When it comes to investment in different types of legal tech, it is clear governments are investing. However, when it comes to the type of tech and provider for, this can vary whether outsourced to an international, regional or domestic company and seems in some cases, there is a combination. In addition, GCs own companies are also investing in creating new tech solutions in-house vs hiring external providers.
'IF I'D LIVED IN ROMAN TIMES, I'D HAVE
LIVED IN ROME.'
John Lennon's famous words when asked by a journalist why he
was living in New York, then the cultural and economic centre
of the world. In 2020, a growing number of tech investors that
have relocated to Beijing are giving a similar answer.
President Xi Jinping has outlined a plan to make China a world
leader in advanced technologies, investing more than a trillion
dollars into key industries. Even without this state support, the
country's tech sector is on an upward swing. Investment in its
artificial intelligence (AI) sector for the first half of 2020 has
already surpassed US$9bn, making China one of the leading
global players in the field.
Following China's lead, tech companies across Asia have seen
a boom in investment. Many of the region's fastest growing
businesses - Hong Kong's WeLab, Singapore's Synagie, India's
GoBolt - are led by charismatic, tech-savvy entrepreneurs.
The region's legal industry, often seen as a bastion of
conservative values, is now waking up to the challenge of
technology. Singapore now houses one of the largest legal tech
accelerator programs in the world, Chinese courts have become
world leaders in the use of technology, and even less mature
markets have turned to technology as a way of bypassing their
stretched legal systems.
To find out why the region is proving to be such a fertile ground
for legal innovation, and how this is impacting in-house counsel,
we speak to general counsel who are making the most of legal
States across Asia Pacific are jostling for position, with
substantial sums being spent by governments aiming to achieve
legal technological pre-eminence. Already, legal tech initiatives
region-wide have ridden on the crest of this wave. For example,
Indonesia has made amendments to laws affecting legal
tech, for instance by introducing a list of certified Indonesiane-signature providers.
India has huge domestic demand for
legal tech as it looks to boost efficiency in what is still mostly a
pen and paper legal system.
Increasingly, the more established corridors of business are
looking to capitalise on this success. Stung by the rising number
of high-profile tech companies looking to list outside the region,
the Singapore Exchange (SGX) has started offering grants to
help fast growth businesses cover the legal and regulatory
costs of their listings. In a similar move, Hong Kong's financial
secretary Paul Chan Mo-po has set aside HK$50bn (US$6.5bn)
in funding to support greater innovation and technology
development in Hong Kong.
In April 2020, the Government of Hong Kong announced a
HK$35m LAWTECH Fund to assist law firms and chambers
upgrade their IT systems. As Jerrold Soh, assistant professor
of computational law at Singapore Management University
'Hong Kong's approach is similar to Singapore's in that it is
driven by external demand, but their focus is more on the
mainland China market, especially technology related to the
Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). For instance, a comprehensive
electronic dispute resolution, arbitration and mediation
platform was constructed out of Hong Kong to assist the
Taken together, these initiatives suggest a regional trend, but
the Asia Pafic tech market is anything but a unified field. It is,
says Jerrold Soh, a market preoccupied with solving domestic
rather than regional problems, and nowhere is this truer than
'Domestic demand is the key driving force for Chinese
tech companies, many of which are not so much interested
in attracting outside investment. They really are just building
their own topologies, and the same rule applies in the
legal tech space.' 'There are so many new tech startups,
firms and applications that are being built there. Not
only are these companies becoming significant players,
but they are changing the way we think about the law.
You can have an entire dispute resolved on an app,
powered by WeChat. That is something incredibly exciting
in the legal field that is being driven by Chinese tech and
While many of even the largest tech companies remain unknown
outside the PRC, they boast user bases that would be the envy
of a Silicon Valley unicorn. They are also becoming increasingly
sophisticated, adds Ivy Wu, head of legal for Greater China
at American business-to-business IT service provider DXC
'In the time I have observed the development of legal tech in
China, I have found that in both litigation and non-litigation
products the technology has developed amazingly fast. For nonlitigation software - for example, for document management
and review tools - Chinese technology is now more advanced
than anything available internationally. There are suppliers
focusing on contract management processes and internal
process approval on legal documents which have proved to be
very effective, as has software aimed at the record keeping of
Nancy Wei, head of legal for Skechers China, says the rapidly
maturing domestic tech scene offers legal counsel greater
flexibility when it comes to resourcing legal matters.
'We use a mix of both international and domestic Chinese
technology in our team. For our database systems we use
internationally known suppliers that have been active in
the market for several years. However, for contract
management we select local suppliers who may or may
not have international experience, but who, in this area,
tend to provide systems that are more user-friendly for the
Kenji Tagaya, general counsel executive officer and head of
the legal group at JERA, Japan's largest power generation
company, says it is common for large organisations to look to
both domestic and international providers.
'We introduced two [tech providers] for contractual review
purposes, one English and one Japanese. I find this necessary
as a Japanese solution is needed for Japanese-language
documents and an international provider is needed for Englishlanguage documents.'
'Some international companies also claim that they have
Japanese language adaptability, but the quality is limited
because of the nature of AI. Unless they process a huge
amount of data, the AI will not grow to a level of capability
that satisfies us.'
A home-grown revolution
It is not just the rise of domestic tech firms that is changing the
way GCs operate. Increasingly, legal teams across the Asia-Pacific
region are looking to develop their own IT platforms before
turning to external suppliers.
Carl Watson, general counsel for Asia at design and engineering
consultancy Arcadis, underlines the value this brings to the legal
'What I would say is that you don't know what you don't have
until you look... There's a whole volume of very helpful apps that
you're paying for anyway, but you probably don't even know it;
I've always been quite interested in what's available and then
optimising these sorts of technologies.'
'Demonstrating value through use of simple technology tools to
provide dashboard insight into what we're doing [is] how I got
the ball rolling in the very early days. I think it's about building
trust and identifying tools that were available without needing
any great investment'.
Faz Hussen, general counsel and director of government
relations at McDonald's Singapore, has found similar benefits in
harnessing existing technology within the legal team.
'Using home-grown software has two main advantages.
It is obviously much cheaper, and developing our own
in-house software means that we can hedge on business
costs as opposed to getting them signed off for external
Technology and the legal profession in
Asia Pacific have long had a delicate
relationship; while the potential impact
of technology has long been understood
- albeit oftentimes fodder for debate - its
implementation and execution has, until
recently, remained largely an academic
exercise for most.
‘The practice of law is very much dependent on everyday life,’ explains Jane Toh Yoong San, partner at Shearn Delamore & Co.
‘With the growing use of technology all around the world, private practice law firms have been encouraged to use legal technology to keep up with the quickly changing nature of business and industry.’
Much like their in-house counterparts featured
throughout the report, private practice lawyers
have had to learn and adapt quickly to new
working habits brought about by the pandemic -
including the toolsets which facilitate remote legal
work. For many, this marks a sharp departure from
established norms - with much of the profession
in Asia Pacific notoriously reticent on technology-driven shifts to legal practice. But for most in private
practice, the global pandemic has meant that
integrating technology has fast become a business
In-house clients are expecting that we have
sufficient knowledge of the various technology tools
available and how best to make use of them so that
the successful delivery of legal services during the
pandemic can be ensured,' explains Zhuowei (Joyce) Li, Partner at
Han Kun Law Offices.
'Many expect that social distancing measures
will be central to commercial thinking for years to
come, making the effective use of technology a vital
component for maintaining business relationships
and offering the best service to our clients.'
That experience echoes the results of the empirical
research which underpins this report, with
technology becoming an increasingly important
factor for in-house counsel when assessing their
law firms, with 59% of respondents reporting that a
firm's use of technology comprised a direct part of
panel reviews and 68% saying that it was either very
important or crucial that law firms remained abreast
of new technologies. While some of that shift may
be attributable to the short-term needs-driven
innovation, few anticipate the uptake in technology
to be a fast-passing trend.
'As service providers, we are naturally driven by
client demand, and that demand will push law firms
like ours to use more and better technologies in the
coming years,' says Ahuja.
'Since March we have seen just how much
technology can facilitate legal work, and I do
not think I will be the only person to predict this
will become an established habit among all
Made in China
As US sanctions start to bite, businesses in
the PRC are becoming ever more reliant
on domestic technology. GC asks what it
means for the country's lawyers:
If you want to build a nuclear powerplant, a maglev
train, or a quantum computer it is increasingly likely
you will rely on Chinese expertise. In the space of
little more than two decades China has emerged
as a global economic powerhouse, transforming
itself from the home of low-cost manufacturing to a
leader in cutting edge technologies.
Bin Zhao, senior vice president, legal and
government affairs at tech multinational Qualcomm
has seen China's technological prowess grow over
'Since late 1900s, China has started to highly
promote the tech industry. The government made a
lot of direct/indirect investments and extended a
significant amount of polices in all business areas to
advance Chinese technological development. That
is when big multinational tech companies came into
China and made business successes.'
'At that time, there was a honeymoon period
between China and multinational companies, and
American companies such as Microsoft, Intel and
many others grew significantly during this period,
taking advantage of both the open-door policy,
and the Chinese leadership's good intentions to
merge into the international market. The situation
however has changed dramatically recently, and the
tensions between the US and Chinese governments
are making things much less clear.'
Dealing with this uncertainty is likely to be a key
theme for the coming months. DXC Technology
(DXC) is just one of a plethora of American
companies operating in China that has felt the
repercussions of ongoing trade wars.
'It is not something we can really prepare for,' says
Ivy Wu, head of Greater China legal at DXC. 'Draft
copies of regulations are coming out all the time, so
we review to determine whether they will impact our
'As in-house counsel we have to be fast acting,
agile and knowledgeable in all aspects of laws in
China. When a crisis happens, you need to keep in
mind what kind of risk is associated, then you need
to take some action, and manage all situations in a
Indeed, escalating tensions between the United
States and China have dominated news headlines
in recent years. Chengyang Xie, vice president &
chief legal officer at Foxconn Industrial Internet
Co Ltd (FII), believes the potential decoupling
between the United States and China is one
of the chief concerns for in-house counsel in the
'When the trade war between the United States
and China began to bite, we really saw things
change. This year, the sanctions on Huawei and
other entities have continued to be challenging, and
there are now over 200 entities on that sanctions list.
This will be a great challenge for the years to come.
The one certainty is that everything is uncertain for
multinational companies in China.'
Trade tensions aside, China's corporate counsel
are finding themselves facing the same pressure to
do more for less as US counterparts. While using
technology to streamline processes has been on
the radar of legal teams for some time, the recent
COVID-19 pandemic has accelerated the need for
new ways of delivering legal advice.
Gordon Liu, vice president, legal for Dell Greater
China, says he has been fortunate in his ability
to draw on a comprehensive suite of workplace
'Dell was a forerunner in workplace tech, so we
have the infrastructure to work from a distance. Even
before the pandemic, we were used to working in
this way. However, systems that were somewhat
experimental are now becoming our default
way of working. For example, we use a contract
management tool, which generates a
lot of standard contracts, as well as handling
negotiations, revisions and other changes. The
pandemic has accelerated our use of these
technologies, and our strong position in this field
has allows us to navigate the lockdown without
Adds Xie: 'The lockdown has taught us that remote
teams can communicate just as effectively. In my
regional cluster we handle business across 12
countries, so managing a legal team without faceto-face contact is something we are accustomed to.
However, the enforced reliance on tech to conduct
our daily business has been an interesting lesson to
us all. We have seen that many matters are more
efficiently processed with software.'
'Legal technology has become more important in
the daily practice of in-house counsel. We now use
tech-enabled platforms for legal drafts, intellectual
property work and legal databases.'
Despite the advantages of legal tech, in-house have
also experienced drawbacks, says Zhao: 'On one
hand, internet-based, cloud-based and 5G smart
phone-enabled tools have significantly improved
lawyers' efficiency. At the same time, when
everybody is connected, and information and data
is always flowing around, you have to be aware of
the most current information and recent trends, and
that is not easy.'
The innovation race
As China continues to support digital innovation
and investment, corporate counsel find themselves
under more pressure to evolve. Despite the
challenges, in-house counsel across China have
embraced tech to boost efficiency, connect legal
teams and manage the ever-growing pressure to
do more with less.
'The tech sector is a rapidly growing industry in
China. There has emerged quite a few online,
e-commerce and technology companies. With
fast growth, there is a lot of energy volatility in the
market,' says Liu.
However, as the domestic tech companies continue
to develop in China, the future of international tech
giants remains ambiguous.
'When talking about the future, the first word that
jumps into my head is uncertainty,' says Zhao. 'I think
that is the biggest challenge facing all multinational
companies doing business in China.'
As Zhao puts it, the next few months will be
decisive for multinationals in China: 'This is a very
important point in history. We will have to wait
and see what is going to happen after the US
presidential elections. It will determine a new
era of history for high-tech companies, and their
future development in China.'
'Perhaps a bigger advantage is that internally developed
technology can be customised to match systems we are
already familiar with. That will ensure other business units can
seamlessly work with the platform.'
Turning to the results of our survey of over 100 legal teams
across Asia Pacific, it seems that this message has yet to find
a mass audience. Only 9% of legal teams are currently looking
internally to develop tech solutions, while 83% of teams are
looking to tech vendors for readymade or bespoke solutions.
Nonetheless, homegrown legal solutions are finding champions
at the largest companies. Sheldon Renkema, general legal
manager at top-10 ASX listed diversified conglomerate
Wesfarmers, has worked to introduce a number of self-service
tools into the legal department, including a non-disclosure
agreement tool that allows commercial teams to generate and
execute a compliant confidentiality agreement.
'Our objective is to identify processes that our lawyers would
otherwise do that are not particularly complex and not
particularly strategically significant. And where we can, making
use of a tool so that can be done within the business in a userfriendly way that manages the risk'.
Creating tech solutions internally can also act as a catalyst for the
creation of a culture of open-mindedness and creativity within
teams, which can pay dividends in other areas. As Bernard Tan,
Asia-Pacific managing counsel for US-headquartered analytical
instrumentation manufacturer Agilent Technologies comments,
'It is important that we don't just follow corporate-wide
technology projects. We need to create a culture of innovation
and digitalisation within the legal function itself, and that means
we need a sort of skunkworks for the legal team itself to develop
and pioneer new tech.'
Chek-Tsang Foo, group deputy general counsel of NTT Limited,
has followed this ethos, working with legal colleagues to create
a suite of proprietary legal tech solutions, including a contract
risk scoring tool for contracts. The next few years, he says, will
be transformational for legal teams.
'Legal tech will not just change how fast we work, but what
we work on. As technology matures, routine and repetitive
work can effectively be automated. This frees up bandwidth for
internal lawyers to do more complex work that requires more
'It will allow us to spend much more time on things like
negotiations, resolving complex matters and proactive legal
risk management. The in-house team may also start to provide
new areas of value to the enterprise, leveraging the legal
team's skillsets and attributes. The future is also what we
create, with the help of legal tech. Perhaps technology will
help solve the modern in-house counsel's struggle for sufficient
For GCs across the world, 2020 has been a year of learning to
work remotely. As DXC Technology's Ivy Wu puts it:
'Covid-19 has totally changed people's lives and changed the way
workplaces operate, and people have spent a long time adapting
to a work from home lifestyle. This will have big implications for
the uptake of legal technology.'
'In recent years, legal innovation has mostly benefited law
firms and companies, but we are now seeing a trend toward
traditional legal venues embracing technology. Courts are
encouraging lawsuits to be filed online, and there is a push
towards virtual hearings. Legal technology has made things
more efficient for all players in the legal system, and those
effects will continue to grow.'
JERA's Tagaya adds:'Until now, Japan has had a tendency to
believe in paper, ink and physical signature or seal. But now
that Covid-19 has forced companies to examine technological
solutions and embrace non-traditional working practices, it may
have opened up their eyes to the possibilities that technology
provides, which will lead to a corresponding increase in demand
and thus growth of this sector'.
Julien Bergerat, head of legal and chief compliance officer for
Nghi Son Refinery and Petrochemical (NSRP), a joint venture to
build and operate the largest petrochemicals refinery in Vietnam,
is an old hand when it comes to working remotely.
Before moving to NSRP in 2019, he held senior positions in
Kuwait, Qatar, Switzerland and France. The ability to access legal
information on demand has now become an expectation, he
'We are living in a world where technology cannot be avoided,
and the legal profession is no exception. Contract management,
document automation and storage, legal research and, more
recently, client relationship management and data and contract
analytics tools are used by legal professionals as a matter of
'Over the last decade, legal technologies have given the
profession opportunities to improve its overall efficiency and the
tools to adapt to agile and challenging working environments.
The lower cost of hardware, improved ease of use of software
and increased mobility have allowed for easier means of
communication but, most importantly, they have enabled
lawyers to work from almost any location extremely efficiently'.
But it is not just the demands of remote working that are
changing the way legal teams operate. The pressure to do more
with less, never far from the minds of GCs, has suddenly become
one of the main priorities of businesses fighting to cut costs in a
time of crisis.
Benjamin Teong, associate counsel for legal operations at
Lazada, one of South East Asia's largest e-commerce companies,
sees adapting to this change as an increasingly unavoidable part
of managing a legal function.
'For in-house counsel, the scope of the work and its complexity
is increasing, but we are being forced more and more to work
with leaner teams and really maximize the manpower that we do
have. There is pressure to achieve more creative and innovative
outcomes for the company'.
'We have tools that are specifically geared toward ensuring
that we work efficiently and avoid low-value work as much as
possible. We have a workflow management tool, which tracks
any work requests to the legal team, allowing us to manage it
from the time that we receive the request until the request is
fulfilled, and to prioritise issues that are more pressing'.
Across Asia Pacific, GCs are finding that the simplest
technologies carry the most impact when it comes to changing
the way their teams operate. For Dimas Nandaraditya, general
counsel of Indonesia-based Traveloka Group, this relatively
simple software has proved to be a quiet revolution.
'Adopting a new technology requires time and managing
multiple vendors and software for our business processes can be
cumbersome, therefore we prefer out-of-the-box solutions.'
'We adopted software that sends regular reminders on when
a contract or license is due to expire, which means lawyers no
longer need to go through all documents one by one to assess
the relevant expiry date or manually send reminders to the
relevant stakeholders. The technology itself is rather simple but
its impact is very significant: it makes our lives easier'.
There is, adds Nandaraditya, a degree of skepticism toward more
advanced forms of legal tech, such as machine learning. 'Basic AI
functions such as e-discovery or automated diligence are starting
to get traction, but I doubt that they will be widely available in
the next one to two years.'
Jeremy Ryan Chua, general counsel of JAC Liner Group, one of
the largest bus companies in the Philippines, has a similar take:
'Artificial intelligence can assist in gathering data and narrow
down possible decision-making choices, it cannot replace the
intuition, on the ground experience, and foresight of a seasoned
Perhaps unsurprisingly then, while the potential of advanced
legal tech continues to excite the region's GCs, it has so far
failed to gain any real traction in legal teams. Josh Lee Kok
Thong, chair of Asia Pacific wide legal tech forum ALITA, remains
'The technology is really improving. One example is ROSS
Intelligence, which recently rolled out a free Google Chrome
extension. Users can plug in the case that they want to review,
and the system will instantly pull it out. Tools like this will change
how in-house counsel behave.'
'The next generation of AI technologies will help lawyers start to
write and craft opinions. This will be a game changer because it
helps spark the inspiration process, it eliminates writer's block
and enhances the cognitive abilities of lawyers. Building on this,
the technology is a game changer. It will allow lawyers to gain
new ways of thinking and new insights they may not have seen
This should come as no surprise. As Per Hoffman, vice president
and head of legal affairs and sourcing for North East Asia at
'China is huge, so when it does something the volume it does it
with and the impact that has on markets are all huge. AI will be
the thing that will come into legal areas. Today you have contract
databases where you can search and find various contract
clauses. But the next step after that will be AI. China has one of
the most advanced AI research and development environments
in the world, so for lawyers that is the place we will look to for