Thursday, July 6, 2023 - 11:08


The Harvard Law professor speaks to SAL about navigating the new era of lawyering. 

David Wilkins

Professor David B. Wilkins (Photo: Lorin Granger, Harvard Law School)


“This is probably the most exciting—but also the most challenging—time to be a lawyer.”

I’m halfway through my conversation with David B. Wilkins, Lester Kissel Professor of Law and Faculty Director of the Center on the Legal Profession (CLP) at Harvard Law School, when he says this. Asked to elaborate, he points to the rise of new technologies that have changed the practice of law. “They make it possible to be more efficient, while also challenging us ethically.”

He continues, “We are also witnessing one of the most important generational transitions in history, with Millennials and Gen Z’s—both ‘born digital’ and increasingly seeking meaning and purpose in their work—assuming ever more important roles in every sector of society.”

ESG Issues Today

Today’s rapid pace of change has also brought environmental, social, and governance (ESG) issues to the fore. “These issues are increasingly landing on the desks of lawyers, in part because of the exploding amount of new law and regulations being created at the national and global level in each of these areas. And yet law is only a part – and often not the most important part – of addressing these challenges.”

Lawyers are increasingly called upon to work collaboratively with professionals from a wide range of disciplines to develop “integrated solutions” to these complex challenges.

As Prof Wilkins explained, “last September, CLP, along with centers at Harvard Business School, Harvard Kennedy School, and the Harvard Data Science Initiative organised a conference entitled Reimagining the Role of Business in the Public Square that brought together more than 600 business leaders, lawyers, policymakers, and academics to highlight the need for this kind of interdisciplinary problem solving and to explore new approaches to collaboration[1].”

“I look forward to sharing what we learned from this seminal event, as well as other research that CLP has been conducting on these issues, and to hearing how lawyers and policymakers in Singapore and ASEAN are approaching these questions at our upcoming conference on 3-4 August,” he adds, referring to “The Next Frontier of Lawyering: From ESG to GPT”, a conference jointly organised by SAL and SMU.

Here, he will deliver the conference’s keynote address titled “Globalisation, Lawyers, and Emerging Economies”, and join a panel discussion moderated by SMU Law dean Prof Lee Pey Woan. Audiences can also hear more from Prof Wilkins at the tech-centric panel he will be moderating on the conference’s first day and at a masterclass on the future of legal services, scheduled for its second day.

On “Glocalisation”

With globalisation catalysing the rapid reshaping of boundaries, norms and practices of the legal profession, Prof Wilkins’ work at CLP has placed him in good stead to study its global impact across jurisdictions.

“Covid taught us that we are inextricably intertwined,” he says . “It is critically important to understand the unique features of every country’s culture if we are going to have any hope of solving the world’s shared problems.”

Prof Wilkins and the CLP term this complex interplay of globalisation and local knowledge as “glocalisation”, underscoring their inextricability. For more than a decade, they have been studying glocalisation through their Project on Globalization Lawyers and Emerging Economies (GLEE).

Through its research, the GLEE project examines how globalisation is reshaping the market for legal services in important emerging economies in Asia, Africa and Latin America, and how these developments are contributing to reshaping of the global legal services market.

“We are very excited to be launching the GLEE Project here in ASEAN, which we have no doubt will be one of the most important regions in the world in the coming decades,” adds Prof Wilkins.

Prof Wilkins will speak at The Next Frontier of Lawyering: From ESG to GPT, jointly organised by SAL and the Singapore Management University. Passes for the conference are available here.

[1] For a description of the conference and a summary of their key findings, see the issue of their digital magazine The Practice, focused on ESG and Lawyers.