An interview with Brian Tang on the future of legal innovation in Asia

Brian Tang is founding executive director of the Law, Innovation, Technology & Entrepreneurship Lab (LITE Lab) at HKU Faculty of Law & managing director of Asia Capital Markets Institute (ACMI).

You are the founding executive director of the interdisciplinary and experiential programme LITE Lab@HKU at the University of Hong Kong that fosters law, innovation, technology and entrepreneurship.  Tell us more about this.

The Law, Innovation, Technology & Entrepreneurship Lab at the University of Hong Kong Faculty of Law (LITE Lab@HKU) seeks to address four main issues: (1) prepare our future legal professionals; (2) support under-resourced impactful organisations (such as tech startups, legal departments, social entrepreneurs and NGOs); (3) explore how the law is evolving with emerging ABCD (AI, blockchain, cloud and data) technologies; and (4) explore how such emerging ABCD technologies can improve the delivery of law services and access to justice (A2J).

We were fortunate to have been interviewed by CNBC and Artificial Lawyer when we launched two years ago in August 2019.

Since then, LITE Lab@HKU has expanded from two courses to seven undergraduate and postgraduate courses. This semester alone, I supervised more than 50 students who served as researchers, interns as well as co-designers and developers of A2J and business of law lawtech proof-of-concepts with under-resourced but impactful organisations on real-world issues and pain points. I also support and mentor students on extra-curricular activities, such as the Law Society of Hong Kong’s Belt & Road Justice Hackathon (winning 2nd and 3rd prize), AI Driving Olympiad (winning second runner up in International Conference on Robotics and Automation), InnoSpark (winning with a virtual reality mock trial tool for unrepresented and first time litigants); InnoShow (winning with a mobile phone-powered computer vision tool to protect low income tenants from health and safety hazards) and the Computational Law e-Mooting Competition.

I am particularly proud that my LITE Lab students won Georgetown Law’s Iron Tech Lawyer Invitational for A2J lawtech with a natural language processing databank to assist injured workers with employment compensation which have since been incorporated and operate as a Hong Kong Science & Technology Park incubatee, Litex. This year’s team was recognized as the global competition’s first finalist team to use computer vision.

LITE Lab recently collaborated with the Association of Corporate Counsel and Eversheds Sutherland on the report “Illuminating the New Normal: Asia-Pacific legal counsel in a time of unprecedented change (2020)”, drafted an industry response with Fintech Association of Hong Kong to the IOSCO consultation on the use of AI by market intermediaries and asset managers (2020), and we are pleased that our LITE Lab Lawtech & Regtech Student-Industry Sandbox has been shortlisted, as the sole university nominated, for the FT Innovative Lawyer’s new global Collaborating Innovation Award. We already have initial industry collaborators HSBC, FedEx, Goodman and Angelhub, together with Association of Corporate Counsel Hong Kong, Checkbox, Josef, Documate and Clifford Chance, and most welcome your readers to join the FT Innovative Lawyer Asia Pacific virtual award ceremony on Thursday May 13 to support and vote for our initiative and collaborate with us!

You’re also Managing Director of ACMI, which provides inclusive global thought leadership, industry-wide consensus building and transformational support for innovative technology, educational and policy solutions.  What work are you focused on with ACMI in the legal services space?

Given my background as a corporate and securities lawyer, ACMI started out as Asia Capital Markets Institute[RL1]  after the global financial crisis with a focus on capital markets professionalism and was launched at the Hong Kong Stock Exchange to bring together bankers, regulators, lawyers, accountants, issuers and investors.

With the advent of fintech, ACMI shifted its focus into two areas. The first is what I coined ‘online capital marketplaces’ in my chapter on investment crowdfunding, in the bestselling The Fintech Book (Wiley, 2016), which was also featured on Forbes. I was then invited to be an instructor of what is now the largest world’s fintech online course, currently with nearly 100,000 learners around the world, edX . Online capital marketplaces also cover the fundraising initiatives of blockchain (or distributed ledger technology) projects through so-called initial coin offerings (or ICOs), which given the tremendous regulatory uncertainties, has since evolved into securities token offerings (or STOs) on regulated virtual asset trading platforms.

The second area of fintech that ACMI recently expanded into is regulatory technology (or regtech), in which I have been the co-chair of the Fintech Association of Hong Kong’s Regtech Committee since its inception. We are proud to have been recognized by the Hong Kong Monetary Authority in its recent two year regtech roadmap as a “key part of the [regtech] ecosystem”, and to have founded the APAC Regtech Network[RL2]  that brought together the regtech committees of the fintech associations of Hong Kong, Singapore, Japan and Malaysia. Since then, ACMI has advised and consulted with financial institutions, fintechs, virtual asset firms and regtech startups in this expanding space, and organized the annually held World Regtech Summit to grow the regtech ecosystem in Hong Kong and beyond.

When the Global Legal Hackathon was launched in 2018, ACMI collaborated with Thomson Reuters to host Hong Kong’s first legaltech and regtech hackathon, and we were honoured when our top Hong Kong team was named a finalist and won at the grand finals in New Yorkwith a web browser based lawtech tool to ease the reading of legislation.

The Global Legal Hackathon success led to an old friend Douglas Arner, from the University of Hong Kong Faculty of Law, to approach me to launch what is now known as LITE Lab@HKU.

In addition to leading LITE Lab, the interdisciplinary and experiential programme for undergraduate and postgraduate students, ACMI has organized LegalRegTechHack in conjunction with Global Legal Hackathon at the Cyberport Fintech Hub (where again our top Hong Kong team was a finalist for the New York finals), and the Smart Legal Contract Challenge in conjunction with the Legal Hackers’ Computational Law & Blockchain Festival. Outside of these initiatives, I have also been invited to be a judge for the Barclays-ISDA DerivHack Asia, Regulation Asia Awards for Excellence, Global Legal Hackathon 2020/21, American Chamber of Commerce (Hong Kong)’s Startup Meets MNCs Series: Legaltech and evaluation panel for the Hong Kong Monetary Authority’s Global Regtech Challenge.

In the meantime, I co-authored three more books in Wiley’s Fintech series (namely, The Legaltech Book (2020),  The AI Book (2020) and The Regtech Book (2019)), with a focus on AI governance, as well as of the State of Legal Innovation and Technology in Asia Pacific Report that was first launched in Stanford Law’s CodeX Future of Law conference and has since been updated annually.

I am also a Steering Committee member of the Asia Pacific Legal & Innovation Association(ALITA), an Advisory Board member of Merlin Legal Open Source Legal Foundation and also a faculty member of the Legal Technology & Innovation Institute Certificate.

ACMI is currently developing a Legal Technology and Innovation Bootcamp an interdisciplinary and experiential pedagogies adapted from my previous experience training university students to practitioners in private practice and legal departments. Interested parties are most welcome to reach out to me!

You’re very active in several organizations dedicated to legal innovation – including ALITA. What is the current state and future prospects for legal innovation in the Asia-Pacific region?

Compared to the US and European markets, the state of legal innovation in the Asia Pacific region is slower but gathering pace.

Studies such as the State of Legal Innovation in Asia Pacific Report (2020) by ALITA and the joint Global Legal Tech Report (2020) by Alpha Creates and Australian Legal Technology Association (ALTA) sheds important light on this evolving space.

My personal take is that each Asia Pacific jurisdiction can be seen from a few lenses.

First, there are larger and more sophisticated markets that would be attractive for the business of law due to their being host to large law firms and multinational companies and their legal departments. These include English language common law jurisdictions such as Hong Kong, Singapore and Australia.

Second, there are jurisdictions where practitioners, government officials and the judiciary may or should seek to foster legal innovation for A2J and the business of law. Some of these may be for export purposes to further promote such jurisdictions as international legal hubs, and even more importantly, some of these would be within smaller jurisdictions which would really benefit from such innovations but may not be as commercially attractive markets for lawtech due to, for instance, their small size of legal market, local language requirements, etc. That is one of the reasons for ALITA publishing its Legal Technology White Paper and Legal Innovation Strategy Toolkit namely, to promote indigenous legal innovation.

COVID-19 has been a driver of change in lawtech, but I have called it a “tale of two cities”. While it has driven positive change in relation to areas such as virtual hearings, video communications and e-signatures, challenges remain in many other respects. For example, LITE Lab’s collaboration with the Association of Corporate Counsel and Eversheds Sutherland on the report Illuminating the New Normal: Asia-Pacific legal counsel in a time of unprecedented change (2020) revealed that legal departments faced continuous pressure to “do more with less”, with limited budgets and resources to adapt such new technologies and innovations. That is one reason why we prototyped our LITE Lab Lawtech & Regtech Student-Industry Sandbox, which aims to co-design proof-of-concepts in areas like self-help, triage and document documation with our industry collaborators on real world issues that can hopefully help spur more lawtech projects and adoption, as well as inspire others across the Asia Pacific region and beyond on their legal innovation journey. We hope that more collaborators will join us.

What led you to pursue a career in innovation related to legal services? And what do you hope to achieve moving forward?

I started with what many may consider a relatively conventional and good legal career – I articled at Mallesons in Perth which was then the most international law firm in Australia (and even before its merger with King & Wood). I left for New York to complete my LLM at NYU School of Law and joined Sullivan & Cromwell (S&C), where I worked on project financing in Latin America and corporate finance. As a mid-level associate, instead of heading east back to Asia, I headed west to do tech IPOs and helped set up S&C’s Palo Alto office during the dotcom boom. Afterwards, I was headhunted to join Credit Suisse in Hong Kong with responsibilities covering Asia-Pacific investment banking division, where I worked on landmark IPOs for firms such as China Construction Bank, ICBC, AIA, and Glencore; the privatization of in preparation for its US IPO; and the establishment of Credit Suisse’s joint venture with Founder Securities as one of the first Sino-foreign investment banks.

When I left Credit Suisse, in addition to setting up ACMI, I also founded Young Makers & ChangeMakers (YMCM), an inclusive Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts and Mathematics (STEAM) and young maker K-12 educational platform.

YMCM is best known for introducing to Hong Kong Technovation, a technology entrepreneurship competition for girls aged 10-18 to ideate, prototype, and pitch mobile apps that address the UN Sustainable Development Goals. In our first year, our top Hong Kong Junior team was selected as a finalist and won at the World Pitch Summit held at Google’s Mountainview headquarters. As part of our Technovation #GirlsMakeTech programme, we organised workshops at innovative workplaces such as Commonwealth Bank Innovation Lab, INFINITI Lab, Google and WeWork; hosted bootcamps at the University of Hong Kong Department of Computer Science, and the final pitches at Cyberport. We also supported students after the competition, where they have pitched at RISE, LinkedIn and Alibaba’s Jumpstarter, and some teams even got funded at Kids4Kids Action for a Cause.

When I saw how we could inclusively train and develop the mindsets and skillsets of the next generation of middle and high school students, I was inspired to instill the same in the legal and financial services industry. This led to me combining my two initiatives and organizing Hong Kong’s first legaltech and regtech hackathon in conjunction with Global Legal Hackathon, and from there create and launch LITE Lab.

In the coming years, I hope that we can continue to strive with our three-pronged approach to foster innovative mindsets and skillsets: YMCM for K-12 students; LITE Lab for university students across different disciplines; and ACMI for working professionals in the legal, compliance and financial industry and beyond.

What role should technology and innovation education play in law school?

Like medical schools, law schools train future legal professionals in highly technical knowledge, language and way of thinking.

Whilst civil and canon law was taught at universities since the 11th century, common law training of English law was only first added to Cambridge and Oxford University’s curriculum in the 18th century, with the tradition of legal apprenticeships through the Inns of Courts, articleships and traineeships continuing through much of the common law tradition outside the United States.

Today, many bar associations and legal admission boards worldwide seek to maintain the minimum standards for legal education, such as in Australia, where the so-called Priestley 11are the core compulsory courses as well as in the US, where the American Bar Association maintains its list of accredited law schools in which budding lawyers must earn their J.Ds from in order to qualify for the US bar.

Yet, both technology and new business models are impacting the training of future legal professionals, such as the Clementi report and the resultant Legal Services Act (2007) lead to “deregulation” that impacted the role of UK law schools in legal education and training.

In Hong Kong, the Legislative Council Standing Committee on Legal Education & Trainingrecognized that:

Technological and associated organisational disruption of legal services has important implications for access to justice, the business of “doing” law, the skills required of new lawyers, and, perhaps, the demand for new lawyers as well.

These developments require both new knowledge and skills… and, it is argued, potentially a different mindset.”  [emphasis added]

As the oldest law school in Hong Kong, the HKU Faculty of Law is the source of many of Hong Kong’s judges, and leading private practitioners and barristers, and many bright and ambitious law students want to pursue those prestigious career paths. Others may be keen to venture into some of the emerging technology and design driven roles of tomorrow’s legal professionals. Some of my former students have already started or joined legaltech startups.

I believe that there are many paths to achieve quality delivery of legal services and justice in society. We focus is on introducing no/ low code tools, whereas other law schools incorporate coding into their courses. Regardless of their individual intended paths, it behooves students to better understand the application of technology and innovative mindsets to the law and practice of law.

It is great to be part of the emergence of more so-called “law labs” at law schools across the world, as the upcoming Global Law Lab Showcase and Meetup demonstrates, and it was heartening to see that of the six finalists at this year’s Iron Tech Lawyer Invitational, four were from Asia-Pacific law schools (ie, HKU, SMU, ANU and Melbourne U).

As my own career shows, it is likely that law students of today may well have multiple careers in the future, and I hope that law school programmes like LITE Lab can help us to better prepare the next generation of legal professionals, who will in turn better lead us to a fairer and more just and sustainable society.