Alternative legal practitioners: MinLaw studying regulatory need

Law Society proposes law firms be allowed to also offer accountancy, audit services so as to level the playing field

Tay Peck Gek
Published Mon, Jan 6, 2020 · 09:50 PM


THE Ministry of Law (MinLaw) has been studying the possibility of regulating alternative legal service providers (ALSPs), which include major accounting firms that offer legal solutions.

Chief Justice Sundaresh Menon said at the opening of the legal year on Monday that regulating legal services of the future is one of the major themes that have emerged from the dialogues he has had with over 160 legal practitioners and stakeholders last year.

"The challenge in this area arises, in particular, from the emergence of alternative legal service providers, or 'ALSPs', as new entrants into the market... Their emergence will result in a legal marketplace that is more crowded, competitive, diverse and commercialised," Mr Menon said.

ALSPs include small legal technology startups and Big Four accounting firms that offer legal services in their efforts to be one-stop shops for businesses.

The conversations that CJ Menon had were carried out to find the best course of action to counter the triple forces of globalisation, technology and growing commercialisation of the law disrupting the legal profession.

Mr Menon noted that regulating ALSPs is a complex subject and MinLaw has been studying it closely and it will continue to examine the issue with care.

A spokesman from the ministry told The Business Times: "MinLaw constantly reviews our policies to stay abreast in a rapidly changing legal landscape, and ALSPs is one of the many areas that we are studying."

Lawyers including those who are affiliated with the Big Four accounting firms weighed in with different views on the likelihood of ALSPs being regulated.

Gregory Vijayendran, president of the Law Society, holds the view that to protect consumers and the public, ALSPs should be regulated for quality control and ethical compliance.

As for competition from the multi-disciplinary professional firms offering legal services, he asked for the playing field to be levelled for lawyers: "I think if you can't beat them, join them. We should allow law firms to also offer accountancy services, audit services, etc where appropriate, subject to safeguards or even recognise bi-disciplinary practices.

"If there is an ambitious, visionary law firm out there who wants to offer these types of services as a one-stop service for clients, I don't see why they should be stopped. There should be a level playing field."

Sabara Law managing director Yeoh Lian Chuan told BT that Singapore's legal hub ambitions would be served by supporting a wide diversity of players in the market, including those with affiliation to the Big Four professional services organisations.

The lawyer, whose firm is part of the Deloitte Legal network, said the current regulatory structure for law firms "works satisfactorily", and therefore "we should not push for any formal relaxation of the multi-disciplinary practice (MDP) rules".

Deloitte rivals PwC and Ernst & Young (EY) also have networks that partner law firms to extend their services to legal solutions.

Max Loh, EY's managing partner for Singapore and Brunei, said the firm welcomes moves that will allow the profession to best serve clients. He noted that businesses increasingly need a more comprehensive service that bridges the gap between business advice and legal counsel as they navigate the opportunities and complexities across different markets.

Rajah & Tann Technologies (R&T Technologies) director Rajesh Sreenivasan is supportive of regulations. He believes a holistic regulatory review is required to address the multi-faceted challenges facing the legal profession. R&T Technologies is Rajah & Tann Asia's wholly-owned and independent unit that offers technology-enabled legal solutions including electronic discovery, cyber security and data breach response.

Mr Sreenivasan emphasised that regulations should go beyond legitimising ALSPs. They should also be substantively revised to address the issues of allied legal professionals, MDPs and revenue-sharing.

The lawyer said: "Regulations on a law firm's revenue-sharing models with non-practitioners need to be restructured to allow true legal MDPs to grow in scale.

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