Thank you for inviting me to the inaugural SMU-Osborne Clarke Future of Law Conference.
We live in an age where technological developments are occurring at a breakneck speed, and disrupting whole industries, such as the hotel and tourism, transport, financial, and legal industries.
The legal sector is affected in two ways. First, technological disruptions in industry and society raise issues that may require legal responses, and create opportunities for lawyers. E.g. understand there is quite a bit of legal work from FinTech and ICOs. Second, technology has the potential to change legal practice.
- I will be focusing on the second area, and will talk about:
- What technology I am watching;
- What MinLaw is doing;
- Offer some humble suggestions of what lawyers might do.
I am watching three kinds of technology. There are others, but I watch these three carefully as I believe they can affect the delivery of legal services in fundamental ways.
First, The Internet
Been with us for some time, and we know it well. But every day, more firms and people are finding new ways to use it.
The Internet, put simply, has resulted in the death of distance. It has brought the world closer together, and gotten people used to high levels of interconnectivity.
One consequence has been to make competition amongst professional services global.
I first saw this in the field of radiography – X-ray images were sent to places like India, to be analyzed by Indian radiographers, who can do the work more cheaply.
Today, there are job matching platforms that leverage big data to match demand to professionals who are prepared to provide services on an ad-hoc basis. It goes beyond simple outsourcing of basic legal or other professional work to lower-cost countries. There are businesses that scour for talent from across the world, organize them and sell their services to fulfil complicated functions, all over the Internet. This has been described as the “Human Cloud”.
Means competition can come from anywhere. But I think there are limits – corporations pursuing multi-million deals want to have professionals whom they trust and know will be there at critical junctures. Will not want to risk the game trying to save some money on professional fees.
Second, Artificial intelligence (AI)
AI is also familiar to most people. I use the term broadly, to mean machines that can learn and become better at tasks which were previously thought to be the sole domain of humans.
So computers have beaten humans in chess and now go, and in the game show Jeopardy!
In the legal field, software can be trained with a few sample documents, after which they can quickly go through thousands of documents to spot patterns, highlight inconsistencies and suggest improvements. They can scan judgments, answer legal research questions, suggest points of law, even potential arguments for lawyers. Some systems even rate the likelihood of an argument working, or not, in a particular case.
I have read accounts from lawyers of their experience with such systems. They are impressed, but also point out that the computers can sometimes get things wrong, and spectacularly or hilarious wrong.
But machines can learn – and keep getting better.
Today, the legal “grunt” work that is technical, tedious, and time-consuming, and which used to be done by junior lawyers, are increasingly done by AI. Question is how far AI can go in doing higher level work.
I am optimistic for humans. Think there are limits. So far AI has beaten humans in specific tasks. Harder for computers to have general intelligence; to integrate diverse facts to come to a conclusion. Also very hard to do the creative parts – coming up with novel arguments, structuring deals in fresh ways.
Took me a while to acquire a basic understanding of the technology and appreciate its potential impact.
The best explanation that I have found of what blockchain can do is in a speech by Mr Ravi Menon, Managing Director of the Monetary Authority of Singapore, in his keynote address on blockchain technology in India earlier this month. So I gratefully borrow from his explanation.
- Power of block chain is in establishing trust in a decentralised way
- Trust underpins all economic transactions. In the absence of direct trust among parties, the alternative is to rely on trusted central parties.
- The key breakthrough of blockchain technology is its ability to establish trust in a decentralised system.
- Blockchain technology allow diverse parties to collaborate without trusted central parties.
- First, data are recorded and shared in a way that ensures a consistent view across multiple parties.
- Copies of the data are spread around all the nodes of the blockchain network. Rather than trusting any single party, the trust is placed in the collective view of all parties.
Anybody can check whether something is wrong.
- Second, data are heavily encrypted or signed with digital signatures that makes the blockchain secure against tampering.
- This means that all parties in the blockchain can be sure that no one can unilaterally make changes without the signature of the others.
- Third, data are generated by smart contracts which always execute in the same expected way.
The smart contract acts as an impartial judge. It executes contracts faithfully in accordance with the pre-defined contractual terms that all parties on the blockchain have agreed to.
We have traditionally used the law and lawyers to ensure trust in a distributed system. Lawyers play the role of the trusted party, they draw up contracts that specify what each party needs to do and will get, and ensure that the terms are fulfilled.
If not, they represent the parties in dispute resolution. What if all these can be done by blockchain, where does it leave lawyers? Someone has to structure the deal, but once that is done, it can simply be effected by a blockchain. And there might be no disputes, because disputes become impossible in a system that by design faithfully executes according to the pre-defined terms.
Technology and applications still evolving – so watching it carefully.
- These three technologies affect what I call the ring-fences for legal services.
- First, there is a jurisdiction ringfence – to reserve the practice of law here to lawyers based here. The Internet threatens to breach this ringfence.
- Second, we ringfence the practice of law to humans. AI threatens this.
- Third, the rule of law, as in using the law to enforce trust in transactions. Blockchain threatens this role.
What is MinLaw doing?
Uncertainly about how and the pace with which the technology will pan out, as well as the impact. We are watching, and analyzing, but need to lay the ground as well.
Believe that technology itself is neutral; it can bring both opportunities and threats. It is disruptive to our current way of doing things. But it enables innovative players to fulfil those needs in better ways. It may take away certain jobs, but it will bring new jobs. Whoever masters the technology can dominate the market.
- Hence our focus:
- Help law firms and lawyers catch up with technology, and figure out how to respond to disruptions and reap the benefits.
- Need to respond at three levels: (1) at the level of law students, (2) at the level of law firms, and (3) at a systems-wide level.
- Believe our law schools, such as SMU, need to incorporate more subjects on technology, and its intersection with the law, into the teaching curriculum.
- Doing this, but still challenging, not least because in the domain of law alone, there is already a lot of core knowledge that has to be taught to law students during their limited time in school.
- But know that some students have already taken the initiative to self-organise themselves into interest groups to look into various technologies, and to reach out on their own to learn about technology for themselves.
Encourage all law firms to go into technology, to raise their productivity and service; also to be familiar with using technology in their work, so that they can better respond to technological advancements.
- Quite uneven adoption of technology among law firms. We introduced packages for firms according to their level of adoption
- For smaller law firms, many of whom need to take first steps, a grant to purchase and implement a basic suite of technology tools.
- For law firms who are thinking about how to reform their practice in more fundamental ways, we have been discussing more tailored schemes, depending on their needs and plans.
We are working with the Singapore Academy of Law to see if there are standards, data, and other infrastructure that ought to be upgraded in view of tech advancements.
Key piece is court systems. Fortunately, our Courts are keen supporters and adopters of IT, and have moved strongly into digitisation, and this will challenge law firms and lawyers to do likewise.
Some pointers on how lawyers can approach the changing legal landscape
Finally, some humble advice as to how lawyers can respond.
I am an electrical engineer by training. In my final year, I decided to do more courses on communications, and learnt about BITNET. I was intrigued by the power of the technology, to enable researchers and students from across the world to communicate freely with one another.
After graduating, I had to do my NS. In those two years, the Internet happened. In other words, I was disrupted. The operating context for my cohort changed dramatically. How did we respond?
One – most mastered the new technologies. Because we had learnt the basics. Same as in law. Universities provide a good rigorous grounding in fundamental knowledge. Armed with that and diligence, able to learn and adapt.
Two – US-trained engineers did better. Because they were closer to industry, and could see what the business needs were, and were more conscious about what changes were coming, and instinctively knew how to adjust their trajectory in respond to these changes
Three – those who ventured beyond their core subjects could adjust better. Because opportunities arise at the interception of different disciplines. In engineering, there were advances and new things happening at the nexus with biology, etc. In law, the ferment of Fintech has generated legal questions and hence legal work
- Fourth point a bit more subtle.
- I had a professor who specialised in analogue systems. He exceled, both in academia and as a consultant. Took me a while to understand why, when the entire field was going digital.
- Because whereas computers work in a digital world, life is analogue, it is not ones and zeros, but rich and varied across many dimensions. There will always be a requirement for interface.
- For lawyers, it would be understanding the needs and interests of the clients, knowing that he is not an automaton but have human motivations, advising him well, to get a good outcome.
So my advice – master your core knowledge; be attentive to industry needs; stay curious about adjacent fields; and most of all, understand that being human is a strength, not a weakness.
- Thank you, and I wish all of you a meaningful and fruitful Conference.