Tale of Three Cities: How Asian Legal Markets are Looking at Technology

Topics: Artificial Intelligence, Asia Pacific, Business Development & Marketing Blog Posts, China, Cybersecurity, Law Firms, Law Schools, Leadership, Legal Innovation

asian legal

Recent events hosted by Thomson Reuters in Hong Kong, Singapore, and Seoul provided plenty of evidence that Asian legal markets are facing the same imperatives around innovation and technology that are transforming legal work all around the world.

Still, there are significant differences in the focus and pace of transformation across the region, and the Goliath in the room — China — seems to cast a long shadow.

Hong Kong — Legal Education

At the Hong Kong event the topic was trends in legal education in the US, focused particularly on law school programs that are integrating legal studies with skills and methods from other disciplines such as computer science, data analytics, and process management.

Following my presentation on the topic, Peter Davies, Thomson Reuters’ Market Development Lead for ASEAN and North Asia, led a conversation and Q&A with a panel of local experts. It’s clear that many in the Hong Kong legal community who follow legal technology and innovation believe that the profession there is far behind the US or the UK. Certainly, there is interest in incorporating new thinking about the industry into legal education, but there’s not nearly as much tangible evidence of changing curriculum or mindset. Part of this is simply a question of scale — Hong Kong has three law schools and only about dozen law firms of any size.

Lauren Ellison provided the corporate perspective. As Supervising Counsel for Australian telecom company Telstra, she is involved in setting up a Hong Kong chapter of the Corporate Legal Operations Consortium (CLOC), that joins another larger newly-formed regional group in Australia. Ellison spoke of the growing interest in bringing new skills into corporate legal departments and was particularly clear that the push for legal innovation needs to be a collaborative effort. It’s not just the role of law schools to fix the problems, or law firms, or corporate clients, she explained, but rather a collaboration among all the players in the ecosystem that is needed.

As an example of the importance of that kind of collaboration, one audience member pointed out (from experience in the US) that the American court system is actually still quite backwards, technologically. One can throw all the technology in the world at law firms and in-house operations, but if the courts don’t modernize, they will continue to be a drag on innovation and progress. Panelist Prof. Geraint Howells, Dean of the Law School at City University of Hong Kong, was quick to point out that this is an area where the Chinese have taken large steps forward with automation in court processes, clearly showing that such progress is uneven across the globe.

For his part, panelist Titus Rahiri, Founder and Director of KorumLegal (a Hong Kong-based alternative legal services provider), acknowledged that the growth of his ALSP came directly out of the general sense of frustration with the lack of innovation among the traditional players in the Hong Kong legal market. His view of the industry is decidedly not lawyer-centric, and he described a much broader view of what legal services is all about and who gets to play in that market.

Singapore — Artificial Intelligence

Meanwhile, in Singapore, at a similar seminar focused on artificial intelligence in the legal profession, the focus was on how to best put AI to work in legal today.

I was joined by another impressive panel of experts after my overview presentation on the state of AI in the legal industry, moderated by Ranajit Dam, Managing Editor of Thomson Reuters’ Legal Media Group. An interesting line of questioning for the panel was where to locate the “low-hanging fruit” with regard to AI, rather than some of the more advanced applications.

asian legal

Attendees at the Thomson Reuters legal tech discussion in Hong Kong.

Sanjna Parasrampuria, Director of the Singapore office of Thomson Reuters Labs, had a refreshingly simple take on the question. It’s not about starting with any kind of advanced understanding of AI’s capabilities; rather, she approached it in a more pragmatic way, asking, what are the problems where work is taking too much time and is too repetitive and boring? That’s at least the starting point for the low-hanging fruit — identifying the repetitive tasks that perhaps involve a lot of data and process, and then define the technology, which might involve AI, that will address those issues.

Lam Chung Nian, Partner and Head of IP, Technology and Media at Wong Partnership, cautioned about thinking too much about the advanced applications — the high-hanging fruit of computers that replicate complex human thinking — at the expense of the low-hanging fruit. He noted that as a pure investment decision, there are plenty of back office needs to automate involving structured data that will provide low-risk applications for AI. The environment is evolving, but Nian said he thought it might be a bit premature for most legal organizations to be reaching for the high-risk, “high-hanging” applications.

Noemie Alintissar, the enthusiastic manager of the Future Law Innovation Programme (FLIP), an initiative of the Singapore Academy of Law (SAL), noted that FLIP and other legal tech initiatives in Singapore are still largely in the awareness-building stage. Some players in the legal industry, including some of the larger firms, are experimenting with AI and other advanced technologies, she said, but by and large the uptake of legal tech has been slow in the long tail of Singapore’s legal industry.

The difference between Singapore and Hong Kong in this regard, however, is that FLIP and the SAL’s overall mission to lift the level of technology and innovation smarts in Singapore is deliberate, focused, and backed by some real resources. It will be interesting to follow the extent to which developments in these two small, but important Asian countries diverge because of those efforts.

Seoul — Cloud and Security

My impressions of the Korean legal tech scene are much more limited because the day-long Thomson Reuters event I attended — Korea Legal-Tech Forum 2018 — was delivered entirely in Korean, except for my talk on Cloud computing. But I gathered enough about the other presentations from slide decks and other descriptions to understand that the Korean legal industry has much the same preoccupations as the rest of us: regulation of cryptocurrency; Blockchain and its implications for FinTech and LegalTech; cybersecurity for law firms and legal departments; and of course, the impact of artificial intelligence.

If anything stood out from the visit in Korea, it was the heightened interest in cybersecurity, which no doubt is related to the proximity of the country’s industrial rival, China.

Final Observations

What struck me about this trip is that, while all three countries seem to be at different places in their adoption and acceptance of advanced legal technology, the big questions and challenges are remarkably similar to those we face in the West.

In particular, major interest or concern surround:

  •        the problem of scaling legal tech solutions in a fragmented global legal system;
  •        the question of legal education’s ability to keep up with changes “on the ground” in law firms and legal departments;
  •        issues of change management and the entrenchment of traditional behaviors and resistance to technology in both legal practice and in academia;
  •        the interesting interplay between local and global firms that is a symptom of the globalization of legal practice; and
  •        the unavoidable questions about the role and the future direction of China, which is investing heavily in AI and court technology. (For more on China see my summary of another trip there.)

And sitting above it all — though and not really specific to legal but certainly relevant to the legal industry’s future in the region — is these Asian nations’ undeniable level of sheer commercial energy.

What impressed me in particular was the sense that everywhere I went, these Asian nations (including, and perhaps especially China) see the development of their legal systems as infrastructure that’s no less important to their economies than roads, bridges, new cities, and other more tangible assets.

If they are able to apply the same energy that has built up their physical environment so quickly in the past half-century or so, then we can expect very rapid development indeed on the legal front as well.