For this month’s member interview, we had a chat with Azmul Haque, Founder & Managing Director of Collyer Law LLC – a boutique Singapore law firm with a particular focus on representing emerging growth companies and the innovation economy. The highly experienced tri-qualified lawyer shared with us his strategy and approach towards servicing the firm’s client sector as well as his thoughts on the evolution of the legal landscape in the digital economy:
Can you tell us a bit about Collyer Law LLC, how it started and what services you provide?
We are a boutique law firm with a particular focus on emerging tech and the innovation economy. We are registered in Singapore as a licensed and regulated Singapore law practice, and we provide our clients with the full spectrum of what is called “business legal services”. This essentially means that we can assist on any legal matters during the life cycle of a business, from “idea -to-exit”.
Our specific legal services include everything from company incorporation (including ‘flips’ and re-domiciliation), employment contracts and stock option plans, to advising on intellectual property registration and commercial contracts, to corporate finance, mergers & acquisitions and corporate restructuring.
Our two strongest areas of expertise are probably in venture capital financing, where we provide legal support for technology companies raising capital from venture capital funds, across seed, Series A, B and C rounds, and regulatory and compliance advice, where we advise on regulatory frameworks for certain industries, assistance with applications to regulators for licenses, as well as general corporate compliance matters.
A recent article on Forbes stated, “Law is a Trillion-dollar global industry with no Goliaths. The legal industry is fragmented, growing, has a huge untapped market for its services, and is ripe for digital transformation.” Do you agree with this statement?
I would have to say that I do agree, only partially, with the statement but there are many factors at play here.
Is it a trillion dollar industry? Definitely. Is it a fragmented? Sure, but what’s hardly unusual, as it goes with the territory! Laws are territorial – lawyers can only engage in ‘legal practice’ in the particular country in which they are qualified (qualification is more than just doing a law degree) and where they are admitted to the ‘Bar’ of such country. A Singaporean lawyer cannot automatically practice law, for example, in England and Wales or Australia, without being separately admitted to the local Bar of those countries. Additionally, establishing a legal entity to practice law is also a regulated activity – since foreign law-firms cannot practice local law without a specific permission from the relevant regulator – this is another natural ‘barrier to entry’ for anyone looking to be a Goliath. This is probably what prevents global dominance and consolidation, e.g., a WallMart or McDonalds for Law.
However, while law is territorial, business is global. In a connected and globalized world, business dealings and transactions cross borders, more often than not. This underscores the need for lawyers to have a “cross-border” approach and understanding of other foreign legal systems. For example, recently we advised a UAE-incorporated traveltech company on a re-domicile of its holding company to Singapore, in connection with a venture financing by a Chinese venture capital fund, and the simultaneous acquisition of a competing business in Malaysia. It’s impossible for a business lawyer to stay relevant, without a nuanced understanding of the laws of major legal jurisdictions. This is one of the biggest reasons why I got myself qualified as a lawyer in three countries (England, India and Singapore) – it arguably allows me to demonstrate tremendous value-add to clients on complex cross-border deals.
In my view, a good lawyer is also one who understands his client’s business well in order to provide pragmatics and commercially usable advice. This is a ‘trusted advisor’ skillset – this is difficult for technology (such as artificial intelligence) to disrupt – yet!
How is technology changing the Legal industry? What are the key areas where you are seeing the highest level of disruption?
The fact that technology will disrupt ALL Industries is a foregone conclusion – the question is WHEN (how quickly) and HOW (in what manner). Law, being a professional service, presents certain unique challenges.
One of these challenges is that there is a limit to how efficiently tech can automate knowledge and expertise that requires more than data-point collection. Let’s take the area of ‘the law of restrictive covenants’ in an employment contract scenario. We are nowhere close to being able to automate the provision of legal advice for something like this. Yes, machine learning software can scour through reams and reams of data to extract the most relevant cases for research and analysis purposes, but it can’t (as yet) give you insights and conclusion that a seasoned veteran employment law litigator can!
A fintech company operating a P2P platform recently approached us to provide advice on whether they were compliant with current MAS regulations applicable to their highly complex business model. While analysis may be difficult anyway (as it’s a novel area) what a machine definitely wouldn’t know is the regulator’s approach and current thinking about such matters. That would require a sophisticated lawyer, with some serious expertise and connections, to crystallize the relevant elements that are likely to attract regulatory scrutiny to ascertain what needs to be done.
The legal industry also requires logical thinking that is a combination of knowledge, training, experience and instinct. It’s a lot about the “10,000-hour rule” that has gotten many of us where we are today.
That being said, we can definitely leverage tech to make the systems and processes associated with the provision of legal advice far more efficient.
Is Collyer Law also working on or adopting new legaltech solutions for its clients?
Yes, we would like to believe we a thought leader on legaltech in the ASEAN region. In 2016, we set up a legaltech subsidiary called FirstCOUNSEL to automate the process of document creation for the most commonly used legal contracts for startups. We actually created 25 standard legal documents with the help of a form builder, based on answers to certain well-crafted questions. Anyone can access these forms on our website (www.firstcounsel.co) for a nominal cost of a few hundred dollars. If you need a simple employment contract, for example, you can have it for S$199. This is a self-serve option, with a fixed menu, so it’s a product-play. If you want to be “served”, with legal advice and customised contracts, then you need to come to Collyer Law.
We are also actively collaborating with other technology companies to build other legaltech products. One such collaboration (in stealth mode) is with a Silicon Valley company for creating a “deal platform” for transactions that need several documents with multiple iterations. Once ready, I believe we will make the entire process of running a ‘deal’ much more efficient and painless. Term-sheets can be drafted, reviewed, agreed and signed in a matter of hours, without the days/weeks and scores/hundreds of emails that sometimes go with completing such a deal. I cannot provide further details at this point due to confidentiality reasons, but I can say that we are extremely positive and excited about this collaboration.
What excites you the most about the future of the industry?
I am looking forward to changes in legal sector regulation that permits law firms to separate ownership from management and allow private investment in the practice of law. The legal industry has a lot of barriers to entry – this is one of the biggest – non-lawyers are not permitted to hold equity in law firms in most parts of the world. This restriction is based on the notion that the law is an honourable profession, and only lawyers should hold equity in legal practices, less their judgement get tainted!
Unlike technology start-ups that can raise millions of dollars of capital (sometimes without a dollar of profit), us lesser mortals at professional service firms don’t even qualify for boring loans! This can be a hindrance when it comes to growing inorganically or scalability beyond financing using our retained earnings.
Recently you led a learning session about “Doxxing” here at SPECTRUM. Can you give us a quick summary of the talk? Why do you think it’s important to talk about “Doxxing” in this age?
Essentially, Singapore has a new law that makes it a crime for online vigilantes to publish someone else’s personal information with the intention to harass, threaten or facilitate violence against them. A victim of this offence will be able to seek protection of the law, and offenders can be fined up to S$5,000 or be jailed up to six months, or both.
Why this is relevant is because we live in the Internet Age: the World Wide Web is a pervasive part of all our lives but our ability to maintain our privacy is increasingly becoming more difficult. Retaliation by uncovering a person’s anonymity has become one of the most powerful online weapons available and we need the law to catch-up with this (anti)social behaviour.
Many law schools now emphasize the need to learn or have digital capability like programming or learning about blockchain, what advice would you give to young aspiring lawyers to be future-ready?
My advice to all aspiring lawyers would be to really try and develop skillsets that approximate to the ‘T-shaped- person. As opposed to be an expert in just one thing (I-shaped) or a “jack of all trades, master of none” generalist, a “t-shaped person” is an expert in at least one thing but also somewhat capable in many other things.
The vertical bar on the letter T represents the depth of skills and expertise in a specific area of law, whereas the horizontal bar is the ability to collaborate with experts across other areas of law and industry and to apply knowledge in areas of expertise other than one’s own.
Believe me, it is no longer enough to be only trained in law – we also need to understand technology and how that can disrupt our clients’ industry!
Whether it is picking up coding, or experimenting with blockchain – or whatever new-fangled thing comes next, the important thing is to always be curious – like a child – and soak up everything that you come across!
Can you tell us about your experience with SPECTRUM so far?
I am extremely satisfied with our stint and experiences at SPECTRUM so far.
I really like the idea and vision behind creating a community of companies and professionals to benefit from a well-designed co-working space that is more than just an office space. The overall design and manner in which the space is managed allows us to not only be tenants but also be eco-system builders for a bigger community. As a boutique and fast-growing law firm, we like the idea of being able to leverage the facilities to scale “on-demand” without necessarily being tied to an inefficient increase of our overall real-estate footprint. The focus on tech companies at Spectrum is also great, seeing how the Singapore economy is betting on technology and innovation as the next bulwark for the regional economy.
The SPECTRUM team is fabulous – apart from being really approachable, they all work well together to ensure that every member is taken care of, regardless of their company size or tenure within Spectrum!
You can watch this space to find out more about Collyer Law’s news and plans in across the next several months as well as insights from our other members. As always, you can keep up-to-date with what is going on at SPECTRUM here.