Love.Law.Robots. by Ang Hou Fu


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A recent disciplinary case in Singapore, [Law Society of Singapore v Mohammed Lutfi bin Hussin]( , highlights a common pitfall in legal practice. A lawyer failed to witness the signing of conveyancing documents personally but attested to doing so. Few people may pay attention to a routine conveyancing transaction. Still, this time, the transaction was tainted by fraud: a mortgagor had submitted false documents to a mortgagee to obtain a higher loan. The lawyer’s license was suspended for three years for claiming to have witnessed the signing when he didn’t.

There’s an uncharacteristic lack of remorse on the lawyer’s part compared to other disciplinary cases. Here’s how he described his practice, which seems rather ordinary at first glance:

This was a routine purchase of the Property by [a buyer] financed by a loan taken from a bank. The transaction could be carried out without my seeing [the Buyer]. My staff are fully capable of dealing with routine transactions such as [the Buyer’s] purchase of the Property. If anything out of the ordinary crops up, they will inform me and I will then see [the Buyer] and sort out whatever problem has arisen. There were no issues at all relating to [the Buyer’s] purchase and for that reason, I did not have to see him.

In contrast, here’s what the Court of 3 Judges (in charge of lawyer discipline) thought of that:

[The lawyer] had put in place a “system” pursuant to which he entrusted his non-legally trained staff to carry out conveyancing transactions, including witnessing the execution of conveyancing documents, so that he did not have to meet his own clients, unless he deemed it necessary. Under this “system”, he presupposed that everything was in order until and unless his staff flagged any issues. In relation to [the Buyer’s] conveyancing transaction, nothing out of the ordinary was brought to his attention. He therefore assumed that all was in order and never met [the Buyer], notwithstanding the fact that the latter had engaged him as his conveyancing solicitor.

It’s important to note that witnessing someone sign a document isn’t likely to have stopped the fraudulent transaction. The nub of the issue was that the lawyer had claimed to do something he did not. The Court recognized that some might call this “technical dishonesty”.

But what’s the point of witnessing someone sign a document? The main idea is that it prevents fraud. Anyone can put anyone’s signature anywhere. The lawyer ensures the signor’s identity, understands the document, and there are no signs of duress or misunderstanding.

Who wants to do an E-Will?COVID-19 offers an opportunity to relook at one of the oldest instruments in law — wills. Is it enough to make them an electronic transaction?Love.Law.Robots.HoufuA similar problem persists in the area of wills and testaments.

Post-pandemic, though, alternatives are apparent but with questionable legality. If a lawyer witnesses a signing through Zoom, does it count? If e-Signature can be used, what value does being in person add? Banks don’t use lawyers to prevent fraud all the time too. Document submission, such as income and particulars, can now be received directly through the relevant government agency and authenticated fairly securely by the applicant. The wonders of SingPass!

The question is, would the lawyer have escaped sanction if there was actually a “system” in place? The Court describes this as a “non-system” because the lawyer had abdicated his responsibilities to non-legally trained staff. But what if the lawyer had implemented a system to train his staff on when to escalate, use checklists, verify the work, and carry out audits? Would that be enough? Or is the point that no matter what, the lawyer must be physically present?

We aren’t going to find out because everyone understands that witnessing a signing has to be personal. Furthermore, this is a strict requirement promulgated by legislation, so it’s non-negotiable.

These issues are essential because conveyancing is a prime example of volume work in the legal profession. If a lawyer has to be physically present at every stage of the transaction, this would slow down the process and make it expensive. The practice would be harder to justify in the face of more efficient and cost-effective solutions. More people would believe its objective is to maintain a monopoly for lawyers. Even lawyers may be hard-pressed to find efficient ways to do business and inadvertently find themselves on the wrong side of the law.

For now, legal innovators trying to automate manual processes or implement a “system” would have to be careful if they involved any attestation. It’s the law; you can’t change it, and breaking it would get you in hot soup, no matter how dissatisfied you would be.

The Importance of Being AuthorisedA recent case shows that practising law as an unauthorised person can have serious effects. What does this hold for other people who may be interested in alternative legal services?Love.Law.Robots.HoufuAn earlier post explored another common pitfall.

#Law #Lawyers #E-signature #Employee #LawSociety #Singapore #SupremeCourtSingapore #tech

Author Portrait Love.Law.Robots. – A blog by Ang Hou Fu

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A new year brings new beginnings, except the light at the end of the tunnel shines harshly on what we have left behind.

In a normal year, the start of the year for the Legal fraternity brings the opening of the Legal Year. A ceremony is also held where representatives of the bar, judiciary and attorney-general chambers give speeches with courtesy and camaraderie.

However, this year’s speech from the bar brings startling news. 538 lawyers left the profession in Singapore last year, a year on year increase of over 30% per cent.

Far more disturbing is the revelation that the departures are concentrated on young lawyers of less than 5 years of practice. For a long time, the bar has been concerned about the “hourglass” distribution of practice. Fat at the bottom and the top, where the youngest and oldest in the profession are, and thin in the middle. Is burnout starting earlier now?

It’s heartening that such problems are being confronted right now. In the said speech, Law Society President Adrian Tan puts it in this manner:

The 21st-century lawyers are different. They want to marry, not the law, but a human being. They, too, want to work hard. They, too, want their work to have meaning. But they also want other things that human beings want: to have children, to build a home, to have a life outside the law.

Even one of the new Senior Counsels from the bar (it’s interesting to note that both of them are female this year) put the concern in a similar manner.

I hope to be a role model of sorts to some to stay the course that much longer. I do hope that (this appointment) is a sign to all the young ladies out there that there is more that can be done.

So what would solve young lawyers burning out? Mr Adrian Tan posits that the 21st Century lawyer can have a sustainable career when the “law firm” as a physical place vanishes:

This is the picture I present to you of the New Singapore Lawyer, who works from a laptop, uses technology to collaborate with other lawyers, meets clients virtually, and is not bound to a physical office. Whenever there is a need for sensitive communication, the New Singapore Lawyer will book a secure Zoom pod. If there is a month-long arbitration with opponents in different time zones, the New Singapore Lawyer will use special facilities to cater to those needs... Put another way: the New Singapore Lawyer will spend more time on work, rather than on commuting to work.

This idea appears to have come out from the experience of senior lawyers working from home. It was a strange and foreign experience for everyone.

I like the vision of this “New Singapore Lawyer” (it’s great we finally have a published fiction author as a Law Society President).

However, I experienced many bouts of irony as I waded through its implications. One of the experiences people have from working from home is that without the separation of the workplace, they spent longer hours working. If we want young lawyers to not burn out, bringing work home does not look like a good start.

Another bout of irony came from the “threat” that technology can bring to the legal profession. Last year, the Singapore Academy of Law published a 600-page tome which raison d'etre was to examine how technology impacts the law for a profession that didn’t necessarily welcome it. While legal work done by city law offices is bespoke enough to not be replaced by robots, legal work at the lower end is more susceptible to being automated — people can turn to “googling” to find answers to legal questions rather than pay an hourly rate to a lawyer. The free-wheeling New Singapore Lawyer might not be so carefree after all.

So has working from home made us all love technology a lot more? Maybe, but I would suggest that this happy relationship is likely to be very limited and short-lived. It won’t be enough to overcome the challenges of burnout that young lawyers face at the beginning of their professional lives.

#Singapore #Law #Lawyers #LegalTech #LawSociety #WorkLifeBalance

Author Portrait Love.Law.Robots. – A blog by Ang Hou Fu