Andrew Wong specializes in legal innovation initiatives for Dentons Rodyk. Based in Singapore, he sits on the steering committee of the Asia-Pacific Legal Innovation and Technology Association (ALITA) and is an editor at LawTech.Asia. In this interview with Asia Law Portal, he describes his legal innovation journey and his extensive experience in championing legal innovation regionally. He also provides his unique insights into what might be in store for legal innovation in the Asia-Pacific region and globally.
What led you to a career in legal innovation?
After graduating from the University of Bristol in what seems like a lifetime ago, I went the traditional route of getting called to the Singapore bar and practising as a lawyer. Back then, legal innovation and technology was considered relatively nascent. Looking back, a confluence of factors led me to consider the transition and eventually take the leap of faith – the burgeoning rise of technology within the legal industry, coupled with a personal interest in technology and how it could shape the future of the industry.
Having worked in outfits of different sizes, I have seen first-hand how technology can make a significant difference in the way we work. This piqued my curiosity and naturally I was also concerned about how the future of the industry might look like. Delving through various forms of content, such as Richard Susskind’s seminal work in “Tomorrow’s Lawyers”, provided perspective on the changing shape of legal practice and how it will continue to change in the next decade.
In the backdrop, I also took notice of how the key legal industry stakeholders made strategic moves towards the headwinds that the legal industry faced. The Singapore Judiciary and Singapore Academy of Law had taken firm strides with strategic initiatives in setting up of committees and taskforces to harness technology to benefit the industry. These eventually crystalised into key documents such as the Legal Technology Vision 2017, which presented the Academy’s vision for the adoption of legal technology and the incubation of a legal tech scene in Singapore, and set out a developmental road map for the digital transformation of the legal sector over a five-year horizon.
What does innovation mean to you?
Innovation is not just doing something new or in a different way, but doing something in a better way that delivers impact and adds value.
You specialize in legal innovation for a major international law firm. Where are most firms of this size and stature in their innovation journey?
Most major international law firms have achieved a certain level of maturity in their innovation journey. Going further from simply having dedicated resources, firms now have in-house development capabilities, legal operations departments, incubators and accelerators. Many have also explored initiatives such as establishing graduate programmes at the intersection of law and technology.
As businesses, the size and stature of major international law firms bring about significant opportunities. Besides the ability to leverage economies of scale, this also translates to cross-border knowledge-sharing and collaboration. It also allows firms to take a multidisciplinary approach, which is increasingly important given that the law does not operate in a vacuum. The legal industry is a services industry with advisory at the focal point, and increasingly the advisory role extends to non-legal domains adjacent to the practice of law.
For example, in June this year, Dentons launched Dentons Global Advisors, an independent strategic advisory firm that offers integrated counsel and support for clients facing complex challenges spanning legal, reputational, financial, regulatory, and governance dimensions. By expanding its service offering beyond legal advice, this partnership is a significant step towards Dentons’ vision of providing holistic business solutions for clients.
You’ve been involved in APAC regional initiatives related to legal innovation. Tell us about this.
With the ubiquity of technology, today’s world is vastly interconnected. As a region, APAC would greatly benefit from having a platform to coordinate and consolidate legal innovation and technology initiatives, as well as to drive collaboration and advance thought leadership in these domains. For these reasons, the Asia-Pacific Legal Innovation and Technology Association (ALITA) was founded. ALITA’s signature initiatives thus far include the State of Legal Innovation in the Asia-Pacific (SOLIA) Report, its first-in-Asia Legal Innovation Strategy Toolkit, and its first-in-the-world Legal Technology Observatory.
In July this year, we established the ALITA SOLIA Awards 2021 – an APAC-centric set of legal innovation and technology awards that will be recognised as high-quality, ethical, inclusive, community-based, and tied to the long-term growth of the legal technology industry. Registration has just closed, but do keep a look out for the finals at TechLaw.Fest 2021 in late September!
Are there any issues which you would say are unique to legal innovation in the Asia-Pacific region? Or is legal innovation – the challenges and opportunities – mostly the same everywhere?
Asia-Pacific is large and includes many different regions of varying scales of economy as well as innovation maturity. When collaborating across regions and time zones, there are certain intricacies that stand out, such as different languages and cultures. While cultural diversity cannot be emphasised enough, diversity could present opportunities in innovation as well. For instance, a diverse team will likely have a greater variety of perspectives, which intrinsically helps to avoid the risks of an echo chamber or groupthink.
In terms of challenges, resistance to change is a common thread that I would say has been generally shifting even before the pandemic. Whilst the pandemic has played a huge role in overcoming inertia, it has mostly accelerated the plans of forward-thinking organisations as opposed to radical change.
Generally, opportunities in legal innovation can be seen in more of a spectrum – different opportunities present themselves depending on how mature a region is. This could refer to their readiness for adoption, or simply even the readiness of their infrastructure. The more complex or advanced a legal innovation, the more is required, especially when we think about sustainability and maintenance down the line.
One common theme in terms of opportunity across the globe is the application of innovation in enhancing access to justice (A2J). I was fortunate to have had the chance to judge the recently concluded SMU LIT Hackathon, organised by the Legal Innovation & Technology (LIT) club from Singapore Management University. Whilst the problem statements featured various issues in law, business and the community, it was inspiring and heartening to see the next generation shining the spotlight on A2J issues, with the majority of teams choosing to work on A2J problem statements.
What area of legal innovation is the most promising for the future of legal services?
I wish I could gaze into a crystal ball and give a firm stance on this! While we could look at reference materials, such as the gartner hype curve for legal tech for instance, I would like to frame this in a different way.
When we talk about innovation, we talk about people, process and technology. The technology is already here – it may require some iteration here and there, but by and large, the baseline technology is ready. I would say that the trick lies in getting the people on board, cultivating that open mindset towards innovation, formulating and streamlining the processes. These are areas that are ‘most promising’ if we are to optimise legal innovation. This applies not only to law firms but also to corporate legal departments, and public sector bodies. I would go even further to say that this also applies to other industries as well.