We are now at a stage of accelerated legal technology advances. Much of it is happening in North America where law tech start-up activity is at an all-time high.
But 2 Singapore developments in the past 6 months has led me to think that we have reached a turning point in the legal tech journey, where conditions are ripe for technology to fundamentally revolutionize and disrupt the legal industry in Singapore.
1.No Safety Anywhere – SG Authorities Not Against These Changes
The first development indicates an accommodating stance by the Singapore authorities towards the potential disrupters.
In the last year or so, two online legal template services, Dragon Law and Law Canvas, have started to sell templates to SMEs in Singapore. These template services assist SMEs to create DIY legal documents, such as shareholders agreement, through an online Q&A platform. During the online Q&A process, the system gathers key information relating to the parties and the transaction. At the end of the Q&A process, the system generates a contract for the SME to use.
What is interesting is not the technology. This genre of “smart templates”, also known as document automation or document assembly, is not new. Bizibody Technology has been implementing document automation services in law firms since the liberalization of the conveyancing scale fee since 2003. We work closely with the law firm to convert their word templates into smart templates which are inputted using the Q&A interface. We also teach law firms how to create smart templates for internal use. These smart templates are deployed internally in the law firm to enable significant productivity gains and quality control (ie speed and accuracy) in document production.
What Dragon Law and Law Canvas have done is to provide these document automation tools directly to the legal consumer through an online platform, empowering the legal consumer to create its own commercial contract without engaging a lawyer.
In Singapore, the provision of legal services is regulated by the Legal Profession Act. The Act provides that only lawyers with a practising certificate may provide legal services.
Dragon Law and Law Canvas would therefore be required to be registered as a law firm with the Singapore Law Society or the Legal Services Regulatory Authority, if they are in essence providing “legal services” to SMEs.
Are Dragon Law and Law Canvas Providing Legal Services?
One could construe Dragon Law and Law Canvas’ services as “legal services”, because in effect, the lawyer’s drafting smarts has been coded into the dynamic Q&A process which outputs the legal document based on answers given by the SME during the Q&A process. In my view, the fact that the Q&A was facilitated through an online platform or that there is no human being that interfaces with the SME, does not make it any less of a “legal service”.
Some lawyers are understandably unhappy with this development. They perceive that these software companies are providing legal services without having to abide with the myriad of rules that regulates legal practice.
Yet despite complaints and attempts by lawyers and Law Society, the Ministry of Law has not stopped online template providers such as Dragon Law and Law Canvas from selling “smart” legal templates to consumers and SMES (“legal consumers’) in Singapore.
Hence, these non-registered service providers will continue to chip away at the legal domain.
After all, quality issues aside, these services bring down the costs of legal services, and makes legal services more affordable and accessible to people and companies who cannot afford legal fees charged by law firms.
2.Reducing All Contracts into Open Source Software Code
The second development that makes me think that we are at a turning point where legal practice in Singapore will be disrupted by technology developments, is the gauntlet thrown down by legalese.com, a start-up lead by Singapore technopreneur, Mr Wong Meng Weng, whom I have not met but who has been described by people who know him as a “genuius” or as “unusual”.
Meng Weng’s Silicon Valley successes shows that he is a force to be reckoned with. On his return to Singapore, he co-founded JDFI Asia, Singapore’s first seed accelerator, and hackerspace.sg.
He how now chosen to take on the disruption of the legal industry, by applying Marc Andresson’s dictum “Software is eating the World” to the legal industry.
Legalese, which started as an in-house JFDI project, has publicly declared on its website the challenge it has set itself of unravelling the $80Billion Corporate Contracts Industry through software programming.
It’s first goal is to create an open source domain specific language (DSL) for legal agreements and regulations, dubbed L4. It’s end-goal is to enable apps for end-users which will replace the high margin, low volume law firms with a high volume, low margin automated largely open source new industry called “Computational Legal”
I think it is worthwhile for lawyers to read the unabridged full text of the public goal/challenge (geek talk and all), at the very least to get a sense of how different things may be in a world where some or all of the students in a graduating law school class understands software code.
In answer to the question “Is the Legal Industry ripe for disruption?” - It has happened to news, music, taxis, travel, finance. Why not lawyers?
In today’s world where you are either in the position of disrupting or being disrupted, the legal industry is certainly facing palpable disruption pressures.
The writing on the wall:
- Non-law “outsiders” are keen to disrupt the legal industry – starting with the online providers of automated templates.
- Government authorities are not stepping in to stop this development even though the Law Society has referred the matter to the authorities.
- Lawyers are hardly doing any disrupting themselves – as Wong Meng Weng says: it is not “because lawyers are necessarily unintelligent, but simple because law predates computer science by thousands of years and because if you think about it, most senior partners alive today were in law school when fax machines were new”.
- The disruption is likely to result in more affordable access to “legal services” to consumers and SMEs
- The trends supporting disruption is unstoppable - trends such as the DIY economy, the Instant Gratification economy and the Commoditization of Legal Services, all of which are the result of technological developments, have already become firmly entrenched in the consumer psyche.
- Even large law firms, such as Linklaters, Pinsent Masons, and BakerHostetler have joined the ranks of disrupting themselves by hiring backroom “robots” from software companies.
- Last and not least, the consumers are unhappy with the unaffordability of legal services, whilst at the same time, many lawyers are overworked and struggling with everyday practice.
Even if legalese.com fails in its bid to be the legal industry disrupters, it is likely that the disruption will happen sooner rather than later.
How do we deal with this? That is the harder question, and one which we, as an industry, need to take collective action.
Can we disrupt our own industry before Software swallows us up?