“…a substantial part of lawyering is interpreting the data and making decisions. This is not something legal tech can replace anytime soon, as interpretation and decision-making are not premised on strict mathematical, scientific, or logical rules but intuition and an assessment of human nature.”
Asia Law Network had the opportunity to catch up with Chen Siyuan, Associate Professor of Singapore Management University prior to Tech Law Fest 2019, where Siyuan will be moderating a panel about comparative regulatory approaches. Learn more about who Siyuan is before you get to see him speak live.
How did you come about choosing to read law?
I didn’t really choose it as I wasn’t sure what I wanted to do after JC. I am very grateful to have parents that were able to advise me on this matter. They suggested I get a professional degree so it felt that law would be a good fit for me.
What motivated you to start teaching?
I had good teachers that helped me do well in law school and I could see myself being an effective teacher. I was also not drawn to the hectic corporate work culture and environment prevalent in the industry, so I focused my efforts during my studies on burnishing my teaching and research credentials. That poised me well to subsequently apply to be an academic.
What do you feel is the most challenging aspect of your job?
Coming up with new publications every year is definitely challenging. As an academic you have to negotiate between the needs of the industry, your own interests, and that of the publisher. There’s always a lot of uncertainty to whether the content or tone of a matter will beg its publication.
What are some of the misconceptions of your work that you face?
There is certainly more flexibility in academia for us to plan when and what we want to publish. But there are stresses that arise from the creative aspect of the job. Having to create, curate, and contribute to the already dense sphere of legal knowledge is always challenging. It’s a stark contrast to the very reactive nature of most legal work, where you are reacting to each client’s expectations and the demands of the other party or judge.
And what is your greatest takeaway for your work?
It is always a joy watching students grow intellectually and morally. That’s undeniably the goal of every educator and it’s very much ingrained into my work philosophy as well. I hope students don’t just take away knowledge from their lessons but also become better people.
If you were to compare the legal landscape past and present, from the perspective of an educator, what do you think has changed the most?
In most cases, lawyering is no longer a craft that is painstakingly taught by a mentor over a sustained period of time. Students are expected to get more work experience and knowledge of the industry before they start their training contracts. Schools are preparing students for this by offering them better internship opportunities or through moots (a mock judicial proceeding).
With the increasing workload, trainees are also expected to take the initiative to learn more about the department and the company rather than be directly told by the mentor what to look out for. Young lawyers certainly need to be a lot more attentive to their surroundings in order to make it in the real world.
What legal issue or area do you think will become more significant in the near future?
Anything that involves an intersection of various areas of law. For example, the regulation of autonomous technologies, requires an understanding of various areas of law such as contract, data privacy, intellectual property. It’s becoming more demanding on lawyers who want to specialise in these up and coming areas.
What are your thoughts on legal technology and how would it change the way the law is served?
For lawyers, legal tech would help cut down the time in finding and sorting data. However, a substantial part of lawyering is interpreting the data and making decisions. This is not something legal tech can replace anytime soon, as interpretation and decision-making are not premised on strict mathematical, scientific, or logical rules but intuition and an assessment of human nature.
For instance, you could get a machine to tell you whether a division of matrimonial case possessing certain features (length of marriage, contributions of each party, etc) is likely to lead to a certain division outcome, but the machine can’t tell you yet if certain steps or arguments should be advanced in the proceedings or if some less obvious factor (eg, conduct of the parties) might be given less or more weight by a particular judge.
Any advice for aspiring lawyers/lawyers who are considering the teaching career?
Apply to do part-time teaching early, don’t be afraid to publish. Many students focus on exposing themselves to the workforce as fast and much as possible without realising there is much to learn from academia. The depth of knowledge one stands to gain from writing and reading about specific areas of law will definitely equip students to handle the pressures of specialisations in a firm.
There are also more lawyers who are eyeing Masters degrees to either boost their employability or help them better transit to different specialisations. This is certainly a good sign and lawyers and students alike should make sure they are eligible for a good Masters degree.
Could you share with our readers 3 fun facts/hobbies about yourself?
I fly drones, and you can see my pictures at SingaporeAerialPano.
I used to be a very prolific contributor to Wikipedia. It’s always great when you can share your areas of knowledge or expertise with others. Nowadays I confine my contributions to pictures.
Last, I did not like moot court as a student but participated in it to keep my wife company and now I direct the moot court programme in SMU. It’s so important that students get a firm grip on foundational skills before entering the workforce.
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