Preparing a firm for disruption – how one firm looked beyond technology
As a lawyer, technologist and regulator, Lim Seng Siew is familiar with wearing many professional ‘hats’, especially when it comes to legal innovation. In addition, he has also recently joined the CLI Advisory Board.
These days, he is particularly focused on ensuring his niche three-partner practice, OTP Law Corporation in Singapore, innovates to meet client expectations around efficiency and value.
“Efficiency is a must if we are to maintain a healthy profit margin while giving value to our clients,” said Lim. “Technology had helped us in the past but it is no longer enough. Other law firms are also making use of technology and going down this same route.”
To maintain their competitive advantage, he looked beyond technology to see what innovation could offer his firm.
“We had a partner attend a management course organised by a renowned international business school targeted specifically at partners of law firms. This helped us focus on our blue ocean strategy. Despite our size, we decided we needed a managing partner to focus full time on management issues without the distraction of billing targets. This freed our two other lawyers, which included myself, to focus solely on servicing clients and doing the firm’s legal work.”
Outsourcing for an advantage
Restructuring the firm has been a significant and strategic way to innovate.
“We’ve re-structured such that the law firm only employs lawyers,” said Lim. The firm’s support staff created an outsourced service company to support not only OTP Law Corporation but other law firms too.
To reduce their office overheads, the firm moved to a serviced office, which outsourced many of the firm’s infrastructure needs.
“We are also part of a pilot programme called FLIP - Future Law Innovation Programme. FLIP is a programme by the Singapore Academy of Law. It brings lawyers and start-ups together in an incubator to see what legaltech start-ups might blossom.”
“Due to our active efforts to remain ahead of the curve, we have managed to avoid the serious negative impacts of disruption.”
Seizing opportunities: the only way forward for law firms
“A refrain I often hear in the profession is ‘... I will have retired when the disruption happens ...’. As a result many lawyers do not lift their head up from their work to see what is ahead. So when the perfect storm hits (and it will), they will be caught unprepared.”
With the impact of disruption unavoidable, Lim has adopted a pragmatic approach.
“My law firm tries to prepare. Firstly, we try to understand what is this ‘disruption’ that everyone seems to be talking about. We need to separate the wheat from the chaff. Secondly, we need to keep scanning the horizon. Being involved in the Centre for Legal Innovation helps. Thirdly, clients are innovating. If we don’t, we will be left behind.”
He is reluctant to overuse the phrase “legal innovation.”
“It’s a phrase I seldom use because innovation is a business necessity in today’s economy. As a business, I need to innovate to remain relevant. As a professional, I have to remain grounded in the core values of the profession. To me, there is a great opportunity in ‘legal innovation’ – innovation grounded in core values.”
Joining the movement for legal disruption
Lim prefaced his comments by noting that, in his view, there is still space for lawyers who wish to continue practising in the “traditional way.”
“These lawyers just have to be aware that this is what they are doing, and how to find and reach the market for a ‘traditional’ kind of legal practice. They also have to be aware that this market is shrinking. Should they wish, they can make the necessary changes to adapt. This is one way to navigate the disruption.
“For the others who want to innovate and thrive, many schemes and programmes exist in Singapore to help. The Law Society of Singapore, together with the Ministry of Law and Enterprise Singapore have financial assistance schemes available, including SmartLaw Assist and TechStart For Law.”
According to Lim, maintaining stability through this period of disruption will be the real challenge.
“It is important for law firms and lawyers to navigate the disruption to their business and emerge, changed but intact, on the other side.”
“I would hate to see a future where the ordinary person cannot access legal expertise for their complex legal problems.”
Lim believes the community will always need firms that can cater to clients with complex legal problems. It would be remiss if this need was overlooked, even as simple legal problems are solved by technology – for example, self-help legal kiosks to help challenge parking tickets like DoNotPay.
Rise of the machines – for routine legal work
“The rate of change will increase but will also be easier to handle as machines get smarter – for example, smart phones are so much easier to use than the PCs of twenty years ago,” said Lim. “Much of the routine legal work will be taken over by machines.”
As a result, technology will be more of enabler rather than disrupter, at least in the next five to ten years. Rather, changes to business models will be the main disruptive force facing the legal profession.
“Major disrupters will be billing pressure from clients, higher internal costs to run a law firm, and changes to what society expects of legal services. All these changes are external to the legal profession. These are the changes faced by businesses in general.”
New lawyers should train in strategic analysis and people skills
With routine legal work automated or outsourced, new lawyers should focus on mastering what machines can’t do.
“Instead of learning in great detail about ‘hard law’, new lawyers will learn to use the tools to help them in their legal practice. They will need to sharpen their people skills; analytical skills; master the facts of their client’s matter; look for solutions; how to execute these solutions and plan a ‘Plan B’ should their solution falter. I think these skills will still be beyond the ability of machines in the next five to ten years."
Contributing to the work of the Centre for Legal Innovation (CLI)
As a member of the CLI’s Advisory Board, Lim is eager to help the CLI prepare lawyers for digital disruption, and guide the CLI in its efforts to do so.
“Any organisation that addresses issues of innovation in the legal space is something that I would be interested in. There are very few such organisations anywhere in the world. FLIP in Singapore is one. The CLI in Australia is another. I am privileged to be a part of both,” he said.
“Disruption and change is not bound by artificial boundaries like jurisdictions. However the experience and solutions may be different in different parts of the world. Being involved in FLIP and in CLI gives me an opportunity to see and understand how it affects Australian and Singaporean lawyers. It also gives me an opportunity to exchange ideas and approaches to how some of the issues can be solved.”
Given the diversity of his career to date, Lim hopes to bring a unique perspective to the CLI.
“The CLI, although young, is itself undergoing change. How can the CLI be relevant to its audience? What sort of training should it provide lawyers? What sort of research should the CLI do to understand today’s and tomorrow’s legal landscape better? I hope I can help the CLI find these answers.
“As for myself, I would like to explore innovative business structures for law practices. What would a law practice of the future look like? How should it be structured to remain flexible and nimble in a changing environment? As the pace of change increases, how should the ‘corporate mind’ be rewired to take advantage of change? I look at these as interesting times.”