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    11:37 PM Janahan Thiru (Advocate and Solicitor, Supreme Court of Singapore)

    The Singapore Legal Futures Conference 2015

        

    Introduction

    The Singapore Legal Futures Conference was held on the afternoon of 8 July 2015 at the Supreme Court Auditorium. The half-day conference, jointly organised by the Ministry of Law and the Singapore Academy of Law, invited participants to think about the driving forces that are shaping our legal landscape and the impact that such forces are likely to have in the near future. As ice hockey hall of famer Wayne Gretzkey once put, the secret to his success was that he skates “to where the puck is going to be, not where it has been”. Similarly, while it was accepted that nobody could say for certain what the future holds, it was hoped that by better understanding such driving forces, most of which are already manifesting themselves, we too would be equipped to skate to where the puck is moving. To this end, participants were treated to four very engaging presentations from four eminent legal futures experts, namely:

    • Dr Sam Muller, the founding director of the Hague Institute for the Internationalisation of Law
    • Professor Mark Lemley, the William H. Neukom Professor of Law at Stanford Law School and the Director of the Stanford Program in Law, Science and Technology
    • Professor Ashish Nanda, Director of the Indian Institute of Management, Ahmedabad and a former Professor of Harvard Law School
    • Professor Richard Susskind OBE, IT Adviser to the Lord Chief Justice of England and Wales, Chair of the Online Dispute Resolution Group of the Civil Justice Council of England and Wales, President of the Society for Computers and Law and the author of the book “The End of Lawyers?”

    In addition, the conference also featured a panel discussion, moderated by Associate Professor Eleanor Wong of the National University of Singapore, in which a panel comprising Mr Choo Zheng Xi of Peter Low LLC, Ms Elizabeth Kong of Morgan Lewis Stamford, Ms Peggy Pao-Keerthi of the Attorney-General’s Chambers, and Mr Anand Nalachandran of TSMP Law Corporation, shared their views on what were, based on their experience, the main driving forces manifesting themselves in the local context.

    While each of the speakers and panellists brought their own unique perspective to the issue of what was the future of the legal industry, one could not help but notice that there were several themes that constantly recurred throughout the presentations. This report aims to summarise some of the key points presented at the conference under the rubric of these underlying themes. 

    Rapid Advancements in Technology

    First and perhaps foremost, if one were to survey the participants of the conference as to what impressed itself upon them, it is likely that the majority would allude in one way or the other to the various examples of new and innovative technologies that were cited. Not only do such technological developments capture the attention of the inner sci-fi geek in each of us, but the role that such developments are likely to play featured prominently in each of the speakers’ presentations. 

    To begin with, it has perhaps become almost trite to suggest that the rise of the internet of things has led to online platforms playing an increasingly dominant role in how people interact and conduct their business. And the role that the internet is going to play is only likely to keep expanding as processing power and bandwidth continue to develop at an exponential rate. Professor Susskind introduced participants to Moore’s Law, a computing principle which provides that the number of transistors per square inch of integrated circuits (and correspondingly the capabilities of many digital electronic devices) doubles approximately every two years. It was pointed out that thus far Moore’s Law has held true. 

    Moreover, the development of the internet is just the tip of the iceberg. Attention was also drawn to developments in fields such as robotics and 3D printing. With respect to the former, robots are becoming capable of performing increasingly complex tasks and are in fact now even capable of detecting human emotions and responding accordingly. As for 3D printing, Professor Hemley took pains to highlight that the technology is already at a sufficiently advanced stage to produce all manner of products from clothing to houses to food to even guns. The only reason we have yet to see such products being printed at homes across the world on a widespread scale is because it still remains rather uneconomical to do so. However, Professor Hemley anticipates that the cost of production will decrease over time, and soon home-printed products will become commonplace.

    The upshot of these technological developments is that the justice sector is being presented with greater opportunities to deliver to the needs of people worldwide. For instance, Professor Susskind shared his personal experience spearheading the UK Courts’ initiative to roll out an online dispute resolution platform for low value claims – a project that was very much spurred on by the success of similar platforms adopted by private entities such as eBay. The smartphone application “eyeWitness to Attrocities”, which was jointly developed by the International Bar Association and LexisNexis, is another example, cited by Dr Muller, of the opportunities that developments in technology present to the justice sector. Using this application, users are able to take verifiable videos and photos of human rights violations and war crimes which can then be used in prosecutions before international tribunals.

    At the same time however, these developments are also putting pressure on the legal profession with law firms, courts, and arbitrators facing serious competition from newer players who are leveraging on such technology and who are unafraid to go up against the traditional institutions. For example, Dr Muller shared how online legal solutions provider, LegalZoom LLC, is suing the bar association of one of the states in the US (North Carolina) for alleged antitrust violations. Looking somewhat further ahead, the speakers also seemed to be in agreement that with processing power constantly increasing, and traditional barriers being constantly broken in the field of robotics, robots will increasingly be capable of replacing the need for human labour not just in the manufacturing sector but also in service industries such as law.

    Finally, such technological advancements are not only likely to have an impact on the provision of legal services but also on legal concepts, law-making and regulation. For example, Professor Lemley shared that just as the rise of the internet has resulted in a separation between the production of media content (by artists and record labels) and its distribution (via avenues such as file sharing), 3D printing is likely to result in different actors being responsible for the design and the manufacture of products respectively. This could result in traditional notions of liability being questioned. For instance, if one were shot by a gun home-printed by his neighbour, would the victim be able to recover damages from the group that made the design of the gun available (and who are likely to have deeper pockets)? Indeed, this is merely one example of the challenge that regulators face to promote innovation while ensuring that both the physical and virtual worlds (which are becoming increasingly intertwined) remain safe.  

    Internationalisation of Legal Practice

    Another common theme that featured prominently is one that lawyers in Singapore would be familiar with - the internationalisation of legal practice. As markets become more interconnected, commercial transactions and disputes are becoming increasingly transnational by nature. Criminal matters are also more likely to involve cross-border elements – a fact that Mr Anand Nalachandran, an experienced criminal law practitioner, was able to attest to during the panel discussion. Perhaps motivated by this, more and more law firms are increasing their global footprint particularly in Asia and Africa. At the same time, local firms in these markets are also rising in prominence. For example, Professor Nanda mentioned that in China, attention is shifting from the traditional international powerhouses - magic circle and white shoe firms - to local red circle firms in Shanghai and Beijing. Labour markets are also becoming increasingly porous. For instance, both Professor Nanda and Professor Susskind pointed out how it is becoming increasingly common for certain aspects of legal work such as document review to be outsourced to offices in lower-cost jurisdictions where local lawyers are able to perform the required tasks more efficiently and economically.  

    It was agreed that what this means for the law firms and lawyers of the future is that they need to consider how they can remain relevant in such an internationalised market. This does not necessarily mean that firms need to start aggressively expanding into other jurisdictions; as Professor Nanda pointed out, many firms are able to grow a practice branding themselves as “local experts”. However, it requires practitioners and firms to be clear as to what exactly is the value-add that they are providing potential clients and to bolster their capabilities in these particular aspects. As suggested by Professor Nanda, the adage “jack of all trades, master of none” is one that should be heeded. 

    It should also be mentioned that it is not just law firms and private practitioners that are feeling the effects of internationalisation. Dr Muller spoke of how law makers and governments are under greater pressure to adopt and adhere to international standards in areas such as anti-trust, anti-competition, data protection and judicial efficiency. Law enforcement is also being made to respond to the proliferation of transnational criminal activity. 

    Changing Attitudes towards Governance and an Increased Diversity of Views

    Finally, there also appeared to be a consensus that people’s attitudes as to how governance should be conducted is changing worldwide. This issue was first raised by Dr Muller who pointed out that there appears to be a greater diversity of views being vocalised as well as an increasing belief that good governance does not merely involve efficiency and effectiveness but also transparency, responsiveness, and a willingness to engage multiple stakeholders. This creates greater pressure on law makers and regulators to involve and engage various stakeholders such as NGOs in the exercise of their functions. Indeed, during the panel discussion, Mr Choo Zheng Xi, who specialises in public interest litigation, shared that from his experience, in Singapore, there is an increasing number of people who are willing to challenge government decisions and who do not see doing so as a taboo. What is also interesting to note is that these expectations may not just apply to governance at a state level but also to that within corporate entities. For instance, Professor Nanda mused that the law firm that is able to first address the concerns of female employees would be at a significant advantage in terms of human resource and talent management. 

    Conclusion: Access to Justice, Renewed Mind-sets, and the Role of Legal Education

    To conclude, while the bevy of changes that the justice sector is likely to face may seem daunting to some, it was agreed that they are likely to provide greater opportunities to enhance access to justice worldwide. And Professor Susskind’s view was that this is ultimately what matters. He unabashedly reminded participants that the justice sector does not exist to provide jobs to practitioners but rather to provide society with that very access to justice that is being demanded. The challenge for practitioners then is to be flexible enough to adapt to the changes and developments so that they can remain relevant in the market of the future. The challenge for legal educators is to foster the right mind-sets in young lawyers and law students and to train them to think not just as lawyers. In this respect, what was re-assuring was that much of the question and answer session at the end of the conference was dominated by law students seeking to understand how they can go about driving innovation and change within the legal industry. It is hoped that such nascent passion would continue to grow and be encouraged by the legal community.

    * This blog entry may be cited as Janahan Thiru, "The Singapore Legal Futures Conference 2015", Singapore Law Blog (25 July 2015) (http://www.singaporelawblog.sg/blog/article/124)

    ** A PDF version of this entry may be downloaded here

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