With all the talk of “legal innovation,” it’s remarkably difficult to overcome institutional stasis within a legal organization, regulatory body, law firm, corporate legal department, or law school. The principal reason is the cultural collision between the stakeholder/beneficiaries of law’s decaying guild and the diverse, digital, collaborative, interdisciplinary emerging global legal marketplace. The tension between the two creates headwinds for innovators and additional runway for legacy stakeholders.
Imagine if an entire nation were to fashion a plan for innovation, earmarking the legal industry as a key element of its integrated, multidisciplinary plan? That’s precisely what’s happening in Singapore. The Singapore Government has targeted law as part of a wider initiative to drive innovation and to position the tiny nation-state as a regional and global legal hub.
Singapore Punches Above Its Weight Because It Thinks Strategically, Acts Collaboratively, and Executes Assiduously
Singapore is known for punching above its weight. It is a nerve center for banking, commerce, and financial technology, drawing “the best and the brightest” from around the globe. How does a country with a population the size of Wisconsin pull that off? Short answer: it creates a strategic plan for the nation’s economic transformation in the digital age. It identifies service industries that are aligned with its existing strengths and crafts a plan that targets them in the broader strategic plan. That’s what was done for law and accounting. Singapore views the future global economy from a holistic perspective, not a narrow one. Its strategic plan recognizes that in the digital age, traditional boundaries separating professions, industries, and borders are not the barriers they once were. It is from this integrated, global, tech and process-driven, knowledge-based perspective that Singapore views—and is reshaping—its legal community. The impact of this effort will extend well beyond Singapore and the region.
Plans are easier to create than to implement. That’s the other ingredient of Singapore’s remarkable success—its ability to execute. Singapore’s strategic vision, public-private partnerships, small size and global reputation for excellence enable it to draw on talent, access capital and embrace digital transformation in a nimble, expansive, and uniquely pragmatic way. Its limited domestic resources early in its post-independence has spawned a “can do” mindset– to make the most of what it has by coalescing and executing rapidly and effectively. That is what’s unfolding in Singapore’s nascent efforts to establish itself as a regional and global beacon for legal services.
A Quick Introduction to Some of the Players
Singapore is a Republic with a parliamentary system of Government. Its legal system can be traced back to the British. Its sources of law are derived from the Constitution, legislation, Rules and Regulations, and case law. The Ministry of Law oversees the legal services sector and adheres to a mission of “Advancing access to justice, the rule of law, the economy and society through policy, law and services.” Working closely with it is a constellation of stakeholders common to most legal sectors: the Law Society, corporate counsel association, continuing education, regulators, and law schools. Another key player is the Singapore Academy of Law (SAL). All embrace their inter-dependency, role in the broader economy, and participation in the emerging global legal community.
SAL is a promotion and development agency for Singapore’s legal industry. Its membership includes the range of usual legal stakeholders, yet its engagement and impact is far wider. By adopting a panoramic view of legal innovation and providing a platform for a broad range of local and overseas stakeholders to come together in the planning and execution of initiatives, Singapore has recognized and pre-emptively addressed a key contributor to innovation stasis – a lack of collaboration and coordination amongst stakeholders. SAL has identified three separate, interlocking areas of focus for legal innovation and transformation: (1) fostering a global perspective; (2) adaptation of technology to advance and democratize legal service delivery; and (3) human-centered capability building through education and training. Each of these areas has its own initiatives which are interconnected.
Appreciation of legal services as an increasingly globalized endeavour is advanced and reinforced by the Law Society’s program that supports Singapore lawyers venturing overseas. Another initiative is the Asian Business Law Institute, which provides practical guidance on how Asian legal systems can eliminate undesirable differences in its business laws to facilitate free and seamless trade in the region. This enables the Asian legal community to gain first-hand knowledge of business challenges and identify unmet legal delivery needs directly from the source. This is emblematic of Singapore’s user and customer-centric approach to legal service delivery.
Singapore’s Legal Technology Vision, is a “call to action for lawyers – whether practicing in law firms or serving as in-house counsel in corporations – to become part of the disruption that faces the legal industry today.” This is a five-year roadmap intended to help the legal industry leverage technology to enhance legal delivery and to encourage legal tech providers to engage in public-private collaboration. The plan was developed after SAL had engaged in multiple, wide-ranging interviews with stakeholders across the legal spectrum—judges, regulators, lawyers, and industry experts. Drawing from those diverse views, Singapore has articulated its vision to enable the legal community to better prepare for legal delivery, education, and training in the digital age.
A vehicle for such digital transformation is the Future Law Innovation Program (FLIP). FLIP brings together stakeholders from business, government and academia to undertake technology innovation and adoption, and to develop new models for the delivery of legal services in the digital economy. FLIP has prepared a compendium of key consumer “pain points” based on extensive market research. In doing so, it provides actionable intelligence for the formulation of customer-centric tools to satisfy pressing and presently unmet client/customer challenges. Such a client-focused, use-case approach is precisely what’s required in today’s global legal marketplace– start with the client’s unmet challenges and fashion solutions to solve them.
Recognizing that innovation and transformation must start at the level of individual abilities and mindsets, Singapore is also investing in the education and training of legal professionals for the future. It recognizes the remarkable pace of change and offers a suite of actionable training and education programs and tools designed to address law’s widening “skills gap.” That’s what its Legal Industry Framework for Training and Education (LIFTED) was created to provide. LIFTED offers two key resources: (1) a practical tool; and (2) thought leadership. The LIFTED App is a mobile-first, web-based application that enables individuals to evaluate their own learning needs based upon their current and prospective professional roles in the legal sector. This allows them to customize a plan for their continuing education with longer term career goals in mind by connecting them with suitable programs from a range of providers and across learning formats.
LIFTED is also a global network whose members participate in reviewing the aims and means of the continuum of legal education and training. LIFTED answers the following seminal question: what knowledge, skills and attitudes are needed to thrive in a global legal services environment being transformed by technological disruption and new, customer-centric delivery models? The LIFTED Catalyst-in-Residence is emblematic of LIFTED’s focus on conversation, collaboration and action. The Catalyst is a global legal industry thought leader/doer who serves a year-long term, the centerpiece of which is a “residency period” in Singapore. This consists of multiple lectures, seminars, interviews, and exchanges with representatives from Government, the Judiciary, local and foreign law firms, corporations with legal headquarters in Singapore, law schools and the legal technology community. The goal is to exchange ideas, identify areas of improvement, collaborate on action plans, and promote a global perspective in legal delivery, education, and training.
Singapore does not pay lip service to user-centricity, digital transformation, and legal innovation. It regards law as a horizontal cutting across all facets of economic life, not a vertical. Law is inextricably interwoven with other parts of the emerging digital economy, and this view drives Singapore’s approach to legal innovation. SAL is supporting the implementation of this holistic approach in various initiatives. The focus is squarely on users of legal services and equipping the legal profession with the means to better deliver services that solve user challenges. Singapore is advancing the democratization of legal services by training in new skillsets, creating new tools, and championing diversity and global perspectives.
The Honorable Chief Justice Sundaresh Menon’s recent remarks at the Singapore Academy of Law’s 25th Annual Lecture capture why Singapore is fast becoming a key player in the global legal marketplace:
This is the age of possibility, and it is up to the lawyers of today to decide what
they will make of the opportunities around them…(T)he essential ingredients
of our success have been a single-minded drive for excellence and our
resilience in the face of adversity. While those same qualities will continue
to serve us well, they must be complemented by a global perspective which
recognizes the gains to be had from cross-border collaboration. This extends
beyond remaining competitive within Singapore to developing competencies
that can be applied in other jurisdictions.
Author’s postscript: I am embarking to Singapore to serve my “Residency” period and will report on key takeaways.