In this interview with Asia Law Portal, Kert Stavorn, Founder of Siam Legal Tech Center, explains the current state of legal tech and innovation in Thailand, including what inspired the founding of the Siam Legal Tech Center and its’ mission, what the Siam Legal Alliance Blockchain Portal is and its recent launch at the World Justice Forum at The Hague, what inspired him to focus on legal tech and startups, his background as a lawyer with Interchange Legal and his thoughts on legal blogging as a regular blogger at Jungle Technologist.
What is Siam Legal Tech Center?
Siam Legal Tech Center was designed as a place for legal tech startups, lawyers and technologists in Thailand to come together and engage with each other. It is for anyone who is interested in exploring how technology can be used to better deliver law to its end users. It is also a place where we help aspiring startups become market and investor ready through a number of tailored programs created specifically for this purpose. We bring together early-state investors from around the world and match them with suitable startups with strong potential in Thailand and ASEAN as a whole. Our focus is on platform, blockchain and AI technologies although our underlying vision is to create local community-based sustainable technology solutions based on empowerment. I believe that at the heart of technological innovation is the desire to create fairer systems for everyone and not just the privileged few. The internet revolution, for example, wanted to create a world where everyone has the same access to information as any other person. That was, in essence, what it had set out to achieve to relative success.
We believe that the next wave in technological evolution, that is, the group of technologies commonly termed as Industry 4.0, has the very same desire. However, it is up to us as the stewards of this new technology to ensure that it is able to achieve its full purpose and serve humanity in its truest form. That is what we try to achieve here at Siam Legal Tech Center as we try to play a small part in the direction and governance of this technological revolution. Aside from the tech side of things, we also encourage discussions on the economics and the underlying ethics of this technology. At the same time, we recognize that startups still need to work within the framework of existing classical capitalism so it is up to us to find gradual and moderate strategies as a bridge for achieving this new paradigm.
Since our inception, our center has also evolved and now also mentor startups from a number of other areas including fintech and agtech. We have expanded from not just finding solutions for greater access to justice but also to address issues surrounding financial inclusion or economic justice as well as food justice with our work on agtech. We found that a lot of the issues legal tech startups try to address also incorporate issues that arise from both economic justice and food justice matters as well.
What is the current state of legal innovation in Thailand?
I would say the mood is optimistic here in Thailand when it comes to legal innovation. There is a growing appetite for technological innovations in the way law is delivered. The majority of this growth is fueled by the in-house counsel and legal operations sector. Law firms in general have not been as open in embracing new solutions compared to other countries where we see them establishing their own tech divisions or partnering with startups and so on. We don’t really see the big firms here doing that yet. The reluctance, I imagine, comes from the fact that the regulatory body is also somewhat quiet in the whole innovation space in general. By comparison, I have participated in quite a few legal hackathons around the world where the regulatory bodies not only support the idea but actually sponsor the events themselves. So I think this lack of formal patronage might be an issue.
Having said that, I believe the innovations within the private sector led by both lawyers and technologists alike are thriving. I think for many of us, myself included, who have worked in the legal industry here for many years have realized that the system itself is inefficient. This together with the further realization that we finally have access to the technologies that could potentially address those inefficiencies is giving rise to this growing movement within the industry. The growing advancement in AI and NLP will be an interesting space to watch as this has obviously been the most sensitive issue for the traditional legal industry. It has certainly been the same experience here in Thailand but it’s still great to see several startups working in this area that is Thai specific.
What is the Siam Legal Alliance Blockchain Portal?
Our Blockchain Portal is perhaps one of our most ambitious projects here at the center. We hope to create something that is more than just another Uber for lawyers. Since 2015, I’ve been somewhat taken by the potential benefits of the blockchain. The idea of decentralization appealed to me greatly. Even though the blockchain has the potential to eliminate the role of the traditional lawyer, as openly espoused by Vitalik Buterin, we believe there is a way to incorporate the service of law within a blockchain platform that is both fairer and more transparent. I’ve been involved with the LegalBlock community for some years and I’ve always found their passion for a decentralized legal world truly inspiring and that has in many ways influenced the direction of this project. Despite some of the earlier problems, we were quite excited with the idea of DAOs or Decentralized Autonomous Organizations. We believe DAOs could replace many of the inefficient and highly veiled corporate entities that we see today. We thought how interesting it might be to replicate a traditional law organization within a blockchain framework. Utilizing platform technologies, it would operate as a traditional law firm with the usual career progressions, mentoring, senior supervision and profit-sharing mechanisms. All of this would be done without the high overheads or fancy city offices.
The basic premise of the project is that accredited lawyers from all over Thailand can work on this platform doing work that is suitable to their expertise and experience. We are currently experimenting with an accreditation system on the blockchain for the lawyers. They can be anywhere in the country without having to move to the capital city in order to join a big firm. This decentralization of the delivery of legal services will also help in alleviating the problems caused by mass urbanization and the displacement of families as they move to big cities. The centralization of lawyers towards big cities has also caused unequal access to justice in provincial areas around the country as there are just not enough lawyers and community leaders there to address local issues. If technology can offer an alternative to the status quo, then this is something we would like to explore and validate.
You launched the Siam Legal Alliance Blockchain Portal at the recent World Justice Forum at The Hague. How was that experience?
It was definitely a very humbling experience to be amongst the world’s most prominent exponents of access to justice issues. Seeing so many talented and passionate individuals working tirelessly for the advancement of access to justice all over the world validates much of the work we are trying to do here at the center. There is a realization among us in the industry that technology just might be the solution for creating fairer delivery of justice to the disenfranchised communities all around the world. We were indeed very grateful to have been invited to showcase our blockchain project to the policy makers at the international level and hopefully our project sparked some interest in the movement towards greater equality to legal justice, particularly in our region. As Richard Susskind very recently pointed out, there are more people in the world now that have access to the internet than access to justice. I feel that is a very poignant fact to keep in mind when we design our next generation of legal tech solutions.
Your law practice at Interchange Legal Co. Ltd. focuses on Blockchain and Technology. Tell us more about your practice focus and how you help clients in these areas
Interchange Legal can be seen as encompassing two business verticals. The first is the traditional law practice where we provide legal services to clients. Our focus here is on startups and technology industries in general or what was traditionally known as the TMT sector. We have branded ourselves as a “New Law” firm which is the practice of utilizing technology to provide a more cost-efficient delivery of law to our end users. We also work on fixed fee basis having taken out the traditional hourly billable system so prevalent in the big law firms of past decades. This means we take a more holistic approach which seems to be more in line with the startup mindset.
The other work that we do is in legal technology consultation. We advise in house counsels and legal operation departments on how to apply technology in order to improve their legal processes. As lawyers engaged by in house counsels, we found that there was a niche in this segment in Thailand with many companies willing to embrace technology but do not necessarily know what is best suited for their business. We help create digital strategies for them and tailor bespoke technological solutions for the practice whether it be contract automation, contract review, contract cycle management, research automation or anything else in between. We have tied up with several legal tech operators locally and from around the world to provide the best solution possible.
What inspired you to focus on legal technology and startups in Thailand?
I had heard about bitcoin for some years in the media and from friends here and there but it wasn’t until around 2015 that I happened to actually read the white paper on Bitcoin itself and its underlying blockchain technology. In reading it, I realized that economics, social relations, politics, governance and pretty much humanity itself could very well be at the cusp of something revolutionary. It had that much of an impact on me. It gave me a vision of an alternate reality, one that had never really crossed my mind up until that point. The idea of creating a decentralized and trustless protocols seemed to make a lot of sense especially having been involved in highly contentious legal matters where ‘trust’ was invariably the cause of the dispute. To me, the idea of smart contracts and DAOs makes perfect sense. I also feel the idea of having online courts and blockchain jury mechanisms like Kleros is a very logical progression as we evolve the future of legal practice. This evolution is most likely inevitable and I want to play my small part in nurturing the next generation of legal tech innovators and startups. Having being involved in my own startup some years back, pivoting my attention towards other legal tech startups was probably quite a logical development in any case. Today my interest has expanded more towards NLP and AI but my core inspiration has always been the blockchain and the online platform technologies.
You blog at Jungle Technologist. What are your thoughts about blogging for lawyers and legal startups?
Blogging is such a wonderful medium for us today to share our experiences with the rest of the world. As well as platforms like Slack, I have found pretty much all of my collaborators and partners through my blogs as you can get to know someone so much better through their blogging. It allows a very authentic form of communication to take place and it allows bloggers to show many facets of their lives, not just in regards to their career. We get to see their vision and their passion and because it is authentic, it often motivates me to carry on with my own goals. I believe it is imperative for every co-founder to blog as people are investing in their vision as much as their technology or company.