Mapping out Singapore's legaltech journey

Thomson Reuters weighs in on the opportunities and challenges of bringing the legal industry into the digital age.

Singapore’s lagging legal industry is taking calculated strides to ensure it’s not being left behind in the digitisation wave as public and private sector forge partnerships to transform the practice of law.

In 2016, the legal sector contributed $2.1b in value-add and employed around 13,100 individuals, data from the Ministry of Trade and Industry show. Despite its economic contribution, the legal industry has been slow to adopt the wide array of technologies designed to improve efficiency and bring down costs compared to other industries that are ahead of the digital curve. “The legal industry is one that I wouldn’t rate as being at the forefront of technology adoption,” said Carl Olson, commercial director at Thomson Reuters.

As it currently stands, legal technology is only being used to complement the delivery of legal services but has yet to transform the actual practice of law, the Singapore Academy of Law (SAL) said in its blueprint for the legal sector which maps out a five-year blueprint to bring the sector into the digital age.

Unlike fintech which benefits from heightened investor interest, SAL notes that there are limited options and platforms to recognise legaltech projects and companies although there has been some notable headway. In May, a $3.68m funding scheme was launched by the Ministry of Law, Law Society of Singapore, Enterprise Singapore and the Infocomm Media Development Authority which sets aside funding of up to $130,000 annually for each Singapore law practice.

In September, the second installment of TechLawFest was held in Singapore to highlight key trends and opportunities in the space. A key event in this two-day conference was TRIgnite, a technology investment programme launched by Thomson Reuters targetting early stage startups in the legal and regulatory space.

In an exclusive interview with Singapore Business Review, Olson and James Jarvis, director of global legal solutions at Thomson Reuters outline the challenges in legaltech adoption, updates on TRIgnite and why Singapore is uniquely placed to lead the region in digitising law practice.

SBR: What are the challenges in boosting legal tech adoption in tech-friendly Singapore? 

Carl: The adoption of technology comes down to whether the technologies are in of themselves compelling. The second thing that's required is that there needs to be change makers within the product creation, and within individual organizations. The change in mindset often requires people who are very successful in established practices, to put aside what they've been able to point to as a specific areas of expertise, and throw themselves into the unknown when it comes to embracing technology, and go through a learning curve. The trade off to being experts is being a novice at what they do through the period of time within which they're seeking to become proficient.

For training, organizations often want to see an external trainer and then rely on internal staff. What it does is it gets people in-house to the point where they get to a level of proficiency and they become ambassadors. When that's not enough, we make trainers available.

In the Singaporean market, there's a call for change. We ran the TR Ignite competition, as part of TechLaw.Fest in September. We were really unsure at the beginning as to what sort of volume of startups would express interest and involvement. With that uncertainty, we were amazed that within a very short order we received interest from 210 startups across Asia, including 23 from Singapore. These applications from startups each had a good idea, developed concept and possibly even a commercial product.

James: There are so many tools that report to be in the same spaces. It's very difficult sometimes for the lawyers to figure out which one is the right one to go, and how much better they are than what they’re doing today. Vendors of the technology need to answer the question: why have you created this software and how is it actually going to improve the way that we do our legal work?

In addition to the efficiency, lawyers are having to deal with a growing amount of data. Just as any other profession, we want to provide them with mechanisms for sifting and working with that data as effectively as possible. The second scenario is enabling lawyers to both find the signal in the noise and glean the insights that they need to apply to clients.

SBR: Can you go over the list of product and service offerings that Thomson Reuters offers with respect to legaltech applications? 

Carl: We're in the content business that has been running for 150 years in various parts of the world. We talked about all the noise that law firms might need to cope with in order to get to the right information to help them either prepare an opinion, advise clients or prepare for litigation. Services like WestLaw provide the quickest route to the most trusted answer when it comes to information on the law. Within that general space, we have Practical Law, which enables organizations to not only research and understand what the law is, but to be highly efficient in how they apply the law. It equips less senior staff to be able to quickly understand and process a matter with less supervision from senior lawyers.

Beyond the content related services, we do a lot in the general practice management space from equipping organizations to run their practice, stay on top of all of the accounting associated with legal practice, and the billing of clients but also equipping them to manage methods effectively.

Thomson Reuters has acquired a software asset called HighQ which helps law firms to collaborate with their clients. We provide environments for exchanging documents, workspaces, and client portal. At the end of the day, that helps a lawyer to ensure that they're much more efficient in the way in which they service the client. We do things like document automation such as Contract Express. 

James: What we're trying to do is make logical connections between different solutions. We want to connect our drafting assistant technology to Westlaw, we want to connect Westlaw to Practical Law. So if you're looking at a checklist in practical law, you can access the underlying primary law in Westlaw.  By bringing these things together, you get the benefit of all of the solutions working together, which provides new levels of efficiency and enables lawyers to get the work done faster, and see insights that are more difficult to glean from working with multiple websites or different solutions.

SBR: Up to what extent are you aiming to reduce the level of human intervention in the legal process as you turn to more AI assisted tools and platforms?

James: With the growth and the size of data, there's an opportunity for reskilling and new skills development, for lawyers to shift from traditional knowledge, work practices to leveraging the data, become data analysts, and work with the data that we're presenting.

In the drafting context, we have specific metrics that give various examples of that 80-82% reduction in the time that it takes someone to preferred a contract. Likewise, we have similar numbers, in terms of the throughput or productivity for organizations using Contract Express who are able to generate a standard form approved contract much faster than laywers who aren't using similar software.

Carl: With Westlaw, we’ve got AI at play every day, adding value to the company in addition to editorial process, and so it's not necessarily apparent to the end user. The kind of search sophistication that we provide through which content can be found is often the product of massive amounts of computer processing, patents and other IP that has been generated over time, in conjunction with thousands of editorial staff to comb over the content.

We've been using natural language processing for decades long before it was fashionable. These things are now getting perhaps talked about for the first time and many circles as new and exciting technologies which they are, and then moving to next generation. We are in the process of doing that through the labs that we have around the world.

James: The labs typically have an approach where they take a really short lifecycle project approach to try and innovate with technology in a particular problem space. We start with the customer first, and work with them to understand the problems they're trying to solve. Our labs will do these rapid projects where they bring different methodologies and observe cognitive computing or data and analytics, to innovate on those solutions.

We are engaging in conversations with startups to learn about what they're doing and for our labs folks to provide insights and advice in terms of things to look out for and opportunities that they might want to consider, as they formulate from concept and into a minimum viable product.

Carl: We are operating these labs in a number of locations around the world with the objective of progressing beyond what might be regarded as standard product development into things which are really about creating brand new technologies, use cases that might not even be understood today. We're trying to build on the competencies and working closely with clients in the startup community to come up with new use cases for reimagining what the legal profession might be like.

SBR: The promise of blockchain is massive - the potential for ditching paper, reducing the risk of fraud and enhancing transparency. What are your thoughts on blockchain technology for legal tech applications? 

James: Our approach to technology is if we understand what the customer is trying to do, then we'll experiment and evolve and enhance technologies to make sure we have the best in the solution that we're providing - blockchain offers a lot of opportunity there. 

What we're trying to do is leverage those technologies but make them feel seamless and enable the lawyers do what they've always done and have the technology working behind the scenes to enable them to work more efficiently to gather insights, and have a more secure environment without necessarily thinking, 'Hey, this is a blockchain driven solution.' We just want them to feel like the tools are the sharpest that they can have in their hand and help them achieve their work as fast as possible and effectively as possible.

Carl: Blockchain is a technology that's capable of being used for a vast number of use cases but is being used in very few cases in practice. At the moment, it's about making sure people are educated and determine really where the value [is]. I don't think that the whole industry is poised to necessarily embrace blockchain for the widest range of transactions. There's a role in educating, a role in doing development and a role to be working with some of the leading organizations - be they startups or more mature - to progress the use of blockchain.

SBR: Westlaw has come a long way since it was first launched nine years ago. Are there new developments that we should look forward to this year? 

James: Westlaw Edge is a solution that was specifically designed to take advantage of the content that we've developed in the US market to provide lawyers with new and easy to adopt mechanisms for evaluating and creating strategies in how they practice law. The content in Singapore or Australia or Hong Kong is different. With the content that we have in each different market, we have to figure out the right technologies to marry up with that content. Sometimes, it takes a long time to optimize the experience of a particular jurisdictions' content with the technologies developed for global legal use cases. If you look at what we've been doing over the last decade, you'll see that we're a company that's focused on bringing natural language processing, to search.

What we're trying to do is bring that technology into Westlaw, so that the use of the tool feels simpler and faster, even though the technology stack that it's built on has new levels of complexity that the user doesn't have to actually experience when doing their research.

SBR: How do you see the legal industry developing over the next three to five years?

Carl: With support from the government and the legal industry - we talked about the Future Innovation Program, we talked about Techcelerate - there are initiatives where money is being spent on trying to make sure that technology is properly embraced and leveraged within the legal industry. As a legal market, Singapore is a liberal marketplace. In comparison to some of the other parts of Asia, it's not protectionist. It's opened its gates to foreign lawyers involved in the industry, every bit as much as there are local lawyers.

James: At TR Ignite, it was very evident that energy and enthusiasm in Singapore about the transformation relates to legal technology and the benefits it can bring to the Singapore legal community. That type of forward thinking is really going to pay huge dividends for the legal community and the wider community and in Singapore. 

Carl: I understand there was something like 1500 delegates. When you consider the small legal population within Singapore, and even noting that there were foreign attendees as well, if that number is correct, it talks to just how motivated that particular industry is, it is a real buzz. Singapore is very well placed to really progress with that change, and to continue to progress in terms of general leadership. If you think about it from the point of view of the level of support that's available from the government, and from the legal industry things like Techcelerate, you've got a major mix of ingredients that just don't exist in other geographies. 

In photo (left to right): Carl and James 

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