Legal Services in the Age of Technology – Interview with Azmul Haque from Collyer Law LLC

With over two decades of legal experience and a vast wealth of legal expertise, Azmul Haque, Founder and Managing Director of Collyer Law LLC, shares what it takes to grow a successful professional service business and how his law firm continues to stay ahead of the curve.

Hi Azmul, thanks for joining us! Could you share with us your journey in the legal field and how Collyer Law LLC came to be?

Hi, thank you for having me here.

My motivation towards founding Collyer Law can be encapsulated by two acronyms, ‘FOMO’ i.e.  Fear Of Missing Out, and ‘YOLO’ i.e. You Only Live Once.

Having had over fourteen years of experience in private practice by 2015, I felt a sense of “been there, done that” in terms my professional journey of working with different law firms. In this span of time, I had worked at law firms in three different jurisdictions and had been elevated to the position of a partner in one of the firms. Whilst my professional journey up to that point in time had allowed me to experience different cultures and their legal traditions, I was beginning to look forward to the next challenge in my professional journey. I wanted to see what it took to start a law firm, as, you know, ‘YOLO!’.

While working in a competitive professional services industry is a challenge in itself, I wanted to assess how one could survive and thrive in a competitive market like Singapore, a country with a large number of local and international law firms, all jostling for market share for the available legal work.

As for the FOMO part of it, I saw a gap that was underserved. There was an increasing trend of venture capital backed technology companies becoming domiciled in Singapore and raising venture capital funds from Singapore-based venture capital investors. However, there was no law firm that was then well-designed to cater to that market segment. And having witnessed the successful rise of such law firms catering to similar companies in the Silicon Valley, I thought there was a similar opportunity in Singapore.  Hence, in 2015, I threw my hat in the ring.

Collyer Law has definitely set itself apart from other firms.  While that’s an advantage, we’re sure it comes with its fair share of challenges…

There are a few challenges, but the biggest ones can be boiled down to two very important things: trust and talent.

Firstly, gaining the trust of clients is critical for any law firm. Unlike a 7-Eleven that gets business because of foot traffic, law firms don’t get business simply because they’re located in a particular area. Instead, you would go to a firm because of its reputation and expertise in certain areas, and essentially because you trust them. So, building that trust with clients is critical in building a law firm’s brand. The good thing about the legal business is that it’s sticky, i.e., if you have a problem, and a lawyer solves it for you to your satisfaction, you will generally trust them to solve more problems, and would not find a need to change, which takes a lot of time and effort. Just like how if you have a health issue, you will probably go back to the same doctor that you trust; you wouldn’t scout around to find a different doctor. Hence, I realised the importance of building trust from the get-go, and it was a strong focus for Collyer Law in the early days.

The second important aspect of building a professional services business is to have the requisite talent. Whilst I recognise that there’s a growing use of Artificial Intelligence (AI) across various industries, legal services, by and large, still needs to be delivered by human beings who are qualified land trained lawyers. Not only do they have to be admitted to the Bar in Singapore, but they are also required to have a Practising Certificate and adequate professional indemnity insurance. On top of this, all lawyers have to stay current with their continuing legal education and earn Continuing Professional Development (CPD) points. Essentially, it is an extremely regulated industry, and finding the right lawyers, who possess not only the technical skills, but also the personality for this kind of business, is a critical requirement, especially in the early years.

I guess you could say we hire for aptitude, but we look for attitude. It was essential to have people who think the same way and thereby, we were able to band together as a team, as opposed getting people who are individually brilliant, but not collaborative.

We completely agree about having a good relationship with your client to build trust. What’s more, with all the technology around us, having that human touch really makes a difference.

Absolutely! It’s crucial to have that human touch.

I’ll give you an anecdote. In 2017, we created our own legal tech platform called FirstCOUNSEL, a self-serve online library of documents where any customer could ask some questions and have the platform generate a document based on the answers. This was way before Generative AI was developed, so it was relatively low-tech. However, the platform could still generate documents at a fraction of the price that human lawyers would charge. We priced the access to the platform to cater to very early-stage companies and founders who might not be able to afford even Collyer’s fairly reasonably priced legal services. Potential customers who were exploring the platform would often request a call and we would inform them of the higher charges for engaging a human lawyer for legal services, as compared to using the self-serve tech platform. Faced with the choice between engaging a human lawyer or simply using the self-serve platform, each and every time these customers would select the option of engaging a human lawyer!

And this was what I found interesting: whilst the technology itself was good and could solve certain problems, the level of trust in the platform clearly wasn’t high enough. This is the reason why people approach lawyers. It’s not because they are required to (by a law or regulation), but because they want a definitive solution to certain problems – whether it’s advice, documentation, or transaction support. When it comes to these things, the current state of legal tech isn’t sophisticated or advanced enough to completely replace humans. Yes, you could outsource basic tasks to platforms such as ChatGPT, but you might not get accurate or quality results. You simply can’t rely on it, and the reliance is key.

As you mentioned earlier, the legal industry is constantly evolving – especially with the onset of emerging technologies. How do you stay abreast of all the trends and changes in the legal landscape?

As an organisation, Collyer Law is constantly keeping up with the latest technology tools that are available, whether general collaboration tools or technologies that help us become better lawyers. For example, we anticipated the benefits of technology and started using Zoom and other video conferencing tools two years before the COVID pandemic even occurred. Besides this, we also take inspiration from our peers servicing different markets and industries to see what they’re doing to enhance productivity.

In terms of specific tools for the legal industry, there are legal publishing companies which provides legal know-how for business lawyers. These are useful for legal research and precedents. Over the course of my career spanning more than twenty years, I’ve had to prepare a large number of documents requiring extensive research, and such platforms have been helpful.

When it comes to being able to rely on generative AI to produce a document, I think the jury is still out on that. There’s no doubt that it can produce an output really quickly.  For example, if you want to research a very generic area of law, tools such as ChatGPT are powerful enough to pull together what it finds online based on the data it has been fed and produce something that looks legitimate. But there’s always a risk that it isn’t fully accurate.

For example, there was a case in the US where some lawyers were held by court for submitting a ChatGPT-researched submission which included completely fictitious cases that didn’t exist. Hence, there are dangers to using the platform without doing your due diligence to cross-check the results or getting a reliable lawyer to verify every single sentence in the responses it provides. The first problem, which may not be unique to the legal industry, is how do you rank the results and how do you know whether a particular result is relevant to your circumstances? Moreover, law is jurisdictional. Each country has its own Parliament which passes legislation that becomes law. What might be permitted in a particular country may not be permitted in another country. So, legal research is not that straightforward. The best lawyer in New York might not be familiar with, and sufficiently aware about, a particular nuance of Singapore law to be able to advise effectively.

From legal point of view, it is clearly risky to be fully dependent on AI or ChatGPT. But would you agree that from an efficiency point of view, such technologies could helpful – whether it’s with respect to improving efficiency or streamlining processes?

Absolutely! We as a firm are already using such technologies to save time in when it comes to producing some items of work or conducting research. But as mentioned, any results produced need to be verified with someone with the required legal knowledge to spot any mistakes.

As a lawyer, you need deep experience, you need the ‘10,000 hours’ that makes you an expert. The 10,000-hour rule is applicable if you want to be an expert in the legal industry. There are some senior lawyers who probably spent over 10 years to achieve the 10,000 hours target. How will junior lawyers get that hands-on experience if we’re using such AI driven tools for research and drafting instead? This is dangerous because there’ll be an entire generation of lawyers who aren’t being trained on a diet of good, challenging legal work to enhance their skills so that they can become experts at some point, and maybe even start law firms as I did. It’s just like how you can’t become a Formula 1 driver without being, first, a good driver, and then, possibly competing in Formula 3, and then moving up the ranks to compete in Formula 1. How would the legal industry secure a regular supply of well-trained lawyers if it didn’t follow the traditional legal training system i.e., a system that trains junior lawyers as apprentices who then work through the standard number of hours that they need to move up the ranks to then be well and truly capable of rendering legal advice on their own?

Could you provide some insights into the future of legal services and how Collyer Law is adapting to meet the changing needs of clients?

We realised very early the importance of understanding our client’s business to be able to advise on legal issues that are applicable to their industry. This is because we’re not talking about legal issues that are general enough that they’re encountered by all companies without exception. Moreover, most clients are only interested in the regulations that are specific to their industry and their business. One example would be a tech company for which a large part of its valuation – and value – would be based on the notion that it is going to grow fast and scale through the technology. If this notion was to materialise, there would be a positive return on the initial amount invested by venture capitalists. However, a key assumption here is that the company can achieve this whilst always complying with the law. So, for us as the lawyers advising – especially in the emerging tech and innovation economy – we need to be 100% familiar with the latest trends, developments, and facets of the industry. Without this knowledge, we wouldn’t be able to anticipate what the legal or regulatory issues might be, nor any other industry-specific issues that affect these clients. We also need to have a clear understanding of our client’s business to be able to advise on the risks.

As the saying goes, “the only constant is change”, which is why we must keep up with everything that’s happening in our client’s sectors. This involves lots of reading, listening to a lot of podcasts, as well as doing lots of writing, presenting, and speaking – or practicing. All of these will help you understand legal issues and emerging trends much better.

We’ve heard that you’re a strong supporter of promoting diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) within the legal sector. Could you share more about initiatives you’ve undertaken?

To be honest, our impact or influence with respect to DEI is going to be limited because of the size of our organisation. However, I’m still a fervent believer in promoting diversity in the workplace. Additionally, I believe in practicing inclusivity in terms of who we hire and who we promote for certain positions.

At one point in time, Collyer Law had lawyers who were qualified across seven different countries and spoke twelve different languages. I think that that in itself is quite an achievement, even in a cosmopolitan country like Singapore. As a business, we have also benefited from the diversity of our lawyers as this has enabled us to work across borders and have very international clients. That’s why having set of lawyers who also have the relevant subject-matter experience as well as country experience to advise on various legal issues has been a big plus point, not only in terms of attracting work but also with respect to retaining clients. Last but not least, our diversity has helped to grow our reputation as a dynamic Singapore-based firm with an international mind-set and a multitude of experiences.

As a Managing Director of such a dynamic firm, we assume that you wear many hats, including administrative demands – do you have any tips to share?

I have a simple rule, i.e., the three ‘D’s: (i) the first is to “Delete” anything that I don’t need to get involved with; (ii) the second is to “Delay” the delivery of any work that requires more thought or consultation with other people; and (iii) the third is “Do” it, because there’s nothing better than just getting something done rather than putting it on the to-do list. So, I try to practice the three ‘D’s in all aspects of my role. Of course, I can’t use that method for legal advice, but it helps me to be as nimble as possible, and not create more work than is necessary for anything or anyone.

That’s great advice! Given the hectic nature of your work, how do you maintain your personal wellbeing?

Taking care of one’s wellbeing, both mental and physical, is really important because we only have one body. Physically, I try and eat healthy, visit the gym a couple of times a week, and try to incorporate about fifteen minutes of yoga every other day.

As for mental health, I think it’s really a question of what works for you. Some people spend their downtime doing a particular activity they enjoy, while others prefer to just chill out. Personally, I’m not someone who can watch Netflix the whole day. I have a variety of interests that I’m engaged with. Examples of such activities could include going on a hike, taking part in a pub quiz, or reading up on history, especially the history of human migration. All these activities help me preserve my mental health and keep everything together!

Thank you for joining us in this interview!

You can connect with Azmul via LinkedIn to find out more about Collyer Law LLC and the services his law firm offers.

This article was adapted from Swish KOL AMA, and you can watch the full interview here.