Legal Futures of Singapore

“I go where the puck will be.” Richard Susskind was quoting Wayne Gretski, who responded to the question on whether he was the best ice hockey player ever. Contrary to Gretski, legal systems are going where the puck once was. As Richard put it: they are based on 19th and 20th century models and are no longer fit for purpose.

We were speaking at a conference that was about the longer-term challenges for the laws, legal system and legal profession of Singapore. And this was not a conference of wacky Internet rebels, but one involving the core of the establishment of the legal profession: the responsible ministers, the chief justice, and leaders from the legal profession and academia. I was there to present key findings of a legal futures study we did last year for the Ministry of Law of Singapopre. Much of the discussion, however, was of relevance beyond Singapore.

Singapore, as far as I know, is the only country in the world that is taking a very deliberate effort to understand the legal landscape and the forces that are shaping it into the future. The usual government strategy on the future of the legal system is not to have one. Don’t move unless you really have to. Just ping-pong from acute problem to immediate law or a judgement to fix it, and then move on to the next acute problem. Don’t think too far ahead.The world ends after this year’s budget. Keep it conceptual. Emphasize tradition and concepts and talk as little as possible about results for justice customers and opportunities for legal services providers.

The driving forces that were presented at the conference centred on governance issues, economic factors, and the all-pervasive forces of technology. Some of the governance trends discussed included a move towards more multi-stakeholder governance; people increasingly sharing views on issues they care about and communicating them to governments often using language framed in value-laden terms; and citizens demanding more than just efficient service delivery and also asking governance to provide things like transparency, responsiveness, and serious participation.

Economic trends that came up included accelerating economic integration with the promise of economic gain in Asia; changing labour markets causing loss of work in some areas and even fiercer competition for talent in others; increasing speed and complexity, and the changing nature of crime, in which the national and the international, and the licit and illicit worlds are becoming more intertwined.

In the field of technology we see the growth of all manner of IT platforms that enable people to share, co-design, match demand & supply, and fund. Other driving forces are the rise of autonomous systems (with IBM’s Watson as a key example); the merging of the real and virtual worlds, and the tremendous growth in knowledge about how individuals and groups behave and make choices.

All of the driving forces discussed significantly impact the landscape of conflict resolution. The status quo seems hard to maintain. New rules, more rules, new types of rules, technical possibilities, knowledge about human behaviour, economic realities: they all point to a need for more effective neutrals and a greater diversity of resolution methods. That is a threat for some, but can be a tremendous opportunity as well. All of the driving forces point to a need for innovation in the area of rulemaking and standard setting. Involving the right people at the right time, working across borders, adapting rules in the face of technological change, making rules and standards in networks, understanding and managing compliance – I name but a few challenges. Again, there are great opportunities here for the legal services industry.

There was a general shared view that social, economic and technological developments put the legal profession on the cusp of momentous changes that simply had to happen. A bit like the 1930, when the car had to move from a clunky, rich man’s toy to an easy-to-use, mass market product for every family. Henry Ford saw this first. Fast forward to now: if people can instantly buy a book on an easy-to-use website that even helps them with their preferences, why then do they have to go to expensive, clunky, formal, hard to understand, complicated procedures to get justice?

In regards to the legal profession, Ashish Nanda, Director of Indian Institute of Management, Ahmedabad – Harvard Business School, Harvard Law School, shared fascinating findings from his research into the larger, internationally operating law firms. He saw change along 4 axes: clients, competition, technology and people.

The first axis is clients. The bulk of them now come from the North and West (Europe, North America); that will change to the East and South (Asia, Africa). Clients are more critical over pricing and what they want from a law firm. The second axis is competition, which will be even more acute. The growth rate of the legal profession after 2008 has generally gone down. Other players, like accounting firms, are also moving into legal practice. In addition to that, new law firms like Axiom, which breaks away from the ‘big building full of partners’ concept, are disrupting things.

The third axis, technology, is breaking down geographical barriers, levelling the playing field around legal education, and creating more shared knowledge about legal concepts. And finally, the last axis is people. Demographics are changing and law firm structures with mandatory retirement of around age 55 are not keeping up. Also, Western dominance is over. Great lawyers are now being trained in Beijing, Bangalore, Lagos, Johannesburg, and Seoul. In addition to that, women in the workforce are on the rise.

Richard Susskind made a passionate plea for change and innovation in the justice sector, building on the groundbreaking report he helped put together in his role as Chair of the Online Dispute Resolution Working group of the UK Civil Justice Council. Pictures can say more than a thousand words, so I reproduce two pictures from that report below:

His key message, in short: we can, and we should, focus more on dispute containment and dispute avoidance. There is tremendous space for innovation here.

We need more such conferences. More exchanges on how we can strengthen this urgent need for change.