This item has been updated since initial publication.
By Soo Siew Mei
The 3rd plenary session entitled “Global Trends in the Legal Profession: the Drivers and the Disruptors” was moderated by Chew Seng Kok, Partner of Zaid Ibrahim & Co, who recognised the timeliness of IMLC 2014’s theme — “Reshaping the Legal Profession, Reforming the Law” — which is inspired by the challenges in changing the landscape of the legal profession. In his own words, Mr Chew affirmed that he is a firm advocate for change and liberalisation.
The speaker, Tony Williams, Principal of Jomati Consultants LLP in the United Kingdom, approached this subject by looking at two particular areas that affect global trends, ie the drivers and the disruptors. The drivers of global trends cover (1) regionalisation and globalisation, (2) regulation, (3) the knowledge economy and most importantly, (4) client demands. While the disrupting elements of global trends cover (1) the effective use of technology, (2) new business methods, (3) cheap communication costs and (4) new entrants.
The Drivers of Global Trends
Mr Williams pointed out that since the global financial crisis in 2008, and with regionalisation and globalisation, the trade flow of goods, capital and know–how has shifted at unprecedented levels. Furthermore, the Internet provides accessibility to new markets, market information and customer demands.
Another driver of global trends is regulation. The regulators have become better resourced and more assertive, especially in Western economies. He noted the large scope with regard to regulation, as well as its potential extraterritorial impact, and remarked that a successful law firm is dependent on its understanding and navigating the regulatory maze.
The next driver of global trends is knowledge economy, to which Mr Williams highlighted that intellectual property is the most valuable asset of many of the world’s leading companies. Reference was drawn to the Chinese Internet–based e–commerce business, Alibaba, to show that technology has created broad and fantastic opportunities. However, it can also lead to titanic legal battles such as that between Apple and Samsung. In an era of information overloaded, one of the challenges is how to protect, use, and prioritise information and materials. He also reminded the audience that it is important not to forget how essential continuous innovation has become, and that the digital world enables countries to leapfrog technologies to adopt the best solutions, such as mobile banking.
He next emphasised that client demands must not be ignored, and stressed the importance of understanding what clients need, and to deliver the legal services, considering that every business expense has to be justified and reduced, with no exception to legal spend.
After discussing the drivers of global trends, he arrived at the subject of disruptors of global trends that are impacting the legal market.
The first and foremost disruptor is the use of technology. With the use of technology, much legal work can be done effectively, cheaply and comprehensively. However, the downside is that technology risks demystifying the legal profession. Therefore, professionals need to understand how to use it and to stay relevant.
The next disruptor, according to Mr Williams, is the challenge to re–examine new business methods. There is today, an increase in paralegal, contract lawyers, and even shoring and offshoring lawyers. In determining the business methods, there is a range of things that need to be looked. For this, a much higher level of professionalism is required.
Cheap communication costs have also affected global trends. With its ease of use, the fundamental proposition is to manage and maintain the accessibility of documents and the level of security.
On the issue of new entrants, Mr Williams stated that the traditional partnership model has begun to change. He revealed that in the United Kingdom, there are now law businesses owned by listed companies, private equity, retailers (co–ops) and local authorities. Other countries including Canada, Singapore and Hong Kong are also considering the issue of new entrants.
He next disclosed the next big thing that has developed and would affect the legal profession — the emerging large accounting firms that are also gaining grounds in fields relevant to them. Mr Williams raised the fact that in Asia, PwC has extended its legal offering into Singapore by tying up with a local law firm, Camford Law and is prioritising Japan, Hong Kong and China with interests in South Korea and Indonesia. PwC already has legal teams in Australia (where it recently added leading lawyers), India, Vietnam, Taiwan, Laos, Thailand and the Philippines.
To conclude, Mr Williams acknowledged that the legal profession faces an unprecedented period of change, much of it caused by developments outside the legal profession and outside its control. It is therefore important to ensure that lawyers are not merely legally competent, but also proficient in business and politics, and maintain openness and understanding of what is happening in other jurisdictions and how they can be applied. Last but not least, Mr Williams reiterated that lawyers must understand what their clients need and deliver the legal services.