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‘Painful’ changes to legal industry set to affect lawyers’ training and operations: Chief Justice

‘Painful’ changes to legal industry set to affect lawyers’ training and operations: Chief Justice

Source: TODAY
Date Published: 08 Jan 2019
Author: Faris Mokhtar

Mr Menon had made similar calls before for the legal industry to adapt to and leverage these forces, but there was greater urgency in his tone this time round.

Starting the 2019 legal year on a sobering note, Chief Justice Sundaresh Menon warned of overarching changes to the breadth and depth of legal work that may overturn the profession's long-cherished notions about how lawyers should be trained and how law firms should operate.

The process will be difficult and may be painful, he said. In time, it is even conceivable that a class of "legal technicians" who are not legally trained may be able to provide services on less complex legal tasks with the help of technology.

Speaking at the opening of the legal year on Monday (Jan 7), Mr Menon pointed out that the legal industry is being “reshaped” by three significant factors: Globalisation, technology and the growing commercialisation of the law.

“These have come together so powerfully and so quickly that it seems certain that we are heading towards a future that will be dramatically different from the present,” he asserted.

“Our collective attention must therefore shift to preparing ourselves for this new world.”

To confront these challenges, which he described as a “wicked problem”, he will consult the legal fraternity to “reform, reimagine and remodel” the legal profession.

Mr Menon had made similar calls before for the legal industry to adapt to and leverage these forces, but there was greater urgency in his tone this time round.

Technology, he noted, has already transformed the conventional notions of where and how disputes are resolved. Simple and low-value consumer disputes are now settled outside the courtrooms, through online dispute resolution systems.

The popularity of such systems will grow in time as they are “almost always cheaper, faster and more convenient” than traditional models, Mr Menon said.

Automated dispute resolution systems may also, in time, reduce the flow of cases that “forms the backbone of the development of the common law”, he warned.

And this could have significant implications on legal methods such as writing and research as well as on legal education and training.

The notion of who should resolve a dispute is also being upended, as artificial intelligence has been used by courts in the United States, for instance, to assess the risk of recidivism in criminal cases where ex-offenders are predisposed to re-offend.

ALTERNATIVE SERVICE PROVIDERS

Technology will also have an impact on law and legal principles. As “smart” contracts, virtual properties and driverless vehicles become the new norm, established principles of law will come under increasing scrutiny, Mr Menon added.

With alternative service providers offering credible and cheaper options, clients may rely less on lawyers for services such as document review or project management.

This is already happening in other countries, he noted. Legal technology companies are providing such services at lower costs, often bypassing lawyers.

It could then possibly lead to the emergence of a class of “legal technicians”, Mr Menon said. Though not legally trained, they might be able to provide services touching on less complex legal work with the help of technology.

“In tandem with this, a culture of ‘self-sourcing’ will likely take hold among members of the public,” Mr Menon added. “We shouldn’t be surprised if members of the public come increasingly to attempt to resolve at least some legal issues with the aid of technology, in much the same way that many individuals today seek out medical information themselves using the Internet.”

He stressed that all these point to an impending change in the “face of legal work”.

Technology is set to reduce the hours spent on certain types of legal work, prompting law firms to have leaner operations. This will make them rethink their traditional billing and cost structures.

For junior lawyers, their work, which includes legal research and document review, “will increasingly be shared with or even taken over by technology and alternative legal service providers”, Mr Menon said.

As a result, the diminishing demand for legal work in low-value or less-complex cases “will also restrict the opportunities available for junior lawyers to hone their skills, thus affecting their professional development”, he pointed out.

TRANSFORMING WORK PROCESSES

In the consultation with the legal community to tackle these challenges, they will look into legal education in the universities, continuous professional training as well as transformation and innovation in the judiciary.

Mr Menon said that the Supreme Court has already set up an Office of Transformation and Innovation. Led by Justice Aedit Abdullah, it will look at how technology may improve processes such as reducing paperwork and physical meetings.

The office will also improve access to justice, and one initiative is the online dispute resolution for motor accident claims. It is expected to be launched by the end of this year and be rolled out in stages. The target is to resolve motor accident disputes online more efficiently — without face-to-face meetings — and at a much lower cost.

Mr Shashi Nathan, 51, a partner at Withers KhattarWong LLP, said that law firms are not just dealing with technology but also sophisticated and tech-savvy clients.

The regional head of dispute resolution at his firm, Mr Nathan said that the company has been working on a customised software that enables lawyers to sieve through and identify relevant documents to prepare for a trial. The firm is also studying closely the legalities relating to driverless vehicles, including potential negligence cases.

“Law firms need to adjust and adapt to stay competitive or you will lose out,” he added.

GREATER WORKLOAD

On Monday, Mr Menon highlighted that the number of cases dealt by the Court of Appeal has risen by more than 50 per cent from 2013. He said that there will be possible changes to its processes to deal with the growing workload, but did not give more details.

One approach already in use is to rope in more judges from the higher courts to hear cases and to increase the number of sitting days this year.

Mr Menon pointed out that the cases heard by the apex court have also become more complex.

These include, for instance, a lawsuit filed by a couple who went to Thomson Fertility Centre to have a child via in-vitro fertilisation, but later found that sperm from an unknown donor of a different ethnicity was used instead of the husband’s. Rejecting the couple’s claim for damages for the upkeep of the child, the Court of Appeal passed judgment in 2017, noting that awarding such costs would go against public policy and interest, since parenthood carries legal and moral obligations.

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