ALEXANDER WOON ON THE VALUE OF LAWYERS IN A TIME OF BIG TECH
BY ALEXANDER JOSEPH WOON
“It's a dangerous business, Frodo, going out your door. You step onto the road, and if you don't keep your feet, there's no knowing where you might be swept off to.” – Bilbo Baggins
I never planned to be where I am today: I didn’t plan to go into Legal Service, I didn’t plan to go into cybercrime, and I certainly didn’t plan to be involved in legal technology! If I have to give a piece of advice to newly called lawyers, it is this: don’t plan too much, be ready to take advantage of good opportunities when they come along. You don’t know what you don’t know, so be willing to learn and to try new things.
I didn’t plan to join Legal Service – it came about because my junior college teachers pushed me to try for an overseas university and a government scholarship. But it was a turning point in my life. Legal Service provided me with a solid foundation for the practice of law – I was in court every week, running my own cases as a prosecutor. Within four years, I had even conducted my own cases in the High Court.
I didn’t plan to do white collar and cybercrime – I wanted to do the blue collar stuff; sex, drugs and rock’n’roll. But it turned out for the best, because white collar crime is the fastest growing and most complex area of criminal law. As for cybercrime, I recall one of the Senior Directors asking me whether I was interested; I said I “didn’t mind”. The next thing I knew I was in the Technology Crime Unit.
This was my entryway into legal technology. Over the subsequent years, I became involved in technology crime cases, led the technology sub-group of the Attorney-General’s Chambers strategy review group, worked on digital transformation projects, and even had the privilege of participating in the Committee of Inquiry into the SingHealth cyberattack. After that, I got to work on legal technology full time at the Office of Transformation and Innovation (Judiciary).
If there’s one thing I have learned about legal technology, it is that it is not about the technology – it is about people. This is true whether we are talking about technology crime or digital transformation: in terms of crime, the weakest link is often human. Most cybercrimes are not technologically sophisticated, they rely on simple mistakes, like weak passwords. The same goes for digital transformation – I’ve worked on over 50 projects and technology has only ever been the main obstacle in one of them. In the vast majority of cases, the main challenge is to win hearts and minds, persuading people to do things differently.
A lot of lawyers seem to think that transformation requires a lot of technology and engineering skillsets. But it really doesn't. Most transformation work is actually about persuasion. The reality is that most problems can be solved with some creative thinking and process re-engineering, no fancy technology needed. The key issue is that people are attached to the way they do things - there is always significant inertia to overcome.
The key skills are therefore persuasion and problem-solving. But here's the thing - those are already key skills for lawyers, whether in litigation or when advising clients. So, lawyers really have no excuse for not getting involved in transformation. It's not that scary and it's not that foreign. And in fact, it helps you practice your key legal skills, albeit in a slightly different context.
Improving processes and leveraging technology can improve quality of life for lawyers and clients alike. Case in point: the Authentic Court Orders portal, which replaces certified true copies with digitally signed court orders. Court users now save time, several days at least, and money as they can obtain their court order electronically. Recipients of the court order benefit from more secure documents. And court staff save many hours of unproductive administrative work.
We should therefore not see technology as a threat but an opportunity. Distinguish between augmentation, where technology is used to help a human being do their job better, and automation, where technology replaces a human being altogether. Artificial Intelligence (AI) is not yet able to replace human intelligence when it comes to legal reasoning – it lacks imagination and, crucially, judgement (i.e. the ability to make decisions in ambiguous situations). But AI can be used to automate repetitive tasks that lawyers shouldn’t have to do, like document assembly, and it can augment lawyers by flagging things a human might miss, like with document review.
Innovation is for everyone. Don’t be turned off by the technobabble. All you need is some imagination and a willingness to learn. We don’t know where the legal profession will end up, but there’s never been a better time to be part of the journey.
The author is a law lecturer at the Singapore University of Social Sciences. This article first appeared on a dedicated portal created by SAL to welcome newly-called members in 2021. Access it here. In next week's edition, Mr Gregory Tan (Temasek) discusses his decision to go in-house and why he regularly takes on projects outside of work.
The views and opinions expressed in these articles are those of the individual author/interviewee and do not represent the views of SAL Group or its subsidiaries.
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