Michael Lew, founder of LegalComet, talks about his move from working with large corporations to the world of legal tech startups in Singapore.
Asian-mena Counsel: Can you describe your professional background and your current role?
Michael Lew: I have been a technology consultant and legal technologist for over 17 years specialising in technology risk management, digital forensics, e-discovery and, in recent years, legal AI [artificial intelligence]. I have primarily worked with a barristers chambers, a leading law firm and Big Four advisory firms among other sizable corporations. In addition, I am a qualified digital forensics investigator who had provided expert testimonies in several high-profile cases and is the immediate past president of the High Technology Crime Investigation Association (Singapore Chapter). Towards the end of 2016, I left Deloitte as a director and embarked on my startup journey. Following my interest in the use of machine learning and predictive data analytics for the legal domain, I had a stint with the National University of Singapore as a researcher in the field of AI and blockchain, and had the opportunity to work directly with distinguished professors and data scientists. I am currently the founder of LegalComet, an innovation-driven legal tech advisory firm with a focus on delivering quality tech-enabled solutions in Asia. I remain active in both local and international legal tech communities and was recently invited by Russia’s Skolkovo Innovation Centre as a keynote speaker for their Legal AI Conference in Moscow. I would like to think of myself as a legal tech evangelist as I am always very excited to share my experience and to get more people on board this legal technology revolution.
AMC: How did you get into legal tech and why now?
ML: While pursuing a masters degree in information systems with the London School of Economics, I wrote a dissertation on bridging lawyers with technology for the 21st century and subsequently started my first job with a set of Chambers at Lincoln’s Inn, during the dot.com boom with a rather interesting role of interfacing between barristers and programmers to develop “intelligent”, self-drafting legal documents for one of the first document automation technologies, Rapidocs for desktoplawyer.co.uk.
Since the turn of the millennium, I have been intrigued with the potential convergence of technology and law and was determined to pursue a legal technology career back in Southeast Asia. Unfortunately, I was ahead of the times and realised that the local legal industry wasn’t ready for any drastic changes to the way that legal services were delivered. I reinvented myself as a digital forensic investigator and e-discovery consultant, and worked with Big Four advisory firms while keeping a very close interest in the development of legal technology around the globe. Fast forward 15-18 years later and now legal technology in Southeast Asia, especially Singapore, has taken a new lease on life. The success of many fintech firms with their innovative and somewhat disruptive business model has garnered a lot more interest for legal tech startups from both the providers and customers of legal services. In addition, the emergence of game-changing technologies such as AI, blockchain and cloud computing is instrumental in levelling the playing field between large corporations and smaller startups. When size does not matter as much, speed and innovation is the new denominator of building a successful business and that’s just fine with me.
AMC: Is Singapore a good environment for legal tech startups?
ML: It’s awesome. Riding on the introduction of Singapore’s Legal Technology Vision in 2017, the energy and activity of the legal tech startups in Singapore has been phenomenal. The Legal Technology Vision is a five-year roadmap that encourages both innovation and technology in the legal industry. It also serves as a call-to-action for lawyers to enhance their practices by leveraging on technology and for non-lawyers or legal technology providers to engage in public-private collaboration for the building of a strong legal tech ecosystem. One such initiative is the Singapore Academy of Law’s Future Law Innovation Programme (FLIP), which aims to connect lawyers, technopreneurs, investors, academics and regulators under a common platform that will support the development of new models for the delivery of legal services in the future economy. FLIP is hugely successful in bringing together legal tech startups and stakeholders under one roof with thought leadership workshops, fantastic events and a legal innovation lab (co-working space) across the road from the Singapore Supreme Court where I now spend most of my time, interacting with like-minded legal technology professionals.
AMC: You co-authored a book on e-discovery in Asia, can you tell us more?
ML: My foray into e-discovery came about by happenstance during my first job in Singapore with Rajah & Tann, a leading law firm in Asia, where I was tasked to identify a better way to manage and review electronic evidence. Anyone who dealt with litigation support in the 2000s can attest that it was an interesting time, where ‘electronic’ discovery involved both soft copy (electronically stored documents) as well as a sizable amount of hard copy (paper documents) that required digitalisation, OCR [optical character recognition] and coding. There was a lot of background work involved to get both sets of documents into a common platform. Over the years, more electronic data was created and the proportion of soft-copy documents clearly over-shadowed hard copy documents. Due to the exponential volume of electronic data to be reviewed, the use of machine learning or AI was introduced in what is commonly known as technology-assisted review. In fact, this was one of the earlier attempts by legal tech professionals, including myself, to use AI for legal processes. And following the introduction of Singapore’s E-Discovery Practice Direction in 2009, I had the opportunity to managed hundreds of e-discovery projects and had developed some best practices that are better suited for projects in Asia. Through a chance conversation with Benjamin Ang and Bryan Tan, who were my ex-colleagues from Rajah & Tann, we decided to collaborate as co-authors and subsequently launched our book on e-discovery in Asia in 2017.
AMC: Is AI overrated or overlooked by lawyers in Singapore?
ML: Following my first-hand experience on the effective use of AI in the form of machine learning and predictive data analytics for e-discovery, I am convinced that AI is not just a passing trend and should not be overlooked by lawyers. AI in many ways is an enabling tool for lawyers but it’s a lot more than what a typewriter was for lawyers in the 19th century or a computer in 20th century. Artificial intelligence, as the name suggests, has the capability of producing some manner of intelligence albeit using ‘artificial’ means, in other words AI can perform a desired task such as a first pass review of a legal document with little or no human intervention. Many people say that AI cannot replace human lawyers, which is true to some extent, but it is also true to say that lawyers cannot replace AI. What do I mean? AI is designed to handle big data and can review or analyse millions of documents in hours, as compared to weeks or months for a team of lawyers. On mundane and repeatable tasks, AI is consistent, works 24/7, does not get bored and does not ask for a raise. Hence it is a super enabling tool or ‘trusty sidekick’ for lawyers when dealing with a large amount of data or a huge volume of repeatable tasks. Most lawyers in Singapore that I have spoken to are cautiously optimistic on the use of AI and understand that, ultimately, AI and lawyers will need to work together to achieve high-value outcomes for their clients.
AMC: What advice can you give those who wish to launch a legal tech startup?
ML: A quote from Steve Jobs springs to mind: “Think different.” In my experience, the biggest disruption for a legal tech startup is yourself, as it requires a drastic change of mindset and is definitely not for the faint-hearted. Most founders of legal tech startups like myself had worked for large corporations for many years and are accustomed to a certain corporate culture and expectations. When it comes to launching a legal tech startup, the only certainty is uncertainty. Prepare to think differently and accept that things may not always go according to plan. The common challenges of a startup are the uniqueness of the business model or product, commercial viability, getting the right people on board and the race against time. Of course, capital or funding is always a crucial consideration — be realistic on how much you need to spend and exercise self-discipline in adhering to the budget. Before launching a legal tech startup, my advice is to do a lot of research, talk to your potential clients and investors, start small with a minimum viable product and take your time in selecting the right co-founders. While you can expect challenges, it is also very rewarding to be in the driver’s seat of something new and innovative that could potentially change the landscape for the delivery of legal services in the near future.