The small firm
Veteran lawyer Vijay Kumar spent two days at a training programme recently to learn how to file court documents through the Integrated Electronic Litigation System (eLitigation).
“A year ago, I couldn’t even file a writ,” the 67-year-old tells BT. He proudly shows BT his Google Calendar, which he only recently took up after being introduced to it by a young paralegal. So apprehensive was he at the start that when he first started using the digital calendar, he held on to a physical diary as backup. Mr Kumar has heard of the capabilities of artificial intelligence (AI) and is raring to give it a try.
He is even toying with the idea of doing away with a physical office in four to five years’ time. But he says some clients might be concerned about the credibility of a lawyer without a brick-and-mortar office. At the insistence of his clients, he is looking at giving the firm a presence in the virtual world though. And if it could serve as a marketing tool as well, he certainly welcomes it. He admits that younger lawyers probably have it easier than someone his age, in adopting technology. Notably, his firm has not gone digital in the management of client files. He says that “it’s difficult to switch” and “old habits die hard”.
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He adds that a small firm like his does not enjoy the economies of scale that tech solutions might bring. There are about 1,000 law firms in Singapore, nearly 70 per cent being small firms with five or fewer lawyers. “Invest? Not in every aspect, basic administration doesn’t justify but e-filing and AI (powered) legal research do. I certainly hope there are subsidies for these,” says Mr Kumar.
The early adopter
Seeing analytics being applied to law in the US while he was in university, Jerrold Soh and his then classmates realised it could affect their future careers.
That peek down the road coupled with a glut of lawyers locally drove them to start a legal analytics startup Lex Quanta in 2016.
Join them if you can’t beat them. As Mr Soh tells BT: “My personal ‘coping’ strategy was to join the technology movement, as I had been tinkering with code even before joining law school.
“I also wanted to see how I could apply the data analysis skills I was learning from my economics training to the legal industry. So there, both market and personal reasons for legal analytics specifically.”
On whether his startup would put fellow lawyers out of work, Mr Soh, 26, who is lecturing at Singapore Management University School of Law, says it did cross their mind.
He points out that the present state of analytics technology is quite far from being able to jeopardise lawyers’ livelihood. But there are larger trends affecting the legal industry, such as alternative legal services providers – that, coupled with analytics, could upend lawyers’ careers. “Simply put, lawyers who adeptly use technology could put lawyers who don’t adapt out of work. It’s been this way even for older technologies like the word processor.”
He sees the promise of legaltech primarily in lowering the transaction costs of justice. Lower costs lead not only to more efficiency in existing transactions but, more importantly, allows more people to access legal and court services.
“So it is not simply about people substituting from one lawyer to a more tech-enabled one… Like fintech, as legal technology matures, we may see more and more legal services being made accessible electronically and through smartphones. This is already quite common in China.”
The tech-savvy business
KEL LLC stores its documents on a cloud server, and automatically bills its clients via email when the time comes.
In fact, the first question founder Kelly Ho asked when hiring a secretary was: “Are you comfortable with a machine or computer?”
From day one, since the firm was established in 2014, Ms Ho has focused on solutions that would afford her the flexibility of working anywhere and save costs.
Hence, she opted to use a cloud server, for which she pays subscription fees to store documents without having to maintain her own server. The auto-billing function that she employs, an addition to an existing system, was partly paid for out of a grant from Enterprise Singapore and spares her staff the hassle of preparing and sending out bills. However, the use of technology is not without drawbacks. The auto-billing system is not very reliable yet, and she has to keep an eye on it. Further, she says that users that subscribe to tech solutions are at the mercy of the providers when the fees go up, as it is a hassle to migrate to another provider.
As with many law firms today, KEL LLC has a presence online. “For law firms to maintain credibility, it’s good to have a website,” says Ms Ho. And while she would love to leverage AI in her legal work, she is also limited by budget. The 39-year-old says: “We are a small law firm, we don’t have resources to invest in AI or legaltech. I think about it a lot. Hopefully one day, small law firms can get AI.”
She says that lawyers know that machines can do it much faster than a human being. “Lawyers will face challenges in competing with the machine.”
A version of this article was originally published in The Business Times.