Sunday, March 18, 2018

Thoughts on yesterday's Computation Law and Blockchain Event

There is nothing that a seasoned IT professional despises more than a lawyer who obstructs his projects in the corporate world. I should know, because I hated these corporate lawyers so much, I became one of them just to figure out how to prevent them from cock-blocking me at work.

After a week of training, the last thing most trainees want to do was to attend a full-day seminar with other legal professionals but this event is not just any ordinary event. This is a small tribe that I feel I really can relate to over the longer term, and I can build a lot of strategic friendships moving forward.

Here are my random thoughts on the event.

A more coherent view on how Technology will disrupt the Legal sector is quite a few years away.

a) Lawyers and Programmers can work together but it may not be practical to do so

The most impressive segment in the event is by Kommerce headed by my old friend Karen Teoh who is COO of this initiative. In her company's segment, a full fledged lawyer was talking about his experience working with a programmer on building a Smart contract. My IP law professor David Llewellyn has taught me that this has been done before, but I have always found the idea impractical because the uncertainty of the Agile methodology and ridiculous lawyer billing fees would make the software ridiculously expensive.

So naturally I acted all snarky and asked about whether this was practical moving forward given that lawyers are so expensive. I also asked if the price of programmers and lawyers would converge over the long term. It was such a troll question, the audience was laughing at me after I was done.

b) LegalTech will fail in Singapore without Government intervention

Another harsh truth I realised about LegalTech is how fragile it is in a place like Singapore.

There is absolutely no way law firms will welcome disruption in their space because they really want to preserve their hourly billings. Even SAP consulting has moved into fixed project billing eons ago. Furthermore, lawyers are also protected by the Legal Professions Act. If you wish to provide legal advice you need to make sure you're qualified to do so. So LegalTech only has a very small area to play in if they do not wish to flout local laws.

The other issue is that Computer Scientists tend to be extremely hubristic and think that the world can change if we can build a distributed ledger around anything that they would like to disrupt or launch an ICO.

Two groups of highly intelligent, hubristic and arrogant professionals are going to have a really bad time relating to each other. It's like a couple destined for divorce unless the Government injects a lot of tax payers money to fund startups that have a 95% chance of failure. The government also needs to create a safe sandbox where IT guys can disrupt the legal industry with fewer consequences. Unlike FinTech, there is also less money to go around because of the localised nature of our laws. Law firms do not scale globally as well as banks.

Also, as I've spent time as an IDA officer and used to be one of those Barcamp groupies, I prefer to discount everything shared by accelerators since all ROI gains figures are unrealised as of now.

If local accelerators have a big exit story to tell, they'd be in your face by now, but all we're seeing is a lot of "pivoting".

c) There is negligible attention on the real problems faced by small law firms.

I am a lowly trainee in a boutique law firm, I have a lot of skin in this game. If access to justice is a problem in our society, then more junior lawyers need to be able to do independent research and give more strategic advice to clients. But instead, junior lawyers are too busy supervising paralegals who have to do the real heavy lifting in disputes. Photocopying, scanning, e-Lit submissions and typing.

There is too much paper involved in legal work and OCR scanning tools are not perfect. Documentation management involves windows folders and Word.

A trainee can spend an entire evening creating table of contents, making references and preparing documents for submission into the courts. As I'm on the frontline right now, I also witnessed how dangerous outsourcing this work can be and why smaller law firms prefer to avoid negligence liability so they do the work themselves.

In IT you can outsource because programming code can be corrected by a an IDE or a compiler. In legal work, the compiler is a human being with decades of experience.

d) Anyone getting into LegalTech need to ensure that they have other avenues to escape to when they fail

Some law student friends asked me whether they should heed the call of the accelerators.

Startups are sexy, startup exits and IPOs are sexier still. If you make it, you will be in the same category as the  Razer CEO. Always remember that there is one Razer CEO but many startup founders who failed. Many have spent their youths working on small, agile corporate firms that are informal and have a different social capital from the corporate MNC suit. This has negative implications on their net worth and prospects of finding a spouse.

If anyone wishes to go LegalTech, the most important priority is to work out a plan B. If you are a lawyer, ensure that you complete Part B and can run into a smaller law firm with your buddy's help after your startup tanks. If you are programmer, you have to keep picking new technologies or find a way to teach part-time in a Poly so that you can have multiple sources of income.

Oh yes, you also should read financial blogs so that you can develop passive income to make yourself more anti-fragile. The last thing you want to do is to have all your stock equity invested in one start up that may not be around 5 years later when you are closer to starting a family or having children.

Anyway, I think this is a new beginning for me. I will somehow get into LegalTech one way or another over the long term, but for now, I will observe and learn.

This sector has a long way to go before it can be taken seriously.

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