Singapore has a thriving LegalTech industry more advanced than most of its Asian neighbors, as LegalTech startups and programs have received substantial government backing in the past few years. We believe nowhere else in Asia has the same level of sovereign investment in LegalTech and innovation as Singapore. LegalTech initiatives are supported as part of the Singapore government’s commitment to creating a first-class Smart Nation. In this article, we highlight the LegalTech development in Singapore and the associated challenges.
Singapore’s government has been open about its commitment to making the nation the regional hub for LegalTech in the past few years. Unlike other countries in the region, Singapore develops the LegalTech industry through a top-down, government-led approach.
Singapore government’s commitment is exemplified by the Future Law Innovation Programme (FLIP)[i] launched in 2019 by the Singapore Academy of Law. It aims to drive innovation and encourage the adoption of new technologies across the legal sector. Global Legal Innovation and Digital Entrepreneurship (GLIDE), as part of FLIP, is Asia’s first LegalTech startup accelerator program. It is intended to help both local and international LegalTech startups scale and improve in-house legal capabilities by facilitating innovative solutions. Since the GLIDE launch, there have been 6 LegalTech projects launched: Anduin, Briefbox, Checkbox, LegalFAB, LexKnights, and Remedium.
In 2020, Singapore’s Ministry of Law had launched a 10-year sector-wide plan, the Technology and Innovation Roadmap (TIR)[ii], intending to promote new technology and innovation adoption and development in Singapore’s legal industry on existing government initiatives and grants available. The plan includes working with LegalTech companies to help law firms assess their digital readiness and identify technology they can adapt, enabling qualified lawyers to count LegalTech upskilling programs as part of their continuing professional development, infusing relevant technology or digital skills law schools’ curriculum.
The Centre for Technology, Robotics, Artificial Intelligence & the Law (TRAIL)[iii] was launched by the National University of Singapore (NUS) in Dec 2019 as a think tank to explore legal and regulatory issues associated with the deployment of AI, IT, data analytics and robotics in the practice of law. The Centre seeks to contribute to the conversation on how they harness and integrate technology into the legal sector in a useful and equitable way.
Singapore LegalTech Companies to Watch
Encouraged by government support, a handful of Singapore-based LegalTech companies have launched. Here are four key LegalTech startups/projects:
Alpha LegalTech has developed CompareNow[iv], a text comparison or mark-up tool for legal professionals, through Clifford Chance’s LegalTech innovation lab, Create+65. Supported by the Singapore Economic Development Board (EDB) and in collaboration with the FLIP, Create+65 identifies, incubates, tests, and pilots new legal technology solutions to enhance client services. CompareNow is one of the most successful projects in Create+45 by saving an average of 75% of time previously spent on email/text comparison and an average of 41% of time on longer, more complex documents.
Rajah & Tann Technologies (RTTech)[v], a digital arm of Singapore’s Big Four legal firm Rajah & Tann, was set up in 2018 to offer a suite of technology-enabled legal solutions, including electronic innovation, cybersecurity, and data breach response. Covid-19 has accelerated companies’ and individuals’ reliance on digital data, and the startup has spotted a much-needed service on cybersecurity at this most challenging of times. Last December, they joined with cybersecurity service provider Resolvo Systems to establish Rajah & Tann Cybersecurity (RTCyber), a platform to integrate legal and cybersecurity expertise to help clients mitigate against cyberattacks or security breach disruptions.
VanillaLaw[vi], a Singapore’s boutique law firm, launched its own web-based platform VanillaLaw Docs, in 2016. It is an interactive web-based platform that allows their clients to insert relevant information to prepare the first draft of legal documents in return. Clients, especially SMEs, can reduce legal costs and streamline the legal process.
LawCanvas [vii]is a legal startup that offers a cloud-based contract management platform for small businesses in Asia, launched in 2014. They provide a virtual library of free legal templates, with a smart editor that their clients claim makes editing clauses easy. In 2016, LawCanvas expanded its services into three more jurisdictions – Australia, Malaysia, and Hong Kong.
What’s holding them back?
The Singapore government has invested heavily in fostering the LegalTech industry. The Covid-19 pandemic has given a strong push on tech adoption across the industry now more than ever. Despite this, Singapore’s legal sector as a whole has yet to make substantial investments in LegalTech and many law firms remain “old school” in practice. What is holding them back from embracing LegalTech development?
The willingness to retreat from the foundation of the “billable hour” is the main barrier for LegalTech growth in Singapore. Lawyers at most law firms are used to be paid based on the time invested, but offering efficient yet convenient technological solutions as part of lawyers’ services cuts directly into profit. This creates a paradigm shift in pricing from the working time invested to the services’ value/quality. Let us take Rajah & Tann partnership as an example. When its legal tech unit (RTTech) was founded in 2018, they had difficulties convincing their partners to participate in the tech transformation[viii].
Lawyers are generally too busy to have spare time to understand, analyze, and learn the new technology solutions that best-suited their practices. They are not trained with new technology at law schools. With time constraints and limited resources, legal professionals have been slow to adopt technology and innovation.
Cost is an issue, especially when law firms are cash-strapped in the post-Covid-19 period. Law firms, notably local or small firms with limited budgets and are less willing to make substantial investments as well as potentially huge maintenance costs. Maybe an upturn in the markets in 2021 will see this change.
[ii] Jacqueline So, ‘Singapore Ministry of Law unveils technology and innovation roadmap for legaltech adoption’, thelawyermag.com, Key Media, 2020, https://www.thelawyermag.com/au/news/general/singapore-ministry-of-law-unveils-technology-and-innovation-roadmap-for-legaltech-adoption/235323 (accessed 19 January 2021)
[iii] Hariz Baharudin, ‘NUS launches new think tank to explore legal issues surrounding the use of technology’, straitstimes.com, Singapore Press Holdings Ltd. Co, https://www.straitstimes.com/singapore/nus-launches-new-think-tank-to-explore-legal-issues-surrounding-the-use-of-technology (accessed 19 January 2021)
[iv] ‘Clifford Chance partners with Singapore start up Alpha LegalTech to launch CompareNow in Asia Pacific’, cliffordchance.com, Clifford Chance, 2020, https://www.cliffordchance.com/news/news/2020/03/clifford-chance-partners-with-singapore-start-up-alpha-legaltech.html (accessed 20 January 2021)
[v] Aparna Sai, ‘Rajah & Tann tech arm launches cybersecurity platform’, legalbusinessonline.com, Thomson Reuters, 2021, https://www.legalbusinessonline.com/rajah-tann-tech-arm-launches-cybersecurity-platform (accessed 20 January 2021)
[vi] Mark Goh, ‘3 business lessons I learned from running my own firm for 24 years’, techinasia.com, Tech in Asia, 2018, https://www.techinasia.com/talk/3-business-lessons-24-years (accessed 20 January 2021)
[vii] ‘Singapore-based legal startup LawCanvas expands into Australia, Malaysia and Hong Kong’, asialawportal.com, Asia Law Portal, 2016, https://asialawportal.com/2016/02/22/singapore-based-legal-startup-lawcanvas-expands-into-australia-malaysia-and-hong-kong/ (accessed 19 January 2021)
[viii] Jessica Seah, ‘Lawyer Mindset Still Barrier for Legal Tech Growth in Asia’, law.com, American Lawyer Media International, 2020, https://www.law.com/international-edition/2020/10/08/lawyer-mindset-still-barrier-for-legal-tech-growth-in-asia/ (accessed 20 January 2021)