24 April 2017
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Lawyers must raise their game to stay ahead of the times: Shanmugam

TODAY
21 Apr 2017
Valerie Koh

In the past, law firms could charge clients according to the headcount on their team. Now in the digital age, where artificial intelligence and algorithms can substitute a lawyer and obliterate geographical borders, lawyers will have to raise their game and consider how they can offer value-added services.

Speaking at the opening of a two-day litigation conference yesterday, Law and Home Affairs Minister K Shanmugam stressed the importance of lawyers here moving beyond “low-value” and “routine” work that could be done by others.

“You have got to become highly skilled professionals — even those who are already in the profession. You have to continuously upgrade yourself. When the client walks in and speaks with you, he must know that he is speaking with a true professional who is several notches above what the client can get from an outsourced vendor in a low-cost jurisdiction or from a machine. It is critical,” he said.

Citing the example of banking and financial services firm JPMorgan creating a software to interpret commercial loan documents in seconds, Mr Shanmugam said: “What previously took lots and lots of man-hours, now this programme does it in a matter of seconds. So why would someone pay a lawyer to do that work?”

Lawyers could also collaborate with law firms in “low-cost jurisdictions” via email, he added.

“These lawyers, in low-cost jurisdictions, will understand our jurisprudence, they are common-law-trained,” Mr Shanmugam said. “You do not need, therefore, two partners and five lawyers working on it for a week, or two weeks, or five days. You just need a partner and perhaps an associate, just checking whether the vendors have gotten it right.”

To boost productivity so lawyers can focus on higher-order work, the Government rolled out the S$2.8 million Tech Start for Law scheme for small- and medium-sized players to tap tech solutions. However, firms must want to upgrade themselves for these programmes to bear results, the law minister said.

Since the scheme was launched in February, 10 firms have taken up the grant.

While the Government has put in place the framework for legal work to flow into Singapore — such as by expanding Maxwell Chambers and strengthening the intellectual property regime — lawyers would have to play their role by upgrading themselves and taking advantage of technology, he said.

Apart from putting in place legislation to be “arbitration-friendly”, the authorities have primed Singapore to be an international dispute-resolution hub with the setting up of the Singapore International Arbitration Centre and the Singapore International Commercial Court.

Beyond having the institutions, Singapore should become a thought leader in regional law, with lawyers having a keen understanding of legal systems in countries such as Indonesia, Thailand and Myanmar, he said.

Swept up in a digital revolution, lawyers would find new opportunities in high-value corporate banking and developing areas such as intellectual property laws, he added.

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