In Conversation: Greg Chew, General Counsel and Chief Legal Officer,
Nanyang Technological University (NUT)
As GC to one of Asia's leading universities, Grew Chew has been close to some of the region's pioneering tech projects. But operating within public institution means getting creative with technology.
Legal innovation is not only about technology, but the way lawyers operate. Most lawyers used to see an in-house role as a way of having better work life balance - this has changed and so have the expectations around them. To be a legal innovator you need to be a solution provider. Technical expertise is a given, being a solution provider is the next step, and the final and more significant part of legal innovation is being a thought leader.
Even though Nanyang Technological University, Singapore (NTU) is a public funded university and a charity, we have leveraged our digital tools very significantly.
When I joined NTU two years ago we were getting contract approvals through email or manually by paper, with several signatories required at the executive committee level. We retooled Adobe Sign, our e-signing platform, to use it, in parallel to e-signing, as an approval workflow system. We were able to do this by using existing licenses, and the new process has been extremely successful and well received.
The lesson is that legal innovation doesn't always mean spending a lot of money. The second tool we implemented is Convene, a piece of board management software. We transformed our governance architecture by migrating, as of late 2019, our resolutions, meeting minutes, and corporate instrument documents to this platform. Previously, these documents were circulated by emails. This is still fairly novel for a lot of organisations, and possibly for universities which tend to be slower to adopt certain technologies. We wanted to demonstrate that we could move ahead despite this.
In most organisations, if you need IT support you log a ticket, and someone will get back to you to say "got your ticket". We realised we could leverage this system as a workflow tool, not only to track case assignment to, or workload of, our legal officers, but to better understand data analytics - the quantity and quality of the work we're doing. For this we used a platform called ServiceNow, an enterprise workflow tool.
This system was not ordinarily meant for that purpose, the employees that use it are IT, housing and facilities, the construction team etc. but we leveraged on the platform and licences that were already there. We have now gone digital for legal support requests.
We also embarked on legal process outsourcing (LPO) to handle growing contract demands, which you might think would be based in Asia but is in fact based in Europe. Legal innovation is not confined to home locations, especially with our current global situation.
In future we will look to implement a chatbot for legal help, so questions like "How do I get my contract approved?" and "Where do I get a template for this NDA?" can be processed. NTU has about 10,000 staff at the University and is the number 47 ranked institution in the world according to recent rankings. We want robust systems and processes that match our research and academic standards and ambitions.
Legal tech challenges lawyers to add value beyond what they ordinarily do. The things we were spending a lot of administrative time on are now being absorbed by legal tech, so we really need to show the value that we add. In the context of new legal tech coming in, we would rather preserve headcount and leverage technology than grow headcount, but at the same time, we want to upskill team members so we don't have to deal with rightsizing when the time comes. We can say we will invest more in technology instead of hiring more people and add skills we don't have today.
As lawyers we can still be very traditional in our mind-set; we see ourselves as subject matter experts and are typically conservative going into fields we don't know. Some of the Singapore law firms are now realising there's a gap in the market and have now started to set up companies as spin offs from their own law firms. They're limiting those companies to legal tech, with set up of legal tech tools which they can offer to their clients.
But what we need to do as a profession is explore how we work in adjacent fields that are not necessarily related to our subject matter expertise. Over time automation and AI tools will get better, so the question is, what is the gap the lawyer has to fill? Those who are very specialised (like tax lawyers) will continue as before. But what does the other type of lawyer do? What's different about them? I think they're the ones who will define the future of lawyering.