month’s launch of the Legal Technology Platform (LTP), a law ministry-led initiative that aims to streamline workflow for local law practices. He said law practices also preferred technology that “improves legal workflows without having to overhaul their existing systems”.

One-stop shop

Toh says the LTP is a “one-stop solution to help lawyers and law firms enhance and accelerate their digitalisation journey”. It is integrated with existing tools such as email, WhatsApp, Microsoft Teams and Slack, so that even if important information and documents are spread across applications such as these, lawyers can access them quickly.

Rajesh Sreenivasan, Head of Technology, Media and Telecommunications at heavyweight law practice Rajah & Tann Singapore, says that solves the problem of digital fragmentation. “For a lawyer in this fast-paced world, the biggest challenge is to bring some order to all that data … coming to us,” he explains.

Sreenivasan says a lawyer’s daily workflow often involves having to shift between digital tools, such as email, apps and government portals. The LTP helps streamline that by consolidating document drafts, legal research, team discussions and client instructions on a single platform, providing lawyers a bird’s-eye view of their daily workload.

Muslim Albakri, managing director of law firm Albakri LLC, says that because the firm’s legal workflows are built within the LTP, lawyers will be less bogged down in administrative process, giving them more time to focus on legal research and drafting documents.

The LTP also incorporates a tool known as the SG Knowledge Hub – a repository of templates and checklists for legal matters for lawyers to use. “When you click on a template, [it] opens and the checklists are automatically populated,” Sreenivasan says. Instead of drafting a fresh contractual debt claim or researching how to start arbitration, lawyers can use the platform resources as a quick way into cases.

And beyond back-end workflow, the LTP allows lawyers to communicate with clients securely and easily via an app through which lawyers can send legal documents to clients over Whatsapp. Clients’ comments are captured in the same channel on the LTP, which relieves lawyers of the burden of manually consolidating information from lengthy email chains.

Security is another major feature of the LTP, reassuring law firms that confidential legal information shared on the platform will be protected by stringent data privacy and security measures. Communications with clients and other parties are secured with in-app encryption. And Toh adds:  “Most importantly, users own their data on the LTP – neither MinLaw [the Ministry of Law] nor Lupl [the software company that partnered with the ministry to create the LTP] own the data.”

Tooling up for transformation

When it comes to adopting tech, “the stumbling block is investment costs,” says Gregory Vijayendran, the immediate Past President of Singapore’s Law Society. But to defray the initial costs of adopting the LTP, the ministry will provide funding of up to 70 per cent via the Productivity Solutions Grant scheme for up to two years.

Funding during the transition period is essential for firms to gain “first-hand experience of the software, see whether it works for [them] ... and change [their] own processes to fit in,” Albakri says.

“Developing the LTP has been an industry-wide effort,” Toh says. To ensure that the LTP meets the needs of the legal industry, the ministry consulted many law firms and legal professionals, including more than 100 lawyers during its development stage to ensure it was equipped with features most useful to law firms.
Alyssa Toh, Director of the Professional Services Programme Office at Singapore’s Ministry of Law, says the LTP was designed in consultation with law firms and legal professionals to meet the industry's needs. Image: Ministry of Law

The LTP was soft-launched in January to allow the industry to test it and provide feedback to improve it, and following its official launch last month, MinLaw established an industry engagement and advisory group to seek feedback from industry professionals in order to further refine it.

The LTP will in future incorporate legal platforms and research processes, key parts of a lawyer’s workflow. “We are studying having key eLitigation [case management system] information on the LTP and enhancing access to litigation case files,” Shanmugam says. Other content on LawNet, a popular portal for legal research and information, will also be linked to the LTP.

Sreenivasan says legal workflows are not confined only to lawyers and their clients, and that the government is also involved. He says it will be useful to integrate the LTP with government portals such as land registries, company registries and even the Maritime Port Authority for those dealing with shipping law.

The law ministry is working on this, and Toh says the next phase of the LTP will involve “enhanc[ing] the connectivity between the LTP and the public systems that most lawyers use”. For instance, property law firms will be able to use the LTP to easily handle conveyancing cases with the Singapore Land Authority, the government agency in charge of land uses

System change

The LTP is a key milestone in the ministry’s plan to digitalise the legal sector, the Legal Industry Technology and Innovation Roadmap, launched in 2020 to promote innovation, technology adoption and the development of Singapore’s legal industry over the next decade.

In recent years, Singapore’s government has taken steps to help law firms digitalise through funding programmes targeting smaller practices. For instance, the Tech Start for Law and Tech-celerate for Law schemes allocated around $6.5 million (US$4.7 million) and helped more than 400 applicants adopt legal tech tools.

Separately, Toh says, the ministry also ensures that the curriculum used by law schools teaches students how to manage tools and software commonly used in the legal industry, nurturing a generation of tech-savvy lawyers that embraces technology and propelling the legal industry towards a digitalised future.

Amid the wave of digitalisation, new roles for such personnel as legal technologists and engineers have emerged. To ensure that there is a pool of legal talent that is also well-versed in technology, the Singapore Management University has launched a new bachelor’s programme in computing and law, equipping students with the legal knowledge and technical skills necessary to bridge the legal and digital domains.

The law ministry also supports digitalisation in other parts of the legal ecosystem, such as the international dispute resolution space. Toh says that with the Covid pandemic having drastically altered how dispute resolution proceedings are conducted, Maxwell Chambers, a dispute resolution complex, has, for instance, pivoted from offering physical hearing facilities to providing virtual and hybrid hearing facilities. It is also collaborating with other centres to facilitate online hearings around the world, which is convenient when the involved parties are located in different time zones.

But despite the flurry of new innovations, such as 5G, AI and blockchain, it is important to recognise that there is no “one-size-fits-all” fix that will transform the legal industry. “What’s more important, and will have greater potential, is when firms are able to correct their problem statements and adopt the specific set of tech solutions that would work for them,” Toh says.

The legal landscape in Singapore and elsewhere is already being reshaped by the development of technology. And the business of law – the way in which legal professionals conduct research, communicate with clients, and resolve disputes – will also evolve in response to the same forces. After all, as former US President John F Kennedy once said: “Change is the law of life.”