Is Singapore’s Digital transformation of the legal sector making progress?

March 6, 2018

You might have seen a short article on The Law Society Gazette’s website last month reporting that Singapore had launched a Future Law Innovation Programme (FLIP) to encourage the adoption of technology by law firms, and to help legal tech start-ups. 

So I was asked to write a piece about the programme, to shed some light on how another jurisdiction is attempting digital transformation much like that now underway in the UK.

The Legal Technology Vision
It all seemed to start with this 5-year road map published by the Singapore Academy of Law (SAL) in January 2017, which described itself 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”

The 69-page Legal Technology Vision (LTV) envisioned a four-pronged approach over five years:

  1. Define the baseline set of legal technology and encourage widespread adoption of certain technology which may later act as a springboard for future technology advancement (12-18 months).
  2. Identify significant enhancements and improvements to the baseline legal technology (2-3 years).
  3. Engage stakeholders in identifying technology which is speculative or even unknown today, out of which prototypes will be put through proof-of-concept and test-bedding (3-5 years).
  4. Incentivise and accelerate an ecosystem that is conducive to the development of legal technology solutions in Singapore (no fixed time frame).

Someone creative at the SAL added that the four-pronged approach could be “summarised as the (AI)2 model”:

  • Adoption of existing technology.
  • Improvements to existing technology.
  • Adaptation of the state-of-the-art.
  • Invention of truly innovative legal technology. 

That was Chapter 1 of the LTV.

Chapter 2 elaborated on achieving the adoption of the baseline set of legal technology. Categories of technology which all lawyers were expected to adopt as a baseline were:

  • Office productivity suites, e.g. Office 365.
  • Time logging and billing systems, e.g. Elite Billing Manager.
  • Practice management systems, e.g. client management and conflict check systems.
  • Online profiles, e.g. law firm websites and individual profiles on LinkedIn.
  • Communications, e.g. video conferencing and email.
  • Cybersecurity, e.g. end-point antivirus and firewalls.
  • Legal research, e.g. LawNet (the official portal in Singapore for legal research and transactions).

Chapter 3 of the LTV expanded on improvements to existing technology to serve the legal industry. Possible improvements included common cloud-based document management systems, shared physical environments, enhanced document review tools, document assembly tools, virtual marketplaces for legal services, and a contract database by lawyers for lawyers.

Chapter 4 talked about public-private collaboration in innovation and development, and discussed the use of data analytics and blockchain technology in the practice of law.

Chapter 5 proposed initiatives to help create excitement in the legal tech ecosystem, such as events, festivals, hackathons, a dedicated physical space for networking, outreach sessions with renowned lawyers, and the deployment of “evangelists”. Chapter 5 also discussed collaboration with universities and research institutions, and funding. 

The last chapter of the LTV, Chapter 6, set out six tracks in the implementation of the LTV:

  1. Legal tech adoption: Drawing up a list of infocomm media and legal tech tools that will form the baseline set, then setting adoption milestones and formulating measures for adoption.
  2. LawNet improvements.
  3. Legal tech acceleration: Developing and executing a plan to identify and nurture innovative concepts.
  4. Online dispute resolution.
  5. Regulation: Clarifying and modernising outdated regulations and practice directions to support the goals and objectives of the LTV.
  6. Legal data portability Standards: Defining and publishing an open LegalXML standard for the legal sector.

Tech Start for Law Programme
In February 2017, and following hot on the heels of the LTV’s release, a S$2.8m Tech Start for Law (TSL) programme was launched, offering Singapore law practices funding support of up to 70% of the first-year cost of adopting certain technology products for practice management, online research and online marketing.

However, as the weeks went by, the buzz surrounding the LTV seemed to fizzle out. By May 2017, I (an ordinary lawyer on the street) had stopped hearing talk of the LTV let alone the TSL. While many of us sceptics have been curious about the figures, to the best of my knowledge the take-up rate for the TSL programme, and now the retention rate post-TSL funding, have not been released to the public.

Future Law Innovation Programme
It must have been the same creative person at the SAL that coined this name. 

In July 2017 at the SAL’s annual Appreciation Dinner, FLIP was announced by the president of the SAL, Chief Justice Sundaresh Menon. Its official launch took place in January 2018. 

So, what is FLIP? 

At this point in time, substantive information on FLIP is sparse. But according to its Info Pack (which appears to be in need of updating), FLIP offers support and resources to law firms and legal tech startups. It aims to incubate new models of delivering legal services in the future economy by:

  • encouraging technology adoption across the legal industry;
  • building capacity to innovate the business model for the future law firm;
  • catalysing innovation across the legal industry in Singapore; and
  • organising and developing Singapore’s legal tech community.

To this end, a co-working space open to tech-enabled law firms and legal tech start-ups, called the Legal Innovation Lab @ Collision 8, was also launched in January 2018. The other two components of FLIP, which are to be launched in Q1 2018, are the LawNet Community and the FLIP Accelerator. 

LawNet Community members will be able to set up online profiles, access training, and try out new legal tech tools. The FLIP Accelerator, according to SAL’s press release, is South-East Asia’s first legal tech accelerator programme. It will last 100 days with up to $50,000 pre-seed funding for 10% equity, and access to coaches and mentors.

There are three tracks for participation in FLIP. Track 1, which the Info Pack describes as a “likely entry point” for sole practitioners and small law firms, lasts for 6 months. Among other things it appears to require participating law firms to move into the Legal Innovation Lab, adopt a practice management system, participate in workshops on innovation, productivity solutions, marketing and finance, and to complete a 21-day legal tech “Discovery” MOOC.

Track 2, which is described as a “likely entry point” for tech-enabled law firms, legal tech start-ups, and in-house counsel, also lasts for 6 months. It appears to require participation in workshops on design thinking, legal informatics, agile product development, coding, and a 4-day technopreneurship course.

Track 3 is described as a “likely entry point” for law firms with an existing innovation program, and legal tech start-ups. It is really for the legal tech start-ups accepted into the FLIP Accelerator.

Sentiment in the legal community
In writing this article, I sought views on the LTV, TSL and FLIP from friends and acquaintances in private practice. Many of them had not heard of all three initiatives, and those that did said that they were unable to provide comments as had not kept up with developments.

Just one was comfortable sharing his views – an ex-colleague who left a top law firm after 4 years as a litigation lawyer to join a legal tech startup called INTELLLEX. He (Edmund Koh) said:

The Legal Technology Vision is an ambitious call for law firms to adopt technology and embrace innovation. For INTELLLEX, a legal technology startup, this is very helpful as it focuses attention on legal technology, and makes lawyers think about how their practice should look like in the future. 

I think that the jury is still out for FLIP. The team behind it seems to be passionate in their desire to advance legal technology and has, to that end, brought the different parties (and their resources) to the table. However, successful incubators are able to align the varied interests of the parties. And I think this if FLIP manages to do that, then it can be a sustainable venture.