In early 2019, the Singapore Academy of Law (SAL) launched the Future Law Innovation Programme as an industry-wide initiative to drive innovation and encourage adoption of new technology across the legal sector. This was a clear signal of the nation’s commitment to be a leading legal technology hub coming into the new decade.
The burgeoning legal tech sector can be attributed to the awareness and acceptance within the trade of its need to get ahead of the tech curve. In 2018, the Law Society commissioned a Legal Tech Survey and found that 72% of decision makers saw the need to increase the adoption of legal technology.
Since then, there have been positive actions taken in the private sector as well. One of Singapore’s top law firms, Rajah & Tann, created a legal tech subsidiary called Rajah & Tann Technologies. The idea is to bring together lawyers and IT professionals to work on areas such as forensics and cybersecurity, as well as to provide tech-enabled legal solutions.
Another local boutique law firm, VanillaLaw, also launched its own web-based platform, VanillaLaw Docs, and an online contract template that, when used together with the platform, allows clients to insert relevant information when preparing the first drafts of legal documents. This reduces the need for multiple or long meetings to take instructions, which in turn saves time and cost for the firm and its clients.
Even banks have entered the legal tech fray. OCBC Bank, for one, rolled out a free online service for its customers to prepare wills within 10 minutes. Interestingly, a report by the Singapore Academy of Law pointed out that the legal technology development in Singapore, China and Korea have been heavily influenced by the fintech space in the financial industry. Jerold Soh, lecturer at Singapore Management University and Chief Editor of the report, said Singapore has a progressive kind of regulatory fintech experimentation, which also impacts the legal services sector, including core technologies like blockchains and smart contracts.
More than 20 years ago, Singapore was among the first in the world to implement an e-filing system for court documents. In 1995, the first Technology Court was launched featuring digital recording and transcription of proceedings, as well as facilities for the multimedia presentation of evidence. A Remote Chamber Hearing System was also launched at the time to enable members of the legal profession to have ex parte matters heard via desktop video conferencing, and a Judicial Officer’s Bulletin Board was set up as part of an incremental shift towards a paperless court system.
Underpinning the legal industry’s efforts to adopt technology is the Singapore government’s commitment to creating a first-class Smart Nation by harnessing and leveraging technology, networks and data to create applications and innovations across the country.
In May 2019, another support programme worth up to S$3.68 million (US$2.7million) was launched by the Singapore Ministry of Law, the Law Society of Singapore, Enterprise Singapore and the Infocomm Media Development Authority to incentivise law practices to adopt technology in their businesses. The programme allows law practices to receive funding support of up to 70% with regard to adopting baseline and advanced technology solutions in the first year.
Technology versus lawyers
With the hive of activities around legal technology, the inevitable question of whether technology will take over roles played traditionally by lawyers, especially junior associates, has surfaced.
However, it has been argued that while new technology could replace and reduce the number of traditional legal roles, it will also give rise to new roles and opportunities for law graduates. Instead of a machine-versus-human perspective, Stefanie Lim, the Law Society of Singapore’s Assistant Director of Legal Productivity and Innovation, believes that the legal profession should be looking at a “lawyer plus machine” value proposition.
Besides, judging by our latest Salary Benchmark report, legal roles will continue to be in hot demand come 2020. In the financial services industry, for example, the Head of Legal can still command up to S$350,000 in salary per annum. Various in-house roles in the FMCG industry, too, are in demand, with Senior Legal Counsels and General Counsels expected to command up to S$250,000 and S$330,000 in salary per annum.
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