Tuesday, July 11, 2017

JD Aftermath #7 : Future of the legal industry

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Today marks the end of my journey with SMU where I travelled back to campus for Commencement 2017. I wanted to save one last salvo before I begin preparations for the bar exams next week.

Today's highlight was Minister Shanmugam's speech. I would like to share some personal thoughts on what was presented to us today.

I felt that Minister Shanmugam's tone was generally positive. However, I can't help but feel that lawyers are going to be in for some really tough times unless they belong to the category that do bespoke work for big clients.

a) Elephant in the Room : No one knows how the legal landscape is going to be disrupted.

I interviewed with SMU as someone who has just left the data.gov team in IDA. At that time, I just completed my Coursera specialization on Data Analytics with R. I spent my time during the interview talking about legal analytics and ultimately how judgments can be predicted with the right deep learning algorithms. During my final year, some judgments from the European Court of Human Rights can already be predicted with 80% accuracy by just scanning the submissions.

In today's Commencement, what was not said was more important than what was said. Ho Kwon Ping's opening address briefly mentioned Fintech but nothing more was said about legal-tech.

IMHO, the Big Elephant in the room is that SMU does not have a module that teaches lawyers how to address the latest developments in computer science and give law students a sample of the skill-set required to master them. We are still not creating lawyers with the ability to speak to engineers and other technology professionals.

NUS, in contrast, offers this module to its students.

( If SMU wants to start, it should make Richard Susskind a compulsory read. Just sayin.... )

b) Inevitably, many of us will leave for greener pastures.

Minister Shanmugam puts up a series of very interesting slides which talk about how easy it is for other countries to take our lunch. In particular, Singapore is always under the threat of losing its position as an air hub. We also do not have a particularly efficient people-to-lawyer ratio compared to countries like South Korea (I felt that the Minister should not have withheld that ratios for the US but that's just me). If we want to succeed, we have to do more with less and a subtle message I received is that companies would not be satisfied with paying so much for non-bespoke legal advice. This is convincing to me because I spent over a decade in IT outsourcing.

I might be better off using the ITSM discipline to control a cadre of Indian lawyers to generate the low level research for more experienced partners before the passing the work to the client. I can even implement follow-the-sun where a document can be handed over to an Indian Call center and work complete before breakfast the following day.

If the legal landscape is going IT's way, then lawyers may be wiser to try to leverage on this outsourcing trend or at least find a bluer ocean to swim in.

c) Two great places to get into are Arbitration and Insolvency.

I felt a certain pang of regret when the Minister showed his info-graphic for Arbitration which was showing rampant growth.

Over a decade ago, fresh after my CFA I almost wanted to pick up a graduate diploma in Arbitration but was stunned when I was turned down for the inaugural batch of the course. Even in SMU, I pursued modules which taught me more about business so that I can be a better investor so I no longer had enough credit to study the arbitration module.

I was luckier because I spent a lot of time on Insolvency which was a tough subject. Initially I wanted to get into an area of the law where I get a leading indicator of whether the economy is coming to an inflection point. So I hope to get some real work on Insolvency in a later phase of my career.

Perhaps the most positive aspect of the talk is when the Minister sharing about growing areas of practice that rookies can get into.

What's next ?

Well what is next for me is that I will begin Part B next week.

I will withhold judgment until I meet the hordes of overseas graduates who are coming back to compete for a pie that growing smaller and smaller over time.

On the whole, I believe that SMU has prepared me well.

Heck, NUS Engineering and Finance school has prepared me well for this.

Bring it on !

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