Law firm experiments in getting things done
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Lawyers are rarely early adopters. Caricatured as paper addicts wedded to document reviews and the billable hour, firms are stereotyped as the cause of technological resistance rather than the solution.
Lawtech hubs, in which lawyers, start-ups and other innovators mingle, are more common outside the Asia Pacific region. Law firm Allen & Overy and global bank Barclays chose London as the base for their Fuse and Eagle Lab programmes, respectively. However, the Singapore Academy of Law and law firm Clifford Chance have both launched similar initiatives in the city-state this year.
“For lawyers, getting out of the traditional law firm environment and seeing how start-ups work can be very inspiring and eye opening,” says Noemie Alintissar-Mooney, who manages the Future Law Innovation Programme (Flip) for the Singapore Academy of Law.
Flip offers support and resources to tech-oriented law firms and legal tech start-ups, including workshops and demonstrations in its co-working space, support services tailored to law firms, and a 100-day seed funding programme.
Lawyers and technologists mix with entrepreneurs from sectors that include fintech, travel, ecommerce, healthcare and venture capital. “We create opportunities . . . so [lawyers] can pick up new ideas, collaborate and make valuable connections outside of the legal world,” Ms Alintissar-Mooney says.
Law firm Rajah & Tann, also one of Flip’s founding members, is trying to carve out a niche that is different from either the external hubs backed by global elite firms or a scrappy start-up. “We decided the best thing to do was not just to set up a department within the firm — an innovation champion — but to set up a new unit in a new office,” says Rajesh Sreenivasan, head of the technology, media and telecoms practice at Rajah & Tann Singapore.
The result was Rajah & Tann Technologies (RTT), a separate business that has shaken up the partnership model.
The structure has allowed people other than lawyers, including policy experts, technologists or people from a cyber security background, to become partners in a legal services business. The move led RTT further into cyber security, regulatory and compliance advice — fields often dominated by professional services and consulting firms, which have themselves been encroaching on the domain of law firms.
“Having this different setting forces lawyers to think very deeply about value,” says Mr Sreenivasan, who is also a director of RTT. That “changed the whole perception” of what the firm could do, he says. “It was not just lawyers talking to lawyers.”
While some leading firms have backed the growing lawtech scene, other developments in the region have been driven from outside the traditional law firm structure.
“Rejecting technology and efficiency is a logical step when you rely on the billable hour,” says Matt Glynn, a former private practice lawyer who was spurred to found Global Legal Solutions (GLS), a tech-driven business based out of Singapore. It offers its clients both legal advice and technological answers to legal problems.
Firms have experimented with alternatives to charging by the hour, such as value-based billing or fixed-fee arrangements, but the time sheet remains at the heart of most private practice business models.
GLS’s law firm arm operates differently, however. It uses a technology platform to help its lawyers, most of whom completed their training at international firms, to answer what the company describes as the “80 per cent of legal problems all businesses have” for 20 per cent of the cost.
“We don’t do the publicly listed deals,” Mr Glynn says, “because most companies don’t.” For “bet-the-farm” mergers and acquisitions deals, “there is no one better than a Slaughters or a Linklaters . . . But they have no business going in and charging [$600 an hour] for reviewing an employment contract,” he adds.
The GLS Law Firm innovation is not simply a question of offering external legal professionals to clients as needed to help them cut in-house salary bills. GLS does that, but Mr Glynn says: “You can only do cheaper manpower once.”
It has instead also developed sets of templates, legal policies and negotiation playbooks, plus technology that can automate other common processes for clients, as well as offering add-on technology to help troubleshoot for in-house counsel once the initial work is done. Moreover, it supports smaller businesses that lack the internal resources of global firms.
“We’re still trusted advisers. We’re just now free from time sheets, with a new platform, new working practices, solving challenges,” says Mr Glynn.
Tencent: ‘We encourage people to get out and try things’
As one of Asia’s biggest dealmakers, China’s Tencent is not short of ambition. The tech company’s mobile app, WeChat, is ubiquitous in the country. It has also built a 600-strong stable of investments in tech and gaming companies, from early-stage start-ups to JD.com, the listed Chinese ecommerce retailer.
Brent Irvin, general counsel at Tencent, says the legal team is similarly innovative. “It’s not that everyone is out there hustling,” he says, but “it’s a decentralised team, we encourage people to get out there and try things”.
The Tencent team has used its initiative to build its own catalogue of precedents for use by companies in which it has invested.
“One of the problems we ran into in China was that there weren’t good off-the-shelf solutions for case management in Chinese,” Mr Irvin says. “So we ended up writing our own and licensing them to our investees.”
The team have also used WeChat to try to overhaul the way citizens interact with China’s court system by enabling users to pay court fees, file documents and check the status of their cases. In future, the messaging app’s video functions could even be used to take testimony from out of town witnesses, he says.
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