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Interview by Amelia Chew | Edited by Utsav Rakshit

TechLaw.Fest 2018 will take place from 4 to 6 April 2018 in Singapore, bringing together leading thinkers in the space of Technology Law and leading makers in the space of Legal Technology. In the lead-up to TechLaw.Fest, the LawTech.Asia team will bring you regular interviews and shout-outs covering prominent speakers and the topics they will be speaking at TechLaw.Fest. 

This week, LawTech.Asia sat down for a chat with Alexis Chun, Co-Founder of Legalese. Alexis will be speaking at the Law of Tech Conference on the panel titled Legal Issues in Legal Tech.

What are your views on SAL’s Legal Tech Vision? 

The Legal Tech Vision is a commendable effort and a step in the right direction. I applaud SAL for taking on the important task of thought leadership in the industry. It’s heartening to see the sentiment of LegalZoom’s Eddie Hartman being echoed, i.e., that we should enlist non-lawyers to help fix the legal market. Indeed, there is a distinction between the legal industry and the legal profession. Not drawing that distinction clearly obfuscates a couple of key points: What is the role of the lawyer? How much of advice hinges on having gone to law school? How much of it is applied experience or business strategy? Is law a service industry or one that sells products? What about the decoupled parts of “law” — corporate secretaries, legal executives, patent agents, etc?

I look at that and think, now, how will that change in this software eaten world?

As with every strategy, how far you stretch your horizon will affect what comes out of it. I like the LTV’s parts that deal with the next horizon — where today’s customers can meet their legal needs through software alone. Is that possible? Yes, we think so! Just look at how Excel was designed to empower business users to do financial work without hiring an accounting firm. The profession does not necessarily have all the answers to the questions.

What are the challenges involved in automated contract drafting and how is Legalese tackling them? 

First of all, you have to realise that legaltech and contract automation is not a new field. Contract automation is an old industry with roots going back to the PC era and desktop publishing. ContractExpress was founded in 2000, and both HotDocs and Exari in 1999. That means we have to look at those 20 year old incumbents, the ones that are still alive, and the ones that have since departed and think — why hasn’t it taken off yet? My bet is on billable hours and the law firm business model whose incentive structure is fundamentally incompatible with efficiency.

We also have to look at the other end of the spectrum — smart contracts on the blockchain, and at the same time, examine the risks of such situations in the wake of what happened with the DAO where subtle “errors” in the contract can cost people millions of dollars.

Software problems require software solutions.

Our belief is that, to solve these kinds of problems, you’d need to use techniques from computer science (CS) that did not exist during earlier generations of document automation. You cannot solve software security problems using English-language contract templates. Software problems require software solutions. And that’s why we see ourselves as a software company first, and a product/service provider second. It’s zero-to-one:  we don’t want to stupidly throw ten typewriters at the problem, we want to invent the word processor. I am not interested in building a law firm with a different UI.

At Legalese, we are designing and implementing a domain-specific language (DSL) for law. A programming language that captures the particularities, deontics, semantics, and pragmatics of law. And when I say law, I don’t just mean contracts. It’s also regulations and policies and business process rules. Once we express all of that in a DSL, they now have a common denominator – that means they can speak to each other! The DSL is the foundation, the first innovation we have to get right. Once we have that foundation paved, we can apply the batteries of tools that programmers have at their disposal and apply them to law:  we can do unit testing, fuzz testing, run linters, do static analysis, etc. We can check law (contracts, regulations, business process logic) for consistency, accuracy, and correctness.

To do this, our computer scientists (working alongside logicians, programming linguists, mathematicians, lawyers) take advantage of the extensive academic research in natural language generation, formal methods, and programming language theory. We’re translating academic research to build a domain specific language from first principles. There’s a lot of prior art and we’re very excited to be working with the best in the field on this! This language will do for tomorrow’s LegalTech industry what SQL did for yesterday’s database industry.

How does the legal tech scene in Singapore and the region compare with what you’ve seen during your time in Stanford?

As law school is done as a graduate programme in the US, there are more people with dual skill sets. It is possible to learn computational thinking as a CS undergraduate and then do law school and appreciate how tech can transform law. Here at Stanford where we are currently based for the fellowship, most people have a more technical foundation. We don’t often have to explain “software is eating the world”, the different strands of disruption theory, or why JavaScript sucks but is also good enough for what people use it for.

In Singapore where law is taught vocationally at the undergraduate level, there is far less overlap between CS and law. It is one or the other. So the LegalTech startups here are at a disadvantage. Many of the lawyers who pick up programming on their own are relatively undifferentiated and cannot work on truly deep-tech innovations. They discover PHP and think, “omg automated templates!” But our government seems to be doing all the right steps and checking all the right boxes, we just need to start funding more R&D, build technical infrastructure, seed the ecosystem.

What are some of the most important changes that will influence the way law is practised in the next ten years? 

I think there will be a transition similar to accounting moving toward spreadsheets. Low-code platforms, software that can do the thinking and not just help with the typing (as is the case today). Ten years ago, Richard Susskind was a voice in the wilderness. Today, he is accepted orthodoxy but most law firms don’t know how to respond, just as Kodak didn’t know how to respond to digital photography (despite having invented the first digital camera).

Look at Netflix, Adobe, Airbnb, Uber / Grab (just insert your preferred ride sharing software app) and their respective “industries” before software and after — that’s the kind of paradigm shift the legal industry needs to go through; to conceive of CS and the software tradition being applied to law. If you still can’t conceive of it, then perhaps you’re a lawyer and it’s not your fault, it’s the profession and business models you’re entrenched in. As Upton Sinclair said, “it is difficult to get a man to understand something when his salary depends on his not understanding it”.

This piece of content was jointly produced by LawTech.Asia and the Singapore Academy of Law.

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