Forum Magazine: Singapore’s Coordinated Push to Lead in Legal Tech

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Singapore has fewer than 6 million inhabitants in a geographically small space. Its legal services industry is also modest – about 6,000 lawyers are in private practice there, spread out over roughly 900 law firms.

In recent years, however, Singapore’s role as a finance and trade center in Asia Pacific and an ambitious effort to make it a center for dispute resolution have made the country a powerful force in the region’s burgeoning legal market. This has led to the establishment of institutions such as the Singapore International Commercial Court (SICC), the Singapore International Arbitration Centre (SIAC) and the Singapore International Mediation Centre (SIMC).

In addition, Singapore is determined to take a prominent role in the legal technology and innovation arena. A new, tech-centric vision for the legal services industry has been driven by the government-backed Singapore Academy of Law (SAL), which describes itself as a “promotion and development agency for Singapore’s legal industry.” How many other countries’ legal services industries have promotion and development agencies?

There are several noteworthy components to the rise of Singapore’s role in legal tech, including:

A history of digitization of public legal data – Throughout the 1990s, Singapore invested in digitization of court and legislative materials as well as e-filing systems. SAL is behind LawNet, a centralized database of public legal data.

Strategy and vision – In 2017, SAL released its Legal Technology Vision statement. In it, SAL recognized that legal technology was starting to change legal practice around the world and it issued the vision statement as “a call to action for lawyers whether practising in law firms or serving as in-house counsel in corporations – to become part of the disruption that faces the legal industry today.”

While there is a Law Society in Singapore that represents the interests of legal practitioners, SAL’s statutory mandate is to promote the industry as a whole – including the courts and bench, law firms and in-house lawyers, legal academics and legal technology providers. Its document provides a road map for a short-term vision of encouraging the adoption and improvement of technologies and, in the longer term, adapting emerging technologies and inventing new ones. The vision document is refreshingly specific, providing all players in the system a good overview of exactly what’s needed to move Singapore forward in legal tech.

Figure 1: Approach of the Legal Technology Vision: the (AI)2 Model

Legal tech ecosystem acceleration – One of the initiatives to come out of that vision is the establishment of the Future Law Innovation Programme (FLIP), which is centered on the development of legal tech companies and the communities around them. FLIP consists of incubator and accelerator programs for start-ups and community and educational resources for individuals who want to learn and participate. Programme Manager Noemie Alintissar distinguishes FLIP from other legal tech communities and incubators (like law firm-based Fuse and MDR LAB by the quasi-public nature of SAL, which ensures that FLIP activities are connected to the public sector and to all the components of the industry as described in SAL’s vision document.

FLIP’s activities are centered around four dimensions:

  1. Knowledge sharing to bring the industry along, especially smaller firms that have been slow to adopt technology.
  2. Business models to encourage alternative legal service providers and new models such as subscription-based services from traditional providers.
  3. Regulations to address limitations on legal tech such as unauthorized practice of law issues, fee-splitting and cross-disciplinary practice.
  4. Technology, not as the endgame, but as an enabler for everyone in the ecosystem.

FLIP offers a full calendar of events including workshops, a monthly open house, tech demos, speed networking, hackathons and pitching competitions. If it has to do with legal tech in Singapore, FLIP is in the mix.

Training and education – SAL also sees an important role for training across the legal industry. The Legal Industry Framework for Training & Education (LIFTED) is a SAL initiative that helps people in the industry make more informed learning and professional development decisions. In a recent step, LIFTED named Mark Cohen as its first “Catalyst-in-Residence.” Cohen is CEO of Legal Mosaic, chairman of the Board of Advisors and chief strategy officer of Elevate Services, and Distinguished Fellow at Northwestern University Pritzker School of Law. He’s a well-known author and speaker on innovation and the future of the legal industry. Cohen is scheduled to spend time in Singapore in October to meet with and speak before groups across the spectrum – practitioners, law students and academics, legal entrepreneurs and regulators. As the name of the role implies, his mandate will be to stimulate activity based on his global view of how technology and innovation are spreading in legal services around the world.

Spreading Legal Tech’s Message

All over the world, legal tech is moving forward, but in many places the progress is slow, sporadic, fragmented and unevenly distributed. Legal tech companies are building fantastic products, but practitioners are slow to adopt them. Technology is enabling new business models, but regulators are slow to respond with new regulatory frameworks. Many global legal organizations are pushing forward with advanced artificial intelligence solutions, while at the other end of the spectrum many smaller law firms are slow to adopt even the most basic technologies such as practice management software. All around the world, an intractable access-to-justice problem remains, seemingly unaffected by promising technological solutions.

It seems that Singapore has taken a lesson from that pattern. Its ambition is to combat the fragmented nature of legal tech development with a more coordinated approach that encompasses all the stakeholders and players in the system, backed with resources and political will from the government. Watch this space — if Singapore succeeds, we may well see other nations adopting its approach to the transformation of an industry.