Digital legal skills help business cross borders


Rajesh Sreenivasan (left), with Steve Tan (second left) and senior RTT team members

Law firms are using tech to improve services for clients and break down their own silos.

Asian law firm Rajah & Tann’s legal and technological prowess was thrust into in the spotlight recently when Wirecard, a digital payments provider, asked it to report on alleged fraud and forgery at the company’s Singapore arm. Rajah & Tann Singapore, which has developed a name for skilful use of legal technology, reported in March that it had unearthed forged documents and accounting irregularities.

The client has insisted that the “investigation reveals no material impact on financial reports of Wirecard”, according to a press statement. A criminal investigation of Wirecard is continuing in Singapore and R&T’s report was not the final word on the matter. The firm’s investigation could be seen, however, as a good illustration of how law and tech are now inextricably linked when it comes to corporate legal matters.

As Rajesh Sreenivasan, who heads the firm’s technology, media and telecoms practice, puts it: “Our forensic technology investigation and e-discovery project management capabilities, along with our multidisciplinary legal expertise, are helping us enter financial crime investigation markets.”

As the firm’s work for clients took on more digital aspects, Mr Sreenivasan, along with colleague Steve Tan, decided a couple of years ago to create a separate business: Rajah & Tann Technologies. They felt it was a way for R&T to get in on the growing business of delivering legal services digitally.

The new company, launched in January 2018, does not offer legal advice. Instead, Rajah & Tann Technologies provides help on e-discovery, cyber security, data breach readiness and response as legal tech services. In November it bought LegalComet, a local e-discovery start-up.

The addition of LegalComet, which uses artificial intelligence to forensically interrogate data, will also help R&T compete with professional services firms such as PwC, EY and Deloitte, which are all ramping up their legal offerings in the region. “A technological solution is critical for the delivery of a lot of legal services that businesses need — crossborder litigation, restructuring and insolvency, and international arbitrations — as deals and transactions become borderless,” Mr Sreenivasan says.

The firm handles “numerous cross-border data breaches” for clients, for instance, which can involve the personal data of individuals across all 10 Asean countries and in particular Singapore, Malaysia, Indonesia, Thailand and the Philippines. Rajah & Tann can marshal its offices in each location to assist with data breach investigations and subsequent litigation and regulatory support, while Rajah & Tann Technologies experts provide technical cyber security support services, Mr Sreenivasan says.

Other forward-looking law firms around the region are similarly using digitisation to change the core of what they do, and how.

When Gary Adler took charge of Australian law firm MinterEllison’s technology four years ago, he had already spent more than a decade managing law firm IT systems elsewhere and had seen how many IT departments were siloed within their organisations. But once the legal-tech sector began to encroach on the bread and butter business of law firms — with services such as contract automation, legal research and document storage — Mr Adler saw the role of chief digital officer in a new light.

“It’s about core processes. You can’t just throw a digital layer on top of a 200-year-old law firm. Your focus should be on the business imperatives and process optimisation first,” he says. “Sometimes the solution to getting better is digital, but other times it isn’t — you have to know which is which.”

Like many firms, MinterEllison increasingly makes use of a relatively new kind of colleague — heads of legal operations (holos), whose job description usually includes overseeing tasks including strategic planning, analytics and team building. Unusually, however, in MinterEllison’s case, the holos are often trained lawyers who sit in the firm’s practice areas, answering both to Mr Adler and to their respective practice managing partners.

They attend practice meetings and understand the processes, business imperatives and intricacies of their team’s specific practice of law, making them integral to the set-up, he says.

“They’re lawyers who want to work on the business rather than in the business,” Mr Adler says, adding that they are typically paid in the same remuneration bracket as their practising lawyer peers. “They’re not deep techies but they have a real thirst for process improvement. And they’re trusted by other attorneys because they’re qualified lawyers.”

Mr Adler has been “genuinely surprised” by the low level of resistance to change from the practising lawyers. The firm’s leaders have put their “collective weight behind this strategy . . . recognising that ‘Big Law’ is not immutable to disruption”.

Whether it be litigation evidence management, keeping track of changing corporate contract terms, or managing non-disclosure agreements, each practice has its own client offerings, procedures and areas of legal specialisation. Mr Adler and the holos search through the processes for “points of optimisation”.

Once they locate such an area, they identify efficiencies and digital solutions. As much as possible, they use off-the-shelf products, lightly customised, rather than entangling the firm in internal software development.

Ultimately, Mr Adler’s team produce a case study in the form of an infographic that identifies “wins” for clients and the business: “Something like ‘this process used to take seven hours and now it takes seven minutes’.”

A year into this “legal operations model” transformation, Mr Adler adds, the project has savedmore than 30,000 hours and removed A$1.3m of internal costs.