Interview by Huiling Xie | Edited by Amelia Chew & Emily Tan

In November 2018, LawTech.Asia co-organised the inaugural APAC Legal Hackers Summit alongside Singapore Legal Hackers and the Singapore Academy of Law’s Future Law Innovation Programme (FLIP), bringing together Legal Hackers chapter organisers in the region to share insights on legal innovation across APAC. Legal Hackers is a global movement of lawyers, policymakers, designers, technologists, and academics who explore issues and opportunities where technology can improve and inform the practice of law, and where law, legal practice, and policy can adapt to rapidly changing technology. In this series, we profile Legal Hackers chapter organisers who are driving legal innovation in their cities.  

Here, Eric Chin, a strategy consultant for the legal industry and chapter organiser at Legal Hackers Melbourne, shares his insights on where the legal industry is headed.

You started your career in the consulting industry, providing services to a number of professional services firms across industries such as law, engineering, and accounting. What about the legal industry drew you to carve out an independent practice specialising in consulting for law firms?

The legal market is in a very unique position in its history. I see a lot of opportunity in helping law firms, NewLaw firms and LegalTech firms navigate the changing market.

Taking a long-term view, the industry has seen a few distinct phases in how competition has evolved. The concept of practice groups emerged in the 1980s. This then progressed to scale and geographic expansion in the golden age of globalisation of the 1990s. The 2000s saw the outsourcing trend engulf the market as legal process outsourcing companies and legal managed service firms (NewLaw firms) were conceived. In this decade, the 2010s, the technological trend gave birth to LegalTech firms. Not to forget also the entry of the Big Six accounting firms in the 1990s that culminated in the Big Five becoming one of the largest in the world in the early 2000s. Since the 2010s, we have seen the Big Four establishing their legal offering in various forms.

For each segment of the market, whether it’s working with law firms, NewLaw firms, LegalTech firms or the Big Four accounting firms, they are faced with different sets of opportunities and issues, in the quest for growth. Then, of course, there is the rise of in-house corporate legal departments and more recently the rise of the corporate legal operations functions in those legal departments. The rise of these alternatives is also led by an increasingly sophisticated buyer of legal services that are rightsourcing to the most cost-efficient legal service providers.

Having had years of experience consulting for law firms of a spectrum around the world, you must have witnessed some major trends. From your perspective, what are the major trends that may in the future affect the legal industry and law firms?

The legal market in the Asia-Pacific region is a $90 billion market that is projected to grow to $111 billion by the end of this decade. The region is made up of a heterogeneous group of markets each with their unique competitive and client landscapes.  

In the last five years, globalisation has shaped the competitive landscape in this region. We have seen local firms regionalising, whether it is the Singaporean, Malaysian, and Thai law firms expanding geographically in the ASEAN region, or the Japanese, Korean, and Chinese firms expanding across the Asian markets and beyond. Of course, international firms from the US, UK, Europe, and Australia have expanded into the region since the 1990s with varying degrees of localisation.

This is of course driven by a client market whose needs are increasingly regional and global as cross-border work becomes the holy grail of differentiation for firms. Across the Asia-Pacific region, we are seeing varying degrees of globalisation.

Globalisation brings with it the export of ideas from markets outside the region. We have seen the expansion and growth of the NewLaw (labour arbitrage business models i.e. legal process outsourcing to low-cost centres, lawyers secondment) market. Across the region, we are seeing the rise of LegalTech (technology arbitrage business models).

The re-entry of the Big Four firms has created ripple effects across the markets in the Asia-Pacific region. Each has re-established their legal practices and are currently building out their own managed legal service offerings, LegalTech offerings, and also their legal department consulting practices.

As the competitor set continues to evolve for law firms, some have strategies to broaden their offerings to get closer to legal departments. Ultimately, we are now operating in a client’s market where clients now have the choice to right-source their legal needs to the most efficient providers.

To what extent do you think LegalTech and its possibilities are going to influence the decision-making of law firms of all sizes from now on?

What gets lost in a lot of the media coverage about the LegalTech market is that the solutions in the market have actually been mostly conceived to improve lawyer efficiency and effectiveness.

The LegalTech market has grown from the periphery into the mainstream consciousness of the legal market in recent times. What gets lost in a lot of the media coverage about the LegalTech market is that the solutions in the market have actually been mostly conceived to improve lawyer efficiency and effectiveness. Instead, we read headline-grabbing articles like ‘machines are going to replace lawyers’ or ‘Robo-lawyers will take your jobs’, which create intrigue and also a false sense of the realities of most solutions in the market.

There is some correlation between the size of firms and their adoption and sophistication in how they deploy LegalTech solutions. The level of maturity varies across the board in how firms are working with LegalTech providers. Some are partnering with LegalTech solutions to marry technology with legal expertise to create new solutions for the markets. Others which are at the start of their LegalTech journey, are implementing legal practice management solutions.

In my work with law firms on LegalTech, I’ve cautioned them not to focus first on the LegalTech solution because it is easy to get caught in trying to be in vogue with what’s new and shiny; legal artificial intelligence is now du jour. The best practice for adoption of LegalTech is starting with the problem, then the people (how you currently work around that problem), the process (how this can be improved or changed to solve the problem) and finally, the technology (as an enabler for the people and process to solve the stated problem).

An international community like Legal Hackers is instrumental in drawing like-minded people together. What kind of value do you think Legal Hackers contributes to LegalTech and what do you envision for the Melbourne chapter in the next ten years?

Legal Hackers is key to tapping into the grassroots of people who are interested in exploring LegalTech, innovation, technology, design thinking, access to justice, human rights, and many more. It is an additional voice in the market that helps with continuous market education. It is also an important platform that creates a safe space for lawyers, technologists, entrepreneurs, academics, consultants and regulators to congregate and share ideas and problems.

We have just launched the Melbourne chapter in September to a very enthusiastic audience. Our group of co-founders and co-organisers are made up of people from across the LegalTech ecosystem, from LegalTech startup founders, in-house lawyers, lawyers, NewLaw firms and LegalTech firms. The cross-pollination of views and thoughts will help shape the chapter’s approach to organising events and topics for our events.

We are in the startup phase of the chapter where we are currently building the community. A long-term goal for the chapter will be to be perceived as part of the fabric of the local legal community where anyone interested in pushing the boundaries in the legal market or exploring the newest in innovation and technology, can congregate.