A Conversation with Paul Neo at TechLaw.Fest 2018
TechLaw.Fest (TLF) 2018 brought together leading thinkers and makers in legaltech in Singapore from April 4-6. I had an amazing time meeting Singaporean legaltech enthusiasts at the event, and it’s been exciting to see how quickly legaltech has taken off in this region. I wanted to go deeper into the scene with an insider, so I took some time afterwards to chat with Singapore Academy of Law COO and CFO Paul Neo. The Singapore Academy of Law is a public sector agency charged with promoting and developing the Singaporean legal industry. Paul agreed to give us more information about how they’re going about improving standards and efficiency in legal practice through the use of legal technology.
What are you now seeing when it comes to the rise of legal technology in Singapore? How has this differed from what you have seen in the past?
There is greater awareness and curiosity about legaltech among practitioners and in-house counsel in Singapore. Adoption of legaltech is still nascent, and only a few of the larger firms have begun using AI-based contract review tools. But what’s heartening is that since the announcement of the Future Law Innovation Program (FLIP) last August, legal technopreneurs have come out of the woodwork to connect with each other. Legaltech is now hip. We’re seeing increasing interest among law students and younger legal professionals to get involved with legaltech startups and connect with engineers, data scientists and other non-law professionals to collaborate on new types of legal services. This enthusiasm for legal innovation and technopreneurship did not exist just six months ago, and we are encouraged by the industry’s response to FLIP. We now have the core of a legaltech ecosystem in place, and we need to continue fanning the flames to turn it into a movement.
We got a chance to meet at the TechLaw.Fest conference; what were some highlights from the two-day conference? How do you think the conference will be different next year?
Getting to meet you for one! TLF is the first time that we have been able to host legaltech luminaries such as Brad Smith, Mark Cohen and you, among others, to educate and inspire our community. Hearing about the latest developments and trends in legaltech and interacting with thought leaders makes it more real. It was also great to hear from international experts on where Singapore stands in legaltech and what else we need to do to catch up. An unexpected highlight was witnessing how the event forged a sense of common purpose. You gave us a rallying cry when you said, “We are the evangelists!”—because many of us in this space have always felt that we are serving a larger purpose.
Our ambition for TLF is for it to be the signature event for legaltech in Southeast Asia. We should extend the conference next year to connect with other sectors such as fintech and govtech. Legaltech is not only for the legal sector, and we should highlight its relevance to other industries. This is necessary for the sector to grow at scale.
The Singapore Academy of Law (SAL) released what it described as “101 Problem Statements.” Can you let folks know what the 101 Problem Statements are and how and why they were selected?
The 101PS project is our attempt at compiling a list of the biggest pain points encountered by both consumers and providers of legal services in their work or interactions with the law. Behind every problem lies an opportunity, and the idea is to highlight in a single document all of the top opportunities for anyone willing to create solutions to address those challenges. In the first exercise, we surveyed over 50 law firms, in-house legal departments, businesses and members of the public to create the first shortlist of problems that we categorized into six streams: access to justice, collaboration and communication, data analysis, document management, productivity and general (i.e., miscellaneous issues). This is a live document, and we will keep updating it as we receive feedback.
SAL also released its Legal Technology Vision—what is SAL’s vision, and how is it working to turn that vision into a reality?
SAL’s vision is for Singapore’s legal industry to fully leverage technology to not only become more productive and efficient, but also to unlock opportunities to create new revenue streams and new models for delivering legal services in the future economy. This requires understanding and adopting tech, as well as a sound grasp of business model innovation and the ability to break mental models and manage change. We see technology as only an enabler—it has to be fit for purpose in order to deliver the right impact. The Legal Technology Vision is the roadmap, and FLIP is the vehicle that will get us to our destination. Through FLIP, we are providing our community with more than just access to tech, including help to innovate new business models that use technology to create new legal products and services.
What comes next now that the 101 Problem Statements have been released?
Several things. First, we will be working with government stakeholders to upload these problem statements into Singapore’s Open Innovation Platform—a national crowdsourcing platform that identifies multi-sectoral challenges (i.e., common pain points faced by different industries) and encourages solution providers to invest in solutions to those issues so as to benefit from economies of scale and greater commercial potential.
Second, we will be circling back to those who have surfaced those challenges to suss out interest in investing collectively to co-create solutions. Now that they know they are not facing these issues alone, why not pool resources to resolve them and perhaps create new businesses in the process?
Third, we will be publicizing the 101PS to attract legaltech startups to apply to join the FLIP Accelerator that will be launched in July. We want technologists and investors to see that there are plenty of opportunities for investment in the legal sector and entice them to work with our legal professionals in the creation of new solutions.
What is the Future Law Innovation Program (FLIP)? What are your hopes for how FLIP will develop in the future?
FLIP is Singapore’s national initiative to help our legal sector innovate new models for the delivery of legal services in the future economy. Getting our legal community ready to thrive in this age of disruption is a complex undertaking that requires a holistic and multifaceted approach.
FLIP’s programming is centered around four pillars—education, business model innovation, regulations and technology.
Education is important because lawyers need to deepen domain competencies in order to add value in an age where there’s an abundance of free online legal resources. If lawyers don’t up their game, specialize and move up the value chain, they will be disintermediated by the likes of Legal Zoom, Rocket Lawyer and ROSS Intelligence.
Business model innovation is important because, as mentioned earlier, adoption of tech alone is not innovation. Lawyers need to reinvent their practice by rethinking firm structures, revenue models (e.g. billing by hours—how much longer will clients tolerate this?) and how they can monetize internal capabilities by leveraging technology.
Regulations around the practice of law are necessary, but some rules can inhibit innovation. We must not be afraid to revisit those and establish sandboxes to allow for controlled experimentation.
Lastly, it is important not to get seduced by every piece of emerging tech—ensuring fitness for purpose is key. We want to help our community adopt an informed approach to tech and extract maximum value from their tech investments. The model I’ve just described encapsulates our approach to “Future Law,” and FLIP has an academic partnership with Singapore Management University’s School of Law to further education and research in this area.
FLIP’s programming is delivered via three components: a Legal Innovation Lab, a virtual community platform called LawNet Community and a legaltech accelerator. The legaltech accelerator will be the first of its kind in Asia. Apart from providing business mentorship to startups via a structured 100-day program, it also connects investors with the legaltech community.
FLIP was officially launched on 10 January 2018, and we are continually fine-tuning the program. Response from industry has been extremely positive, and one of the key issues now is how to scale sustainably. We need to sustain momentum and continue to provide support for “graduates” of the FLIP program. We’ve had requests to bring FLIP overseas, so perhaps in the future we can work on expanding the program’s offerings to more overseas participants.
In order for the legaltech movement to take off in Singapore, as it is starting to do (and accelerating fast!), what do you think is the greatest challenge the Singaporean legaltech community must overcome?
For startups developing solutions for the legal community, it is changing the mindset of our lawyers and in-house counsel. There is still a great deal of inertia and indifference among many legal professionals who think legaltech is another fad they will outlast, or it is not worth their time, or it is not their generation’s problem. So they don’t bother to learn more.
For startups developing solutions for consumers of legal services, it may be ensuring accessibility and ease-of-use of their services for both businesses and members of the public.
More broadly, the small domestic legal services market in Singapore is a common challenge for all of our startups. They have to think international from day zero in order to achieve scale.
Last question: If folks want to get in touch with you and the Singaporean legaltech community, how best can they contact you and the great companies, teams and entrepreneurs who are working hard in Singapore?
Drop us an email at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow us on LinkedIn. Also, you can check out these videos: Why FLIP, FLIP Launch for more information as well these reports: Legal Tech Vision, FLIP 101 Problem Statements. We are always looking for new opportunities to learn and collaborate!
Many thanks to Paul for taking the time to do this interview and giving us a true insider’s view on what’s happening in legaltech in Singapore. Legaltech is a global movement, and I love learning about how other parts of the world are embracing legal technology. I can’t wait to see what happens in this community in the future!