Jennifer Lim Wei Zhen is among the most active legal innovators in the Asia-Pacific region.
Bilingual in English and Mandarin, Jennifer has worked at various leading law firms and was listed in Asia Law Portal’s Top 30 in the business of law to watch in 2019. Passionate about law and technology, she co-founded LawTech.Asia and eTPL.Asia. She also sits on the founding steering committee of ALITA; and is a chapter organiser for Legal Hackers Singapore. She is part of the faculty at the Legal Innovation & Technology Institute and is regularly invited to speak on issues relating to technology and innovation such as the role of lawyers in light of technology, AI & Ethics, ODR, NFTs, etc.
In this interview with Asia Law Portal, Jennifer details her views on Singapore’s present and future role as a legal innovation hub – and what inspired her to be an integral part of this ecosystem.
You’re a practicing attorney and have been very active in legal technology innovation initiatives. What inspired this dual focus?
I see law and tech as tools to solve problems that plague the world we live in.
As lawyers, we design solutions. We structure transactions, hold people and corporations to their bargains and agreements, seek redress for our clients, provide spouses a way out of disintegrating abusive relationships, etc. Law fascinates me as it does not just respond to changes in our world. It shapes change through statutes, policies, and precedents. I experienced the power of advocacy in championing causes and negotiating outcomes for our clients.
Yet, I learnt that problems did not always require legal solutions, and have always been interested in using technology to create pathways to justice.
Growing up designing websites and dabbling with HTML, I saw the power of tech to design solutions. I dreamt of a world where law and technology can be married to facilitate greater access to justice and financial inclusion.
My first foray into tech and innovation was in law school when I used basic python to analyse trends in past legal decisions. Later, I watched first-hand how tech can be used to innovate solutions when interning at legal tech and FinTech start-ups. I was inspired by the power of tech to design solutions and change things.
Inspired, I wanted to bring together those interested in law and technology. Together with like-minded friends, I spearheaded initiatives to educate the public about issues at the intersection of law and technology, including the Computational Law & Blockchain Festival, Legal Hackers Asia-Pacific Summit, etc. I co-founded LawTech.Asia, the Asia-Pacific Legal Innovation & Technology Association, and eTPL.Asia (an award recipient of Facebook’s Grant to research on Operationalising Information Fiduciaries for AI Governance”).
Technology gives me hope for a day where access to justice and financial inclusion are a reality. Applications like DoNotPay show us how technology can be harnessed to solve legal problems such as increasing access to justice. A “robot lawyer”, DoNotPay provides asylum seekers with free legal aid. It is an early pioneer in using tech to bring access to justice to the masses, putting power to obtain justice in the hands of people. It made me realize that tech is the closest we can get to magic: With a push of a button, one can design a solution to solve a problem. With every click and every swipe, we can access a universe of solutions that solve our everyday problems.
I believe that when we combine the magic of tech with the force of law, we can remake the world we live in.
Is Singapore a uniquely inspirational locale for those interested in legal innovation?
Singapore is uniquely inspirational because of the strong governmental support, public sector-led implementation, and industry partnerships. They have been instrumental to Singapore’s success as South-East Asia’s largest legal tech ecosystem, with 25 legal technology firms as of July 2019.
Strong Government Support
Singapore has a government that leads with a clear legal tech vision. This vision was espoused in the Legal Technology Vision 2017 and Legal Industry Technology and Innovation Roadmap 2020.
To facilitate Legal Tech adoption, the government has been quite generous in supporting firms in their Legal Tech endeavours. For instance, the Government invested S$2.8 million in the 2017 Tech Start for Law programme where 115 law practices were funded for up to 70% of their first-year implementation cost.
Apart from grants, the government also supports legal innovation and initiatives through accelerators. In 2019, the government launched a legal technology accelerator, Global Legal Innovation & Digital Entrepreneurship which helped local and international legal tech start-ups to scale; and facilitated co-creation of legal innovation in artificial intelligence, blockchain, and advanced analytics.
Besides spurring legal innovation in the present via grants and accelerators, the government is also focused on setting the foundation for future innovation. S$15 million has been invested in a five-year research programme with SMU’s Centre for Computational Law. The research aims to develop a “domain-specific language” for drafting laws and contracts. If adopted by the industry, this will increase the efficiency of Singapore’s legal and regulatory services.
Public Sector-led Implementation
The public sector leads by example in the implementation of legal tech, such as the Courts’ early adoption of eLitigation where mandatory electronic filing of court documents provides law firms and court users a single access point for management of case files throughout the litigation process.
Another example which has a widespread impact is the Authentic Court Orders portal which allows one to directly verify (at no cost) the authenticity of a court order by scanning the QR code on the court orders or by keying in the reference number, instead of asking the person who produces it for a certified hard copy. This has saved not only money but time, several days at least.
Singapore is also unique in that we do not just have government-led accelerators or grants, but also a unique collaborative spirit of innovation that permeates every stakeholder, which is evidenced through the partnerships between law firms and Legal Tech companies, clients, and educational institutions.
For example, Linklaters worked with the International Swaps and Derivatives Association (“ISDA”) to develop and launch ISDA Create, an online solution that automates the process of producing derivatives documentation.
Much progress has been in legal innovation in recent years. But where should we be going next?
There are two aspects to legal innovation – (1) innovating the process for delivering legal services (“Process Innovation”); and (2) innovating the type of products/service (“Product Innovation”).
It is the latter that requires even more innovation, in terms of the range of products/services and the adoption of these products/services. As for the former, while there has been much innovation, areas for growth include (1) a more wide-spread adoption of these new tech-enabled processes; and (2) making such innovation more accessible and disability-friendly.
There has been much innovation in the processes for delivering legal services: from AI-enabled legal research to automated contract review, e-discovery, virtual trial platforms, etc. For instance, INTELLLEX has developed a smarter way to conduct legal research, by allowing users to type the questions on their minds (e.g., “Is raising funds via digital token regulated?”) as opposed to the traditional keyword-based search (e.g., “token” AND “regulation” AND “fund-raising”).
Collaboration between law firms and legal tech companies is important in ensuring that the product is fit for purpose. For instance, Clifford Chance Singapore collaborated with INTELLLEX to pilot a new system that automates categorisation and retrieval of documents based on context (i.e., not just keyword searches).
While it is laudable that there has been some industry collaboration for legal tech adoption, what is lacking is more of such partnerships and wide-spread adoption of these new technologies. Currently, apart from the Big Four law firms and international firms, Jacque Law, Oon & Bazul, Aquinas Law Alliance and OTP Law Corporation are some of the other adopters. In a 2018 LawSoc-commissioned survey, even though more than 80% of Singapore law firms agreed that technology helps the delivery of legal services, only 12% have adopted technology solutions to date.
Another area for growth would be to make such innovation more accessible and disability-friendly. More could follow in LexisNexis’s footsteps in making their solutions inclusive and accessible, for example, for the visually impaired.
This is an area that requires even more innovation in terms of adoption of existing innovations such as smart contracts and online dispute resolution.
There is potential for industry transformation if there were greater main-stream adoption. For example, Contour, Marco Polo, and others have developed electronic bills of lading (“eBL”), blockchain-based smart contracts which have revolutionized the shipping sector. eBL has reduced the entire execution of Letters of Credit to 24 hours, down from 5-10 days via the paper-based process. If smart contracts were also transposed to other sectors (e.g., the construction sector), their use would have knock-on effects in transforming industries such as the financial sector as some of these smart contracts could be the basis for the granting of credit facilities.
Another case in point would be online dispute resolution (“ODR”) which provides consenting disputants an out of court forum to resolve their disputes. For instance, if there was a dispute between a web designer in China and his client in London on the quality of the website delivered, the disputants could refer their disputes for resolution via Kleros, which allow disputants to resolve their differences via peer-to-peer decentralized arbitration. Peers such as web designers and small business owners in other jurisdictions can be selected as “arbitrators” to decide on (1) whether the quality was subpar; and (2) the amount to be paid to the web designer. This process saves on hefty legal fees incurred from taking out cross-jurisdictional suits to recover small sums. More should consider including ODR clauses in their agreements especially if they are smaller in contract value.
What’s your advice to those aspiring to a career in legal innovation and/or law practice?
1. Start early.
2. Take relevant courses and modules, including design thinking, law in AI, IT law, etc.
3. Expose yourself to all the legal tech available, request for product demos and trials so that you understand how you can practice better and make practice better.
4. Get a variety of hands-on experience through internships at law firms, the government, start-ups, and NGOs. Use this opportunity to explore different roles and find your interest.
5. Find a community where you can grow.
a. Join hackathons and meet-ups: for you will meet people of diverse backgrounds whether they be people practising different areas of law, coders, policy makers, etc. Pre-covid, Legal Hackers Singapore used to organize bimonthly meetups over food, but these are now virtual.
b. Join mentorship programmes. LawTech.Asia has an associate author programme where law students are paired with industry reviewers to write on a topic of interest. The Legal Forecast (“TLF”) also organizes mentorship programme called TLF Connect which connects students with leaders in legal innovation across the United States, Canada, Australia, and Singapore.
6. Know the type of role you wish to play. There are two ways to view how you wish to be involved in this exciting intersection of law and technology. Do you want to be involved in the law of tech or the tech of law?
a. Law of Tech
If it’s the former, think about which area of law you would like to practice, and from which capacity – a practising lawyer, in-house counsel, or policy maker.
- As a practising lawyer or in-house counsel, think about how you can redesign your individual and team’s workflow and processes. For example, if as an in-house counsel you realize that there are certain contracts that are repeated and used time and again, you may wish to consider working with your various business units to use automated contract generators tailored to your business needs, counter parties, and last negotiated positions. You should also think about the type of legal services you can offer. A good example would be how eBay led the way for e-commerce platforms to offer customers online dispute resolution as an option to resolve their disputes with sellers when previously they could only seek redress in court.
- As a policy maker, think beyond fixing pain points and inefficiencies. Redefine traditional paradigms. Think about safeguards such as ethics & governance, as well as how regulations would have to be modified to cater for new developments, such as the rise of alternative legal service providers, wills generators, etc. Think about how new technology could transform the legal industry and how policies could best support this transformation.
b. Tech of Law
If you want to be involved in the tech of law, consider which role you wish to play: a product designer who design solutions for the legal fraternity, a software engineer who builds the solution, or the lawyer who adopts the legal tech solution, etc.
- If you are a product designer or software engineer or working at a legal tech, understand the workflow and their pain points to identify which aspects can be redesigned or taken care of through your solution. Do not just think how your solution resolves a pain point, but think about how it is being integrated in the user workflow. For example, your solution may address a pain point but if it runs on a separate platform that is not integrated with existing systems that the user uses on daily basis, there may be inertia on the user’s part to use your product.
- For practising lawyers, you need to know what kind of tasks can be more efficiently done with legal tech, advocate for its adoption if the cost benefit analysis is positive, and develop a legal tech strategy for your firm.
Whichever path you wish to explore, this quote from Alice in Wonderland is an apt reminder that even if we do not know the way, we will get somewhere as long as we take the first step forward.
Alice: “Would you tell me, please, which way I ought to go from here?”
The Cheshire Cat: “That depends a good deal on where you want to get to.”
Alice: “I don’t much care where.”
The Cheshire Cat: “Then it doesn’t much matter which way you go.”
Alice: “…so long as I get somewhere.”
The Cheshire Cat: “Oh, you’re sure to do that, if only you walk long enough.”
I am excited to see how your legal innovation journeys will look like and how they will change our world.