SINGAPORE (July 9): The glamour and big bucks of the law has long been a key pillar of the “Singapore Dream”, but the trials and tribulations of the legal profession have often been cause for second thoughts. A day in the life of a high-flying attorney involves poring through piles of legal documents written in arcane language under severe time pressure. Small wonder, then, that three out of four lawyers leave the profession within 10 years. 

Memories of stressful all-nighters, dealing with difficult bosses and having meals at odd hours remain vivid in the mind of one young lawyer. “You will also become heavily reliant on coffee or energy drinks, and drink copious amounts of alcohol on nights off to combat the stress and calm the nerves. Your social life will suffer. And trust me, you are going to be cancelling a lot of lunch and dinner appointments,” says RV, a member of the Law Society’s Young Lawyer’s Committee in an op-ed for its Law Gazette publication. 

Much of this stress stems from how law firms manage the reams of information that come their way. As Singapore’s common law legal system requires lawyers to cite legal precedent from past cases, attorneys need to deal with large amounts of information gleaned over several years. 

Borrowing a line made famous by former US defence secretary Donald Rumsfeld, former lawyer Chang Zi Qian says that attorneys often “don’t know what they don’t know”. The process by which they obtain information from databases and colleagues is often uncoordinated and manual.

Such an odious research burden does not even yield significant benefits to the law firms — if anything, it causes them to lose money. Since the 2008 financial crisis, time spent on research by law firms is no longer considered “billable hours”. It means that any time spent navigating Byzantine databases eats into the amount of time lawyers spend on work that clients will pay for. The time and energy expended to search for documents eat into the stamina and focus that could be better spent on higher-order tasks like developing case strategy.

The way Chang sees it, the essence of the professional services business lies in the ability to provide knowledge-based services grounded on the existence of intellectual assets. “Reinventing the wheel without reference to previous work whenever there is a new piece of work incurs unnecessary time and cost,” he says. 

Useful information is often lost amid the large volumes of information that law firms work with. With the meat grinder of industry turnover, much institutional knowledge is constantly lost, leaving actively practising lawyers forced to reconstruct the information from scratch.

To solve this problem, Chang left not only a prestigious civil service career with the Singapore government’s National Research Foundation but also a lucrative trainee position with “Big Four” law firm Rajah and Tann. 

Together with his primary school friend, former banker co-founder and co-CEO Ellery Sutanto, Chang co-founded legal tech start-up Intelllex and developed an online platform to streamline the process of knowledge management. Using AI and machine learning (ML), they hope to modernise the information management process and create a more intuitive experience for users.

Attorneys of the future

Intelllex’s system is based on the premise of categorising information in a coherent manner that is understood by professionals. The software divides information by legal topic (e.g. corporate governance, financial services regulation) and document type (i.e. textbooks, submissions), and extracts the central legal question within a particular document. Intelllex’s database system stores information based on these criteria to enable quick access and neat categorisation. 

To be sure, similar digital legal research tools and repositories exist. Two of the more established providers are LexisNexis and Westlaw. However, Chang points out that such firms are largely content-driven. They sell their own legal content or compile content from a range of sources (such as US Supreme Court judgments) for sale. In contrast, Intelllex designs a system of classification to arrange the individual knowledge banks of its clients in a manner that allows for a more effective use of their own information.

The process of reading and classifying legal information is typically carried out manually by paralegals, professional support lawyers, law librarians or other research staff. With legal documents potentially running up to dozens or even hundreds of pages, the process is extremely time-consuming. This is exacerbated especially when the process is carried out by a team of people who may disagree on how to interpret and classify the documents.

Worse, smaller firms often do not have the luxury of a bespoke research staff. Inexperienced junior associates are often the ones doing this “donkey work” and, because they fear omitting important information, tend to use an excessive amount of boolean operators during research, resulting in a more cumbersome process compared to commercial search engines like Google. 

All these make the classification of legal information a frustrating experience. As Sutanto says: “Why should [it be that] when I search things on Google I have a very intuitive experience, but when I go back to work, everything goes 20 years backwards?” 

Using AI and ML, however, Intelllex allows users to classify documents within seconds of uploading them. Based on keywords relevant to particular legal topics or issues, an algorithm quickly sorts the documents into appropriate categories and extracts the legal question within a given document within seconds. Researchers can then clean up any possible classification errors made by the system or update the system to account for new areas of law, with ML updating the software’s classification system to become more accurate based on these corrections. 

Beyond just classifying legal information, however, Intelllex also creates a knowledge map that allows users to understand how the legal topics correlate with one another. Lawyers can therefore search related categories for potentially useful information to back their case. This feature is also particularly useful when searching for legal opinions from foreign jurisdictions, where terminology may differ from that of Singapore. 

Such features can benefit law students as well — Intelllex, which serves mostly corporate clients, has offered discounted services to students who have reached out individually, although the start-up has yet to work with local law schools. According to Sutanto, students will be able to use this system to transcend the siloed nature of academic legal teaching to understand the law in a multifaceted way, enabling them to see how different areas of the law interact with one another when resolving complex legal problems that arise in the legal industry. 

“If law schools roll out our software to every student, their careers will start from day one in law school,” says an optimistic Chang. He points out that storing legal research undertaken during classes would allow students to draw on this bank of knowledge when they begin work. This, he suggests, would ease the learning curve when they enter the workplace while also giving them an additional source of information they could use when working on cases. 

Taking on the world

Intelllex has met with significant success so far, winning US$2.1 million ($2.9 million) in startup funding despite weak investor confidence following Covid-19. Led by Quest Ventures, investors include Thomson Reuters, Creative Technology founder Sim Wong Woo, and early Razer investors Chandra Mohan and Chong Chiet Ping. “We like that Intelllex’s ‘brains with AI brawn’ offering is well-positioned to resolve age-old productivity and delivery problems across multiple B2B industries,” says Quest Ventures partner Jeffery Seah, who will join Intelllex’s Board after the funding round.

The legal industry appears to agree, with Intelllex boasting a star-studded portfolio of clients. Besides government bodies and several of Singapore’s “Big Four” law firms — Allen and Gledhill, Drew and Napier, Rajah and Tann, and WongPartnership — Intelllex also works with one of Britain’s prestigious “Magic Circle” law firms in the UK, Hong Kong and Singapore. Smaller law firms are also well-represented among the start-up’s clientele, with such outfits constituting the bulk of its earliest clients since its founding in 2015. 

The founders credit much of their success to Singapore’s advantageous position as a hub for technology, legal and professional services. As a centre for trade, finance and transport, Singapore has also sought to develop itself into what CNN calls “Asia’s one-stop legal city” to rival London and Hong Kong. The republic’s Smart Nation initiative and start-up-friendly outlook has also made it a conducive environment for technological innovation, giving Singapore an edge over Hong Kong where legal tech is currently less developed. 

“Legal technology is fast becoming one of the most important initiatives driven by the government. For example, it was announced at the start of May 2019 that a programme would be launched for law practices to get funding support of up to 70% for the first-year costs of adopting baseline and advanced technology solutions in their practices,” says Dominic Wrench of law firm Taylor Vinters in an op-ed for Lexology. The Singapore Academy of Law has also set up the Future Law Innovation Programme to incubate new legal tech start-ups. 

Chang and Sutanto are looking to tap into the global legal tech market. Intelllex already has an office in London to tap into the superior connectivity of the English legal system to other Commonwealth legal jurisdictions. It set up shop in London after it was selected as the only non-UK firm to participate in Barclays’s Legal Labs and won a contest to participate in Thomson Reuters Labs. 

The ambitious duo is considering establishing another office in Hong Kong and has not ruled out expanding into related professional services such as financial services regulation and listed company compliance. Regulations and rules are conceptually similar to legal information, and Intelllex can readily apply its technology in these industries.

The future of the legal industry, Chang predicts, will gradually make space for “knowledge products” (i.e. easily-retrievable information) as opposed to the traditional pure service model where lawyers bill by the hour. “We believe that knowledge can be repackaged as an asset itself that can generate revenue,” adds Sutanto. He highlights that such easily available information could yield cost and time savings as opposed to repeated visits to one’s lawyer. AI-enabled knowledge management, the founders believe, will be crucial to ensuring that this information can be efficiently packaged and provided to clients upon request.

Intelllex’s approach to the legal industry is perhaps best summarised by this sentiment from Google’s head of legal operations, Mary O’Driscoll, whom Sutanto and Intelllex data science product manager Neil Yap quoted in an oped for the Law Gazette: “Lawyers are knowledge workers. They want to work, and their clients want them to work — on interesting, high-value activities, rather than recreating the wheel.”