Singapore’s ambitions for the legal industry

By Yves Faguy December 11, 201811 December 2018

Singapore’s ambitions for the legal industry


Singapore wants to modernize the delivery of legal services to achieve two aims: to make justice more accessible to regular users and to position itself as Asia’s – if not the world’s – state-of-the-art legal hub. Already considered by some the preferred seat for arbitration in Asia, it has recently allowed third-party financing for arbitration-related disputes. On the access-to-justice front, the country is looking at the implementation of scale costs for litigation. CBA National caught up with Mark A. Cohen, CEO of Legal Mosaic, who has recently returned from a residency period at the Singapore Academy of Law, to share with us his impressions.

CBA National: What’s most striking to you about the legal industry in Singapore?

Mark A. Cohen: Well, first of all, it’s the alignment of the different stakeholders —from the Singapore Academy of Law to regulators to the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, and law schools. They are all focused on improving legal delivery and education, and making Singapore a major regional, if not global, legal player. This effort feeds off Singapore’s enormous success in financial services and fintech and its standing as a dispute resolution and commercial center. I’m just wowed by the thoughtfulness of their game plan to achieve these objectives. I’m also impressed by the understanding and focus on the need to retrain lawyers and legal professionals as well as to take a global view. I’m also impressed by their ability to execute. Singapore is small and nimble, but its resources, brainpower, and global standing is formidable. There’s also a real sense of urgency in this and other initiatives they undertake.

N: Why is there a sense of urgency?

MC: I think it springs from two sources. First, Singapore realizes the importance of having democratized legal access to ensure people maintain respect for the rule of law. Second is the realization that there’s an enormous business opportunity not only for Singapore’s legal industry but also adjacent ones.

N: How do they square their business-minded focus with the other challenges that justice systems face concerning access to justice?

MC: First of all, Singapore does not have nearly so acute an access to justice problem as in the U.S., Canada, the UK, Australia, or other legal centers. Singapore’s unrepresented percentage is in the 20% range compared to 85% in the States. The Singapore government has committed significant funds for legal assistance, but the number of clients/cases is increasing steadily with additional incremental funds. That means Government-paid lawyers are doing more work for less money. Lawyers are getting frustrated, so the government is saying to them, “Well, the way to create a win-win situation is you’ve got to be more efficient. You’ve got to develop new delivery models, and by the way, we will help in terms of technology.” The goal is to target people who are not qualifying for government-subsidized legal representation but aren’t the super-rich. And they’re coming up with some pretty creative solutions by investing in legal technology, incubators whose mission is to come up with technology that is going to be responsive to these kinds of use cases. They’re looking very seriously at online dispute resolution, and they’re looking at AI in terms of self-help solutions to certain kinds of legal problems.

N: How is it that they can align different justice stakeholders, and we find it so difficult here in Canada or the U.S. even though so many players want to improve access to justice. It just this intractable problem we have. Is it because Singapore is small, or is it a cultural difference?

MC: Their attitude is completely different. In Singapore, it’s all about lifelong learning.  Their commercials are all about retraining and adult education-type programs. It’s a very different mindset. Culturally, there’s a real “we” mentality and a sense of shared societal purpose. People work hard and take great pride in doing a good job. There’s also a political component to it. Singapore’s leadership ensures that things are done. There is not the kind of gridlock that we face here in the States and in other large Western democracies. They decide they’re going to do something and it gets done. There is great thoughtfulness in the effort—have a look at the Committee on the Future Economy Report, a public document, and you will see what I mean.

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