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Interview by Nisha Rajoo and Andrew Wong | Edited by Josh Lee

TechLaw.Fest 2019 will take place from 5 to 6 September 2019 in Singapore, bringing together the movers and shakers in the space of law and technology. In these few weeks leading up to TechLaw.Fest, the LawTech.Asia team will be bringing you regular interviews and shout-outs covering prominent speakers and the topics they will be speaking at TechLaw.Fest.

This week, LawTech.Asia received the exclusive opportunity to interview Jerrold Soh, a Lecturer of Law in the Singapore Management University (“SMU”) School of Law. Jerrold is also a co-founder of Lex Quanta, a Singapore-based legal analytics startup, in which he leads data science research and development.

At TechLaw.Fest 2019, Jerrold will be speaking on a panel titled, “A Review of the State of Legal Innovation in the Asia Pacific”, which features leading thought leaders who will be discussing the State of Legal Innovation in the Asia Pacific (“SOLIA”) 2019 Report, for which Jerrold served as the Chief Editor.

As a multi-hyphenate with an established career in academia, the start-up and legal tech sectors, do share with us the latest projects/research that you have been working on!

On the academic/research front, my most recent project was a paper that I co-authored earlier this year on the application of machine learning to classify Singapore Supreme Court judgments into subject-specific areas, such as tort and contract for example. The aim was to determine how the developments in mainstream natural language processing could be adapted and applied to the legal domain, if at all. The most interesting thing that we found was that the conventional methods – that are independent of neural networks – already work pretty well. While using neural networks would certainly yield benefits, sometimes improvements could be marginal and not proportional to the amount of effort and resources needed to achieve it.

On the Lex Quanta front, we are looking at building outcome simulators as well as design schema (i.e. ontology) for legal concepts. For example, when you are searching for case law, you are basically drawing from a subject tree of sorts. For example, in a specific area of law such as medical negligence in the context of car accidents, the subject tree would look like Tort – Negligence – Medical Negligence – Motor Accidents Liability. When we have a proper design schema, it functions as a flow chart that will help improve search results. While this involves substantial design work, it also requires one to: (a) know the law to deal with the legal concepts; and (b) think about the technical application to ensure that it serves the purpose of the technology. In some ways, it is a true example of the intersection between law and technology.

A screen grab of Lex Quanta’s website.

Legal technology and innovation has been a hot topic in Singapore’s legal industry (the Singapore Law Society launched Tech-celerate for Law two months ago, while the 2nd edition of TechLaw.Fest is coming up next month), and also trending regionally, which was covered in the SOLIA report that was released in April 2019. As its Chief Editor, could you share some key takeaways from your experience in surveying the developments and trends across such a diverse and dynamic region?

First, there will be an updated version of the SOLIA report which will be printed and released during TechLaw.Fest 2019. It will feature a few new chapters as well as some revisions to the existing chapters, so do look out for it during the TechLaw.Fest 2019!

Back to the question: what jumped out at me is that although the Asia Pacific is a really diverse region, for some reason, everybody seems to be working on similar use cases. There seems to be a sense that we have all agreed that these are the few areas where it is meaningful to work on legal technology projects, for example, document automation, legal marketplaces, and legal analytics tools. This is quite different from the situation 4 to 5 years ago – 3 years ago even – where we were still trying to draw the battle lines. Now, and this has been pointed out elsewhere, it is like a phase of consolidation where we are all just working within defined boxes.

That said, although we see broadly similar legal technology trends across the region, the implementation of legal technology tools and solutions within local markets have different areas of focus that are aligned towards local needs and priorities. For example, in Hong Kong when they talk about online dispute resolution (“ODR”), one of the focus areas is on the application of ODR for the Belt and Road initiative. In Singapore, our focus for now seems more inward-looking, such as the application of ODR systems for personal injury and small claims matters. 

Although the Asia Pacific is a really diverse region … everybody seems to be working on similar use cases. There seems to be a sense that we have all agreed that these are the few areas where it is meaningful to work on legal technology projects, for example, document automation, legal marketplaces, and legal analytics tools. This is quite different from the situation 4 to 5 years ago – 3 years ago even – where we were still trying to draw the battle lines. Now … it is like a phase of consolidation where we are all just working within defined boxes.

Jerrold soh, lecturer, Singapore management university

Do you think that there are opportunities for countries in the region to work together in spearheading their legal innovation efforts?

When phrased broadly, the answer is invariably yes – countries can definitely work together. However, the problem lies in trying to substantiate what we are trying to work together on.

I would say that we are still in the early days of legal technology and innovation. There are many battles to be won domestically in order to reach out across borders to facilitate such a collaboration. To draw an analogy, it is akin to being a fresh graduate embarking on your first job: you would need to focus on developing and harnessing your own skillsets and competencies and establish yourself before you seek out opportunities to collaborate across teams and departments. So, the same idea applies for collaboration in the legal technology space.      

Nevertheless, I would say that currently, the most concrete area of collaboration I can think of would be on open data standards and data sharing. For example, if you have Australian case law being made available for researchers in Singapore to call an application programming interface (“API”) on. In some ways, this is already being done, but it probably is not open enough at this point. 

What are your predictions for the legal tech landscape in Singapore, and more broadly, in the Asia Pacific region? What might be the next wave of legal tech solutions that we are likely to see being developed? 

If I had to make a choice, I would say this: thinking in terms of the different waves of legal technology, most people would regard the first wave as the establishment of LawNet and the creation of online databases, and the second wave as symbolised by the advent of artificial intelligence (“AI”). I would, however, group them together as a larger first wave of “digitisation”. A lot of the work that is being done today continues to focus on making the law “electronic” – for example, transferring hard copies of legal documents into an online database.

When you have ODR systems and other online legal technology platforms, these actually go towards creating digitised, electronic law. If you are using a legal technology platform to resolve a dispute, or an online platform to draft a contract, all of these are fully digitised from the start and there is no paper involved. 

So, we are still in that process of digitising the law and it will possibly take a few (or many) more years. To predict what may come, perhaps an analogy with the finance industry – it was only after processes and documents were digitised that we witnessed an explosion of many different things such as quant funds that people would not have thought of previously.

While I do not know what the situation would be like 10 years from now, I would say that generally, we would likely see legal technology tools or solutions that would leverage on the substantial digitisation of the law. 

As a lecturer at SMU’s School of Law, has the topic garnered much interest from your students? How do you think local law students can be prepared for the future legal industry? 

First of all, I have to say that the students are awesome! Compared to when I was a law student in my first year of law school (which was not too long ago), I would say that there is a lot more awareness of and interest in technological disruption and legal technology. 

I would get students asking me about new platforms they might have heard of, or what they should do to prepare themselves for disruption in the legal sector. For the latter, I would tell them the same thing that I was told during my first year as a law student – everything that you know makes you a better lawyer, so just be open-minded and learn whatever you can. 

In the future, when they graduate, legal technology or data analytics might not even be the thing! So, the most important thing is for them to remain open-minded – stay in tune with developments in the industry and to not just burrow yourself into academic sand. For example, read the Chief Justice’s Opening of the Legal Year speech every year.

The legal industry is commonly known as a conservative industry that is resistant to change. What role can our law schools play in creating a “culture of innovation” amongst law students here?

I actually think that lawyers are very innovative people – just that they are innovative in the law. They would often have to think of innovative solutions – in terms of arguments or transaction structures, for example – for clients. However, they tend to be more conservative when it comes to technology. So, the question then would be: How can we repurpose such innovative thinking in other areas? 

In terms of the role of law schools, some law schools have legal technology courses as part of their curriculum. For example, the Bucerius Law School in Hamburg, Germany organises a legal technology summer school where students have the opportunity to collaborate with computer science students on group projects. I think such a collaboration might expose law students to the idea that innovation is not just within the law, but in non-law areas as well. There are of course many interesting developments going on at SMU, but I’m not sure I should say too much at this point.

Participatory design in developing legal tech-based solutions is highly encouraged in the US (e.g. under Stanford’s Design Lab). Most of the legal tech solutions we see in the market are largely developed by former/current legal professionals, or those with a legal/tech background. Do you see the need to engage other stakeholders outside the legal industry / members of the public even further in the design process? How could this be further encouraged in Singapore’s context?

Yes, it is definitely important to engage other stakeholders in the process. I think this is something that we are seeing today, for example, having lawyers as well as technology and design professionals to work together as a team on a project. 

What people do forget though is that design thinking has been around for a long time. The challenge has always been getting people of multiple disciplines to work together meaningfully, given that they speak different languages and have different approaches to undertaking a given task. Whether this involves getting people with a cross-disciplinary background or some knowledge to act as ‘translators’ – for example, a lawyer who has undertaken a weekend course in programming, or a programmer who has completed a crash course in the law. But how cross-disciplinary do we need to be? That is the difficult question. Crash courses may work if (for example) they are working on a hackathon prototype. But it needs further consideration for real world projects, which require a lot more than wireframes. 

To illustrate this point, think of a law student and a computer science student working on a research memo on law and technology; this would be considerably different from them having to work together on a Court of Appeal submission. Scaling a legal technology product is very challenging. Success at a small scale does not necessarily translate to success at a large scale. For example, scaling software would mean dealing with many other challenges and considerations relating to cybersecurity, quality assurance and code review, to name a few. 

If there is one thing that you would like participants to take away from the TechLaw.Fest 2019 – for example, practising lawyers who might be attending this event for the first time – what would it be and why? 

I would encourage them to pay attention to what are the actual projects that are currently being worked on, be it in Singapore or even outside Singapore. They should identify what are the problems that these projects are looking to solve, as well as the individuals working on such projects. It is important to be aware of the concrete examples of the application of legal technology, which are vastly different from reading about it in articles where the concepts can get abstract.

This piece of content was produced by LawTech.Asia as media partner for TechLaw.Fest 2019.

An event not to be missed! LawTech.Asia readers are entitled to an exclusive promo code that provides a 20% discount off a 2-day pass for TechLaw.Fest 2019. Simply use the promo code “TLFLTA20” when registering for TechLaw.Fest today!