Josh Lee Kok Thong is Chairperson of the Asia Pacific Legal Innovation and Technology Association (ALITA). In this interview with Asia Law Portal, he provides his unique insights into the current state of legal innovation in Singapore and what’s in store for the future.
Based in Singapore, you’re currently deeply involved in the world of legal innovation and technology as an active leader in LawTech.Asia, and the Asia-Pacific Legal Innovation & Technology Association (ALITA). What are the driving focuses of each of these organizations and how are you involved in each?
My generation’s time is one that is defined by the inexorable march of technology. I see lawyers and policymakers as playing the role of architects to shape new societal relationships forged by technology, and address some of the biggest challenges facing societies. For instance, how can regulations be used to shape ethically-designed autonomous systems? How can we improve access to justice through technology? And how can benevolently-designed policies combine technology and positive human behaviour to address climate change, or explore new frontiers in space?
It is for this reason that the Asia-Pacific Legal Innovation and Technology Association (ALITA) was founded. Given the space for greater collaboration in legal innovation in the region, ALITA is a regional platform for coordinating legal innovation amongst the Asia-Pacific nations, with the goal of improving access to justice. We are working with our members to co-create solutions to enhance legal innovation in the region, such as through ALITALivestream (a legal technology live-streaming platform) and the State of Legal Innovation in the Asia Pacific Report. We are advised by a Judge of Singapore’s Supreme Court, and other thought leaders in the field. We also count international companies such as Lazada, Grab, Clifford Chance, Dentons Rodyk, and White & Case among our founding members.
We should also inspire the next generation, and allow young thinkers to generate thought leadership for our future. To that end, I helped to co-found LawTech.Asia (https://lawtech.asia). LawTech.Asia is a virtual publication that drives thought leadership in law and technology in Asia. The aim is to inspire and excite young lawyers and policymakers to lead thinking in the frontiers of law and technology. For our efforts, the Singapore Academy of Law, a public body focused on pushing the frontiers of law in Singapore, adopted us as their strategic partner in 2019.
We have seen instances in the past where the onset of a new technological paradigm, coupled with a well-connected but volatile world, have led to major societal upheavals.
The Industrial Revolution in the 19th century and the decades of upheaval that followed show us the risks that today’s technological disruption and uncertainty bring. These must be addressed with logic, foresightedness and inclusiveness. Lawyers and policymakers are on the frontline of that change – and it is through platforms like ALITA and LawTech.Asia can we ensure that the world delivers a coordinated and considered response to the questions that face us today.
You formerly practiced law in Singapore. What led you to move into a legal innovation and technology focus within the law? How has your background in legal practice helped you in your involvement in legal technology and innovation?
Three elements came together to inspire me to advance my understanding of legal innovation and technology.
Before graduating from law school, I started becoming more concerned about the future of being a lawyer in the legal industry. This led me to question how legal practice would be disrupted by major trends, like technology. While attending a conference on the future of lawyering, I met a group of fellow law students who were part of Legal Hackers Singapore. This became my first foray into legal innovation and technology.
Then, as a practicing lawyer working long nights on emails, affidavits, documents, and discovery applications, I realised two things: First, had the firm’s partners been more savvy and willing to consider better automation, much of the drudge work could have been avoided and young lawyers could hone their skills on higher-value work. Second, I began to wonder about the larger picture outside of legal work – such as macro trends and disruptive forces, that would require policy decisions and interventions. In short, I began to think more like a futurist, and how my legal education could help in that. This gave the impetus for initiating LawTech.Asia.
After legal practice, I worked as an Assistant Director for Legal Policy in Singapore’s Ministry of Law. This stint gave me practical and in-depth insight into policy-making, and the considerations that impact decision-making at the national level. I was also able to consider more deeply the legal, policy, societal, ethical and legal liability issues of emerging technologies like artificial intelligence.
To answer the second question more directly, my legal background helped me in three ways. First, it exposed me to legal practice and made me more conscious of how technology could help lawyers. Second, it opened my eyes to the legal and policy aspects of the legal industry – making me more cognisant of the context that legal work exists in and the myriad of considerations that go into effecting change in society. Third, it supplied analytical rigour, which disciplined me to think more structurally and concretely on any issue (such as discerning trends and forecasting their impact).
Singapore has distinguished itself as perhaps the most important legal innovation hub in Asia. How would you describe the current Singapore legal innovation landscape and where is it headed in the future? What bridges are being built between Singapore and the rest of world’s legal innovation leaders?
Legal practice, like many other industries, is undergoing a digitalisation revolution. Particularly in the past five years, there has been a significant number of legal tech activities in Singapore. With the promise of advocating better understanding and easier application of law, legal tech has become a growing force that is hard for legal practitioners to ignore and critical for Singapore’s legal system to embrace.
While it is difficult to pinpoint a precise moment when Singapore’s legal tech revolution began, one of the first technologies which was adopted and continues to be in use today is the Electronic Filing System (or known today as “e-Litigation”), a fully-electronic court registry.
The role of public institutions and the Judiciary on legal tech in Singapore
In more recent times, the Ministry of Law and the Judiciary have signalled efforts to assess technology’s impact on future legal services. This led to the formation of a Courts of the Future Taskforce, which will study and provide recommendations on the approach for adopting technology in Singapore’s court work.
Since 2017, the emphasis also took on the form of active support for technology adoption – as can be seen from events such as the unveiling of the Singapore Academy of Law’s Legal Technology Vision, as well as initiatives like Future Law Innovation Programme (FLIP), Tech Start for Law and Tech-celerate for Law.
Law firms are enthusiastic about legal tech
Law firms have also begun adopting legal tech in a big way. For instance, at least two large local law firms adopted Luminance, an AI-powered M&A document review tool, in 2017. In addition, Rajah & Tann LLP, a large local legal firm, set up Rajah & Tann Technologies to offer tech-enabled legal solutions like electronic discovery and cybersecurity services. International law firms such as Clifford Chance’s Create+65 and Allen & Overy’s Fuse, have also set up innovation labs and incubators here.
A growing legal tech ecosystem
Seeing the potential of a digitalised legal sector, not only have homegrown legal tech firms – such as INTELLLEX, Asia Law Network, Tessaract.io, Pactly, Lex Quanta and Legalese – sprung up, overseas legal tech firms like Zegal and 1Law have also established footprints here.
At the community level, interest groups such as Legal Hackers Singapore, SMU’s Legal Innovation and Technology Club and NUS’ alt+law have emerged. Organisations like LawTech.Asia are also making strides in documenting and driving local thought leadership in law and technology for the regional audience while others like the Asia-Pacific Legal Innovation and Technology Association (ALITA) promote regional legal tech development, use, thought leadership and education. Notably, ALITA is also proactively facilitating regional cross-border legal innovation and technology collaborations, and knowledge sharing.
Legal Tech, Singapore – An exciting story with more chapters to be written
Consequently, the rise in legal tech on these various fronts has resulted in a watershed transformation in our legal practice – leading us into the age of digitalised law. However, rather than seeing the digitalisation of law as a disruptive force, we should see it as an enabling one: where legal professionals are enabled to do more with less, transform business models, and most importantly, ensure access to justice for all.
What are the most important and ground-breaking initiatives in legal innovation and technology that you see currently in process in Singapore?
There are a number of initiatives underway in Singapore that are likely to play a significant role in legal innovation and technology. It would not be possible to name all of them in these pages, but let me summarise the broad, foundation-level initiatives that will be affecting all parts of the legal tech and legal sectors in Singapore.
First, the new State Courts Towers. It may seem strange to identify a newly-opened building as a legal tech initiative, but it is more of what the building stands for than what it actually is. The opening of the new State Courts Towers signifies a significant leap in capability and thinking of the State Courts – an institution that is now taking an even greater pride of place in our legal system. The State Courts, under the Courts of The Future initiative, is digitalising itself significantly. Increasingly, online dispute resolution is being used as a means of initiating and hearing cases, such as in the Small Claims Tribunal and the Employment Claims Tribunals. There is also a co-working space that will be established in the State Courts Towers to allow lawyers and members of the public to collaboratively create legal tech solutions focused on access to justice. These initiatives by the State Courts and the Judiciary highlight the importance of the public sector as a driver and catalyst for legal innovation and technology in Singapore – a unique context here that distinguishes us from many other jurisdictions.
Second, legislation review. In June 2019, the Infocomm Media Development Authority of Singapore issued a Consultation Paper on the Electronic Transactions Act (ETA). When enacted in 1998, the ETA aimed to provide a supportive legal foundation and business rules that provide predictability and certainty to facilitate electronic transactions in Singapore. In the latest Consultation Paper, various suggestions that were raised included enabling more transactions to be covered under the ETA, and facilitating the use of emerging technologies, such as distributed ledger technologies (the underlying technology behind blockchain). As identified by LawTech.Asia, such efforts to keep the development of Singapore’s laws on an even pace with the rate of technological advancement will have a positive influence on Singapore’s legal tech market, by allowing new technologies the space to grow and develop locally.
Third, regional coordination of legal technology. The birth of ALITA means opening the doors to legal technology trends and initiatives from the region to Singapore, and vice versa. This will create opportunities for collaboration between local legal tech companies and law firms to overseas entities. Considering the immense potential for legal technology in the region, this is the start of the creation of a regional consciousness about legal innovation and technology.
What has been the overall reception to legal innovation and technology by Singapore’s practicing lawyers?
The legal profession has shown immense interest in legal technology. According to a survey conducted by the Ministry of Law and the Law Society of Singapore in 2018, 95% of decision-makers in law firms saw legal technology as an opportunity to legal practice. 3-in-4 decision-makers also believed that they needed to increase the level of technology adoption in their law firms. 88% of senior lawyers also see technology as being able to help improve the delivery of legal services. This debunks the general notion that only young lawyers are interested in technology.
The picture is not all rosy, however. At the same time, 73% also saw legal tech as a potential challenge to legal practice. Law firms also see a myriad of challenges against their efforts to adopt legal technologies, including having limited budgets, concerns over upkeep costs, deciding on which tools to invest and deciding on the level of investment in technology solutions.
The general picture one can take away is that there is immense and realisable potential for legal technology in Singapore. Nevertheless, Singaporean lawyers are still at an early stage of legal tech adoption, and can do more to harness its benefits. In turn, this requires education – to educate lawyers to better appreciate the benefits of legal technology and its potential returns on investment, and the implications of not addressing change. At the same time, it is important that the market for legal technology expands, with new vendors and developers needed to provide better competition, options and customised choices for different kinds of law firms and a broader spectrum of legal work.
As a prolific writer for LawTech.Asia – what has been your experience of writing about legal technology and innovation in Asia?
It has been a surreal and life-changing experience. When LawTech.Asia first began, I had to force myself to write. Writing as a working professional is not an easy task – one has to do proper research, think extensively, write cogently, and be prepared to stand up and justify one’s views – all while handling one’s daily work. But this process allowed me to absorb much more about legal technology than if I were just another passive observer.
Another takeaway is that there are many facets to legal technology. While many might think that legal technology is just about the application of technology in legal work, it is in fact so much broader. As a subset of legal innovation, legal technology is about mindsets and about changing ways of working. At a global level, it is about seeing macro trends at work, and understanding how the contexts of each jurisdiction affect their perspective on and desire for change. At an operational level, it is also about the programmes and initiatives needed to support lawyers to take up legal technology. This is similar to policy work, where one needs to be able to take a helicopter view of multiple issues. And it is exciting that this is a nascent and evolving sector, which gives me a ringside seat to the momentous changes happening to the legal sector.