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Change is the mantra for future law practice in Singapore

What is stopping a law firm from offering clients the full spectrum of professional services?

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AT a recent luncheon this year hosted by Justice Aedit Abdullah for key executives of local law firms, a guest speaker, Mark Cohen, a well-known change advocate from the US, painted a compelling scenario where competing legal services companies with innovative client solutions have muscled into what was once the exclusive domain of practising lawyers.

The only problem was, Mr Cohen wasn't predicting the future; he was merely alluding to the fact that change has already taken place - and indeed is at our doorstep.

Law firms may be taking a while to mull over the idea of "change", but the market has changed, and Singapore law firms must understand what it takes to evolve and survive to stay ahead of the curve.

Of course, the law, too, must be amended to legitimise the creation of more efficient alternative legal solutions.

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CLIENTS & TECHNOLOGY: ULTIMATE GAMECHANGER

Technology and the interests of clients are interdependent. The technological disruption we see today in law practice would not have come about if there was no client demand for such solutions.

The impact seen in technological disruption involving legal services have been significant and game-changing, indicating a dramatic shift in the lawyer-client dynamics. Clients are now driving change in how legal services are rendered; and technology is facilitating the creation of new business models to meet the demands of clients. All this is challenging the way lawyers traditionally do business.

Law firms face constant challenges - from the rising cost of operations, the competitive acquisition of new clients, the attraction and retention of talent, to the effects of technological disruption. Singapore law firms need to look ahead and depart from tradition to survive this new tsunami of change. We have to learn to build multiple engines of growth, the law practice being merely one of them. A new business outside the law firm will effectively derisk the new business from that of the law firm. However, in the context of the law practice, given the way many law firms are structured as partnerships, very little progress appears to have been made in addressing the changing demands of cost-sensitive and discerning clients.

Undoubtedly, clients are emboldened by the availability of new technological solutions and competing services. Some firms have responded and are pushing the envelope. Clients are expecting lawyers to be more than lawyers, and to provide much more than legal services. Commercially, clients tend to prefer to engage advisors from the same family.

BIGLAW, NEWLAW AND 'RIGHTLAW'

Authors and commentators like George Beaton, Imme Kaschner and Eric Chin have offered much insight into the workings of "BigLaw" (a phrase often used in the US to describe large law firms and their business model) and how these firms have re-engineered their business models to respond to the evolving business landscape.

While there has been considerable literature about NewLaw (a term coined to describe legal services providers with new business models) and how the business of law firms should evolve, it generally boils down to two fundamental questions: (a) is the law partnership willing and able to deal with change, and (b) will the law firm be able to re-engineer its business model and right-size its resources to increase its service offerings so that it can respond to the needs and demands of its clients?

We can draw from the experiences of our brethren from the United Kingdom and Australia who are a few years ahead of us in this. We would like to call Singapore law firms that have re-engineered their business models to develop additional engines of growth in non-legal services as "RightLaw". Essentially, given the cost structure of Singapore law firms, a "re-modelled" and "re-made" law firm in Singapore would have "right-sized" its resources to develop additional engines of growth. Where clients have demanded and technology has facilitated, what is stopping a law firm from offering its clients the full spectrum of professional services?

KEY TRENDS THAT SUPPORT RIGHTLAW

In a 2017 report "The Firm of the Future", Bain & Company identified several key trends which they believe will shape the future: "The best companies have articulated not just a higher purpose but also a bold, insurgent mission around how they will serve customers. This, too, is a central element in their business, culture and people strategies."

Hiring the right person for the mission and taking advantage of available external competencies to develop joint ventures beyond the law practice - this will give law firms the ability to harness diverse external competencies, capital and resources to fulfil the mission. It is a business model that has the law firm at the centre in a "hub-and-spoke" type of arrangement, with the other business entities operating in a relationship that radiates outwards from the law firm. It is key to develop a service ecosystem outside the law practice; there is nothing to stop a law firm from setting up an external secondary engine of growth. The Bain report also emphasised the importance of scale and customer intimacy. In her analysis of the Bain report, consultant Katherine Thomas noted - "speed is the most visible metric of efficiency".

The dynamics of scale are changing: smaller firms can now access the benefits of scale without owning resources or capabilities themselves through joint ventures and outsourcing. Clients will judge us by our speed and client intimacy will have to be achieved by taking advantage of what digitalisation has to offer. Data and technology will enable us to venture into data-based decision making.

It is imperative that law firms first understand and appreciate clients' expectations and demands, as well as the legal services ecosystem and the value chain. For example, corporate secretarial and continuing sponsor services have traditionally been associated with law firms but these services are not lawyer-dependent and do not require the involvement of lawyers. They can be (and in many cases have been) spun off into separately-run entities that can provide the services at lower cost to clients. Beyond these services, law firms can also build a larger service ecosystem to give clients access to other expanded services such as investor relations, compliance consultancy, capital markets advisory , tax consulting, token/crypto-currency advisory services, business consulting and wealth services.

Underpinning the entire ecosystem will have to be a technology platform that can give clients the speed and level of intimacy they want. A data-driven lawyer with an artificial intelligence platform will be able to use data analytics to empower his business and deliver solutions to demanding clients. These are monumental challenges to the status quo.

CHANGE: RESISTANCE IS FUTILE?

The recent discourse on litigation scale fees suggests an "access to justice" policy undertone which also seems to imply that litigation lawyers have to leverage on technology and better processes to manage fees charged to clients. While the jury is still out there, the legal profession is undergoing tremendous change. The Australian Financial Review (Nov 17-18, 2018) reported a speech by the New South Wales Chief Justice Tom Bathurst in which he predicted that barristers in Australia will soon face a TripAdvisor-type ranking on price and performance as part of the digital transformation of legal practice.

Change is inevitable. Law firms of the future are likely to be leaner and smaller, and therefore more agile and nimble, and definitely more efficient. Technology will undoubtedly play a very big ubiquitous role in the way law firms and their ecosystem will operate. The most important step is also the most difficult: change. "Change" can be the single biggest hurdle to progress. Our legal profession needs to evolve to survive these challenging times. The law firm of the future is fast shaping up as one with changing roles and a borderless practice, an expanded services ecosystem and a data-driven technology base that will drive the business with a good measure of efficiency. It will be an exciting - and perhaps to some extent, painful - time for Singapore law firms.

  • The writers are from RHTLaw Taylor Wessing LLP.
    Tan Chong Huat is managing partner and Azman Jaafar, deputy managing partner.