Written by Lynn, David Ho & Lee Ji En
Littered everywhere in the Singapore media is a doomsday prophecy for “young lawyers”. Even if they manage to beat the odds of getting a job amid the ‘glut’ of young lawyers, they are now told to hold off the self-congratulations as junior lawyers’ jobs are on the verge of being cannibalised by artificial intelligence. Last October, the newspaper headline “Technology could oust junior lawyers” brought home the existential threat to young lawyers, through the words of Law Society President Thio Shen Yi SC in the Law Gazette:
“Soon, innovative legal services which mass produce legal solutions may not only be cheaper alternatives to lawyers, but may also become better alternatives as they gain economies of scale.”
But why should the line be drawn between ‘junior’ lawyers and their seniors? In fact, Mr Thio, in his article, explicitly mentioned that “senior lawyers will not be spared either: the development of predictive analysis software has meant that the experience and intuition that we value can now be replaced with a computer’s predictions as to the outcome of a case or its likely settlement value” (read the original article here ). We tend to agree too.
So instead of panicking over the rise of legal tech, or the “glut”, let’s dig deep into how to future-proof our careers — starting by identifying the potential pitfalls if we insist on inertia.
1. Lawyers who engage in repetitive work
Reviewing the never-ending list of documents, re-generating a luggage of contracts because of one minor typo, researching about the same issue every few weeks — you get the point. Much of what lawyers do is repetitive, especially for inexperienced young lawyers.
Who do you think will perform these tasks better and cheaper — a machine that works consistently without sleep, or a bored human being that struggles to stay awake with caffeine at 2 am?
Unsurprisingly, legal tech startups are already tackling these areas of legal work. Legalese is trying to automate the creation of contracts, while machine-learning ROSS and INTELLLEX are attempting to take over (the tedious/repetitive part) of legal research.
Will these technologies eliminate the need for lawyers? Probably not — even ROSS’ founder doesn’t think it’ll happen. These technologies are meant to empower lawyers by reducing the need to do repetitive work. AI might be able to trawl through all the case law in common law history to give you a comprehensive answer to a legal issue, but it is unlikely to learn the art of original legal thinking. (In LAWR/LARC terms, AI might be able to do well in rule & rule proof, but not so much in application of the rules.)
So if you want to stay relevant, learn to be creative and street-smart about how you apply the law. Venture into areas of law that have more uncertainties, or focus on the human aspect of the law — where machines cannot compete yet.
2. Lawyers who are clueless about technology
If the words like “natural language processing” mean nothing to you, then you might want to start paying attention to innovations and new legal developments.
I mean, CJ Menon actually mentioned it in his recent Opening Legal Year speech (see  — ). In his speech, CJ Menon announced that the Judiciary and IDA have formed a “Courts of the Future Taskforce” (where members of alt+law were consulted) to identify innovative ideas to ensure that the courts will be future-ready. He further emphasized that the implementation of such technology-related initiatives is a “must”, and this “will mean that the courts of the future will be dramatically different from today’s courts” [emphasis added].
Fortunately, most of us — the “junior lawyers” — grew up being attuned to the Internet and technologies which have disrupted other industries (think smartphones, Airbnb or Uber). Hence, we should be more adaptable than the senior lawyers in this regard. To stay ahead, we need to be ever ready to use new technologies to get work done faster, better and cheaper. You might even want to tinker with new legal technology ideas after school/work!
3. Lawyers who are oblivious to new marketing strategies
Law firms are traditionally bad at marketing. This is partially because we have rather strict regulations over marketing for legal services. Besides that, senior lawyers (who play a critical role in business development) often consider their reputation the best form of marketing. However, such marketing strategies are no longer feasible in today’s market.
Clients are likely to get more tech-savvy. Their primary source of information tend to be social media channels, where corporate branding and reputation needs to be developed and managed differently. In fact, the power of content marketing is already well-known to some law firms. Some have set up blogs and written articles to attract clients, but this is probably just the beginning. Meanwhile, those who are still lagging behind in this trend need to buck up because the rewards can be substantial.
4. Lawyers whose firms have ‘old school’ norms
No laptops, no team collaboration apps, and even no WiFi at the office. The norms in some law firms are just baffling. Yes, the “old school” ways may be tried and tested. But they are certainly not perfect. In this respect, we agree with Thio SC’s suggestion: we should “find, embrace, engage and use machine intelligence to our advantage, and migrate our services up the value chain”.
Keep challenging the norms — from the workflow in your team to the business model of the firm. If your clients oppose the hourly billing system, ditch it. If new technologies can speed up the discovery or due diligence processes, use it.
Ultimately, while there is some value in learning about the old ways, we must not let them stop us from our relentless pursuit to add value for our clients.
Unlike the other endangered species in nature, the aforementioned types of lawyers will not be conserved. As the Ministry of Law and the Supreme Court have both started to look into legal innovation, we must accept that the legal industry will no longer be insulated from disruptive technologies.
Hence, to paraphrase Theodore Levitt’s famous quote, “to survive”, we “will have to plot the obsolescence of what now produces [our] livelihood”.