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Exploring remote work, digitalisation in legal sector amidst COVID-19

Singapore Business Review logo Singapore Business Review 22/2/2021 Staff Reporter
a flat screen tv sitting in front of a television: Screen capture from Supreme Court © Provided by Singapore Business Review Screen capture from Supreme Court

As industries gradually recover from the impacts and changes brought by the COVID-19 pandemic, improving the working environment in businesses has become paramount in ensuring success amidst disruptions and uncertainties.

The legal industry is no exception, urging a review of how services are being delivered to clients.

During the TechLaw.Fest in October 2020, Second Minister for Law Edwin Tong launched the Legal Industry Technology and Innovation Roadmap (TIR) which sets out plans by the Ministry of Law (MinLaw) to promote innovation, technology adoption, and development in Singapore's legal industry over the next decade.

"The TIR seeks to encourage the legal industry to step up efforts in technology adoption and innovation, so that we can better position ourselves to seize more opportunities in the new normal," Tong said during the event.

"The profession now has a deeper understanding of the implications and opportunities of digital transformation and we hope this week has provided a new impetus for changes in mindsets on what legal services are all about," Singapore Academy of Law chief executive officer Serene Wee added.

Furthermore, the need to orient legal professionals as to how the industry will work post-pandemic and the necessary adjustments involved to it has been signified by the changing stipulations of the Singapore government.

Local firms have also adapted to evolve their strategies in ensuring continued operations despite going into an uncharted territory.

Accelerating technology adoption in legal services

The COVID-19 outbreak has accelerated the shift of legal services in the virtual realm.

In its efforts to tackle the virus outbreak in early 2020, the judiciary has enabled court hearings to be conducted through video conferencing via a variety of platforms.

For law firm Dentons Rodyk, the expectations of clients on how legal services are delivered have also changed. Law firms have to adapt in order to continue with uninterrupted service delivery to clients.

"Lawyers needed to learn how to conduct virtual meetings effectively, and work within legal teams and clients on the various platforms; virtual advocacy skills had to be learnt and honed in a short span of time," Dentons Rodyk senior partner and chief operating officer Kia Meng Loh said.

He added that business support professionals had to find ways to aid the changes, including digitalising workflow, electronic signatures, e-billings, e-payments, and online repository of documents.

Whilst the pandemic has highlighted the importance of digital tools and solutions, and has accelerated digital transformation in the legal sector, Dentons Rodyk has most of its services digitised even before the pandemic.

"We have totally digitized all internal processes and also legal service delivery to clients. We can now say that a client matter can be pitched, engaged, served, billed and fees collected all virtually, if the client so prefers," Loh said.

He noted that whilst many functions can be done remotely or virtually, it will be difficult for all functions to be done the same way.

Certain functions such as dispatch of legal documents and service of court documents still require personal attention. Dentons Rodyk has ensured that its personnel who perform these functions have taken extra precautions, including wearing of personal protective equipment when carrying out their duties.

Moreover, some pockets of activity, such as billings, collections, and collection and delivery of correspondence, were still done with papers.

"During the pandemic, we had to create digital workflows and systems for all processes. There was a learning curve not only for our lawyers and support staff, but also for our clients, who had to get used to working with law firms remotely and digitally," Loh said.

For law firm Withers KhattarWong, its continuing investment in technology and digitalisation empowers its lawyers to efficiently support clients' requests from any location.

These technologies include softphone capabilities, cloud video conferencing capabilities, in-office technology to facilitate the client's preferred cloud communication solution, and widespread adoption of collaboration tools.

"Withers will continue to invest in modern technologies which support and enhance these working practices in order to best serve our clients," Withers KhattarWong regional head of dispute resolution Shashi Nathan said.

Amongst the key enablers is its digital strategy, which is implementing modern workflow and automation technologies to drive greater efficiency across the firm's processes.

Withers KhattarWong has also launched a range of mobile applications which allow scanning, expense management, collaboration, time recording, partner voting, and intranet access to be available from any location.

Strengthening the wellbeing of the legal workforce

Firms have also seen the need to transform workplace culture in order to efficiently deliver services, moreso that remote work is becoming a staple. In these trying times, the mental and physical wellbeing of employees impacts businesses much more.

The management has to progress and show support to the employees as everyone is still getting used to new systems in the workplace.

Nathan noted that there is a strong participation and positive feedback in Withers KhattarWong's morale-boosting initiatives, including group conversations on mental health, webinars on financial wellbeing, and virtual workout sessions.

He added that the Withers Tree of Life initiative is a coordinated approach to its global sustainability efforts across the firm.

"This is made up of six core branches, namely communication and involvement, diversity and inclusion, environment, giving back, pro bono work and wellbeing," Nathan said.

Meanwhile, Dentons Rodyk had to draw up and speedily implement hybrid working mode policies in reaction to the changing stipulations of the government.

"Lawyers and support professionals had to be agile to adapt to switching from working from home and working from office and vice versa. There had to be a shift in mindsets," Loh said.

Work environment at Dentons Rodyk during the pandemic involved split team systems, regular internal communications, equipping tools to support remote work, and constant engagement with teams to ensure deliverables are met whilst still having a safe workplace.

It has also recognised how certain groups of employees may be more vulnerable to the effects of the pandemic. Loh mentioned that the firm introduced initiatives to assist these vulnerable groups, such as a COVID-19 hardship fund for employees and a virtual run to raise funds for the SAWL scholarship fund.

Firms' efforts to go beyond pandemic

Despite most of the work in 2020 for most law firms were from existing client relationships, the gradual easing of in-person meetings helped firms meet with clients more often.

"Establishing new client relationships will still be more effective when done in person, as human interaction is still required to establish trust and confidence," Loh said.

With the legal sector's efforts to catch up in digitalisation amongst industries, adopted technologies and the implementation of remote work is likely to stay post-pandemic and have lasting changes in the practice of law.

"Our efforts in enhancing efficiency through digitisation and engaging our team through wellbeing initiatives are set to evolve and grow even beyond the pandemic to enable the delivery of excellent legal advice and services to our clients," Nathan said.

Businesses will need lawyers more than ever to ensure governance, compliance, and practices are kept in check to mitigate risks and reduce uncertainties. Both firms remain optimistic that the legal sector will continue to thrive despite the uncertainties.

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