The LexTech Conference 2017 — Malaysia’s first legal tech conference, which aimed to raise awareness on legal tech and to promote technology adoption — was held on 4-5 November 2017. Among the legal tech experts and innovators, lawyers, general counsel, and other interested parties who assembled from all over Asia, was our own intrepid reporter Janice Tan Ying. She prepared this report on what she managed to glimpse of the future of law. You can read our other coverage via the #LexTech17 tag.
‘Blockchain’, ‘Smart Contract’, ‘NewLaw’. Dubbed the ‘uberisation’ of legal services — is this just fleeting hype, or are these new legal tech trends here to stay? If it is the latter, will it disrupt the livelihoods of legal practitioners, or enable lawyers to enhance their practice? While these buzzwords may sound like gobbledygook (read: tech jargon) to the everyday lawyer, talk about impending ‘disruption’ in the legal industry is rife.
According to Malaysian Bar President George Varughese, “legal technology is still somewhat an enigma in this region”. He said this during his welcoming address at #LexTech17 — the inaugural LexTech Conference 2017 which took place on 4-5 November 2017 in Cyberjaya. He also added — “Some of us know it well and welcome it with an embrace but many of us are threatened by its penetration and understandably so. It’s disruptive, it’s innovative and it’s necessary.”
Jointly organised by CanLaw Asia and Brickfields Asia College (BAC), the two-day conference saw the region’s leading legal practitioners and legal tech innovators come together to share their ideas and solutions on legal innovation. Topics that were discussed throughout the expert panel and breakout sessions on both days centred around four issues: The role of regulators and accelerators in legal innovation, blockchain and smart contracts, Artificial Intelligence (AI) in legal research, and how legal practitioners can future-proof their practice.
The following are four key themes from the conference:
(1) Embrace innovation or risk getting left behind
“Robots will replace lawyers if lawyers work like robots,” said Dr Sonny Zulhada of IIUM.
Chew Seng Kok, Managing Director of ZICO Holdings propounded this notion: Lawyers either embrace innovation or risk getting left behind. “This phenomenon is real. More and more law firms are using AI. AI is not a substitute, it’s a facilitator to help you,” Seng Kok emphasised.
Professor Ray Campbell from Peking University believes that the job of lawyers will not go away — but to remain attractive to clients, lawyers have to adapt to a world where AI is both a tool and a competitor.
In this digital age that we live in now, how can law firms future-proof their business?
“To ‘future proof’ your business is to get ready for your business to withstand changes and to learn how to embrace technology to make it work for you and your practice,” Seng Kok said.
Rajesh Sreenivasan, TMT Practice Partner of Rajah & Tann Singapore LLP highlighted how his firm embraced tools like NetDocs and Luminance to maximise productivity, and explained how time that is saved via the utilisation of technology can be used to do more productive work.
This was further illustrated by Daniel Yeo from Linklaters through the usage of their in-house developed software, Nakhoda, an AI program that uses natural language processing, in which computers can recognise and respond to human language to read text contracts and documents.
I certainly believe that law firms should make technology their core competency and leverage its benefits to gain a competitive advantage.
Drawing an analogy to the affordable air fares offered by AirAsia, Seng Kok reminded lawyers that the demand for faster, and cheaper alternatives (the ‘more for less’ phenomenon) is what drives innovation, as clients will compare the services offered by different lawyers.
As such, I think law firms should endeavour to make informed decisions on the type of technologies to be utilised in their firms. This will allow them to streamline their practice in order to provide better services to their clients.
Legal tech also has an impact on judicial procedures. During the panel session on The Law Firms and ADR Institutions of Tomorrow, Alonso Castilla from KLRCA explained that work is underway towards a more efficient platform for the resolution of disputes, particularly in the area of domain name disputes.
(2) Awareness is key: Understanding blockchain and smart contracts
As highlighted by George Varughese in his opening speech, smart contracts and blockchains are increasingly adopted for paperwork-heavy aspects of legal services. According to the CEO of LuxTag, Rene Bernard, the general interest in blockchains and smart contracts is rising in Malaysia.
“The integrity of evidence can be safeguarded in the blockchain technology”, Rene said during the panel discussion on blockchain and smart contracts, adding that notarisation can now be done on blockchain technology — but how safe is it? Is it susceptible to hacking? Who do we sue when there is a decentralised project? These are questions Rene raised, which ultimately leads towards the all-encompassing issue — how confident are we with the idea of shifting our trust from a single central entity, to put our trust in the blockchain technology?
Most of the panel speakers believed that the implementation of smart contracts remains an uphill battle at present for various reasons. Among other considerations, T.M Lee of Coin Gecko highlighted that smart contracts are currently very expensive, and that there is limited expertise in the market for the writing of smart contracts.
The FAQ session for the panel on Blockchain and Smart Contracts generated an interesting discussion and raised practical concerns, with questions ranging from the resistance of blockchain towards cyber-attacks to discussions on cryptocurrency.
According to Rene, the development of blockchain and smart contracts signals a potential niche area of legal development for practitioners. Needless to say, this area of law will remain a hotbed for discussion.
(3) Legal tech will facilitate how lawyers work, not replace them
Steven Thiru, the immediate past president of the Malaysian Bar kickstarted the panel session on the role of regulators and accelerators in legal innovation by referencing the elephant in the room — the sense of anxiety that lawyers will be replaced by software and algorithms.
How anxious should lawyers be about legal tech? Noemie Alintissar-Mooney, the programme director of the Future Law Innovation Programme Manager (FLIP) — an industry-wide initiative by the Singapore Academy of Law to encourage innovation and technology in the legal sector — recognised that there is a lot of reluctance, fear and misunderstanding amongst practitioners, but is hopeful that the training and tools that FLIP will equip its participants with is going to be the baseline knowledge that every practitioner will have in the next 3-5 years. (You can read TheMalaysianLawyer.com’s pre-conference interview with Noemie for more of her insights.)
Shedding light on the role of accelerators in legal innovation, Gaythri Raman, the Managing Director of LexisNexis, Southeast Asia shared practical examples of some of the legal innovative solutions that the LexisNexis accelerator programme has created. Gaythri also illustrated how LexisNexis utilised AI to develop natural language searches so that users may obtain the most accurate result when carrying out legal research. (You can read TheMalaysianLawyer.com’s pre-conference interview with Gaythri and her colleague Min Chen for more of their insights.)
“Disruption is inevitable, whether you like it or not. There is fear that disruption is a threat — but it is only a threat if you are not prepared for it,” said Paul Neo, the Executive Director of the Singapore Academy of Law, a promotion and development agency for Singapore’s legal industry.
Instead of replacing lawyers, technology is to augment, support, and enhance the legal industry.
(4) The role of regulators in bridging the gap between tech and law
With the proliferation of legal technology startups and the increasing application of AI, it is important for regulators and the different stakeholders to work hand in hand to create a sustainable model for the legal profession. As mentioned by Steven Thiru, some of the archaic rules that govern the profession manifest a square peg in a round hole. However, the light at the end of the tunnel is that the Malaysian Bar is reportedly working with the government to modernise these rules.
With regards to regulators in other legal jurisdictions, Paul Neo made reference to the Law Society of Singapore as being an active partner in the Singapore Academy of Law’s efforts to bridge the gap between technology and law. Paul also added that a project called ‘Courts of the Future’ is being spearheaded in Singapore.
George Varughese also referred to plans in Dubai to implement all transactions of its land department on blockchain as part of its wider Dubai Blockchain Strategy to record and process all documents and transactions on blockchain by 2020.
Regulators also play a role in educating the next generation of lawyers to be more tech-savvy. Echoing Professor Ray Campbell’s notion of the importance of being a lawyer who goes beyond the law when solving our clients’ problems, Chew Seng Kok said that he believes regulators should equip budding lawyers with a course on tech-usage before they commence practice. Rajesh Sreenivasan added that academic legal knowledge is no longer sufficient — law graduates need to have a broader spectrum of knowledge. As such, a new and improved method of teaching must be encouraged.
To sum up, the sessions at LexTech17 conference were thought-provoking, engaging and illuminating — but the dialogue should not stop there.
While it appears that the technology at present will not radically change the way lawyers in the immediate future, the legal industry is developing and adopting technology incrementally.
It is crucial that legal practitioners learn to embrace technology and keep abreast of new developments. What this means for the new generation of lawyers is that is that they need to be equipped with a broad range of skill sets to become more holistic and marketable.
One thing is certain about the future of law: Change is inevitable. In order to ride the tidal wave of innovation, lawyers have to continuously learn, assimilate, and progress.