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‘Your mindset is more important than it seems’ – how Maxwell Chambers shook up Singapore’s disputes landscape

Jiun Ean Ban, chief executive of Maxwell Chambers in Singapore, recently sat down with Legal 500 senior research editor Allan Cohen to share the story of his journey to his current position, as well as the latest developments from Maxwell Chambers, the influence of technology in disputes, and his sideline in fantasy novels and educational board games

The genesis of Maxwell Chambers

When the Singaporean government came up with the idea of creating an international alternative dispute resolution (ADR) facility in 2002, Ban, a qualified lawyer, was a public servant specialising in policy work within the Ministry of Law. Maxwell Chambers started to take shape in 2007, and Ban started to become involved with the ADR project, eventually leading the development of the Chambers.

Maxwell Chambers was set up by the government with a grant and is wholly owned by the Ministry of Law. To this day, the government of Singapore remains the sole shareholder, ‘but of course, everything here is run commercially,’ says Ban. ‘The government supports us and provides the funding so that we can build this ADR ecosystem in Singapore, but does not get involved in the day to day running of the centre.’ The aim of the Chambers is, and has been since the very beginning, to establish Singapore as a base for international dispute work.’

In 2010, the Chambers officially opened its doors and Ban became its chief executive. He held this position until 2015 and, after the centre had been running well for several years, moved on to pursue other projects. ‘At this stage, I did not expect to ever come back to Maxwell,’ Ban says.

The Chambers continued to grow physically, tripling its initial size in 2019 when it expanded to the adjacent building, the former Traffic Police headquarters in colonial times. More institutions and practitioners joined the centre at this point as tenants.

Apart from the hearing room facilities, Maxwell Chambers was conceived to be an integrated ADR centre for institutions and practitioners from all over the world. To achieve this, it hosts institutions from many other countries or regions, such as the International Court of Arbitration (ICC) headquartered in Paris, the Permanent Court of Arbitration (PCA) headquartered in The Hague, the American Arbitration Association (AAA) headquartered in New York City, and the World Intellectual Property Organization (WIPO) headquartered in Geneva, for instance. It is also the base for various ADR bodies which have a physical presence within Maxwell Chambers so that they can connect more easily and travel back and forth from Europe and APAC with convenience.

The rise of virtual hearings and hybrid models

In late 2021, ‘I was approached by the Ministry of Law to consider coming back to Maxwell,’ Ban remembers. ‘We were in the midst of the Covid crisis, and back, then, no one knew how long it would last.’ As with so many things around us, the pandemic also forever changed the realm of dispute resolution and the way hearings were to be conducted. This left the centre faced with a fundamental question: How could a physical ADR facility still have a place in the new normal? ‘I was part of the original team that contributed to the creation of Maxwell Chambers, so I was asked to also be part of the team that would navigate the centre through this challenging new era.’

Nearly three years later, Ban sees that ‘in-person hearings have largely returned. Many are what I would call hybrid, but people still generally want to meet face-to-face. Therefore, the original purpose of Maxwell Chambers remains relevant, which I am very pleased about.’ However, the process initiated during the Covid period is still ongoing, and Ban continues his efforts in broadening the Chambers’ activities and transforming it in order to meet the needs of an ever-evolving environment.

Today, sudden changes have had consequences on the general business environment. ‘The Russia-Ukraine war obviously affects everyone globally,’ Ban comments. Additionally, the ‘tensions between countries in our own region also have implications on business. We do our best, like many, to navigate these geopolitical challenges.’ However, the global pandemic was indeed the beginning of a profound evolution for Maxwell Chambers. ‘The closure of borders affected Singapore very significantly,’ Ban explains, ‘more so than it did for bigger countries. Singapore being a city-state, has a smaller domestic market and is very reliant on cross-border work.’

This episode prompted the Chambers to react promptly by developing international connections and build up its online presence, and offering new digital solutions. In particular, hybrid ways of operating grew in importance, improving flexibility and reducing cost for the Chambers’ customers.

‘Individuals that have less involvement in a hearing – for instance, a junior associate brought in to supervise a brief or a witness who has a minor testimony to provide –, used to fly in as well. They do so less frequently now.’, Ban explains. Instead, the people who attend in person are now often only the key individuals – the tribunal members, and ‘key witnesses whose demeanour have to be watched, for instance – the others dial in remotely.

‘This hybrid way of running has almost become the default set-up for international cases,’ which creates the need for new tech capabilities. ‘This now sounds surreal, but not so long ago, video conferencing was still a very bespoke kind of request. Accommodating this in many cases simultaneously was one our first challenges,’ Ban remembers.

Exploring new frontiers

‘Traditionally,’ Ban continues, ‘the dispute resolution industry has always lagged behind other industries, in terms of the adoption of technology. Lawyers, by definition, are risk averse.’ This means that Maxwell Chambers constantly has to find a balance between pushing innovations that will improve the industry in the long term, and what lawyers are ready to experiment.

For an organisation of the size of Maxwell Chambers, radical tech upskilling does not come at a small expense, and involves various security considerations. Indeed, developing Maxwell’s capabilities does not guarantee that the parties dialling in remotely have the appropriate connectivity, lighting, speed or sufficient video or audio quality at their end. There is also no way to ensure that the parties are going to be compromised or coached by anyone else in the room or location, or they are not reading from prepared notes. ‘We had to find solutions for these new considerations and challenges,’ Ban explains. In parallel, other international ADR centres have now also implemented similar technologies adapted to this growing demand. ‘In cross-border hearings, we are seeing parties increasingly require stakeholders to dial in from another centre or reputable facility, and not just their own homes. This has spurred us to build stronger partnerships with other like-minded hearing facilities around the world.’

Developing these relationships with peer organisations is an ongoing process. Currently, these agreements remain informal and are based on mutual trust, but Maxwell Chambers is working towards formalising the agreements and creating specific protocols and standards in order to establish the appropriate levels of security and audio-visual equipment quality.

The second aspect of the Chambers’ evolution was being able to accommodate the increasing use of digital documents. ‘The pandemic accelerated the move by lawyers, arbitrators and other parties away from huge bundles of paper, which brought about many advantages,’ Ban recalls. Not only did this solve the physical challenge of having to store, print and shred shelves of binders, it also facilitated term-searching within the documents, preventing lawyers from having to flip through numerous documents, thus improving and simplifying the entire process of a hearing. This was also an important step towards operating sustainably. ‘A very positive development for ADR centres around the world,’ Ban comments.

Other adjustments were also made contributing to the transformation of Maxwell Chambers as the new normal brought new ways of doing business. ‘We needed to understand how the overall preferences of the parties had changed too,’ Ban explains. ‘This includes how they travelled, and where, and what their expectations were when they stayed in a host city for a long hearing.’ An important adjustment that was made in that sense, was that because ‘people now carry substantially more electronic devices than they did only a few years back, which could create bandwidth issues,’ Ban continues. ‘We can have as many as fifty people in a room for large hearings. When you manage a facility like Maxwell, you have to anticipate what can happen when more than a hundred devices try to connect to the network at once. And this would be for just one of our hearing rooms.’ But Ban does not like to think of them only as problems where there are challenges. Instead, he looks for opportunities within these challenges. ‘Understanding these new digital habits and making the right investments in time set us apart from other centres.’

Two areas that businesses nowadays are taking an increasingly great interest in are AI – the advantages and risks it brings – and sustainability. ‘We try to offer insights, expert opinions, and even training on these key topics for the benefit of the lawyers in this industry, but we also keep innovating ourselves.’ Indeed, earlier this year, Maxwell launched its own online database of female ADR practitioners and arbitrators from Asia. ‘This was to address feedback that it was difficult to find the female ADR practitioners working and residing in Asia,’ Ban explains.

Another area of active interest for Maxwell is drone video cameras. When they launched this service in February this year, the Chambers’ idea was that tribunals might need specific high-resolution photos and videos of the location of a dispute that might not be necessarily easily accessible. Examples include an offshore oil rig, a mine in the mountains, or a factory in a location where civil unrest is ongoing. ‘Using drones to provide context and evidence can save the tribunal a difficult field trip,’ Ban explains. The service requires having a drone operator at or near the dispute location, who can listen to the court’s instructions, but all recordings can effectively be shown in the courtroom in real time. ‘The tribunal can order an overflight of the whole location, a zoom on a specific area, or to locate and show the safety measures that your company claims to have put in place, for instance. This makes evidence presentations very different than with prerecorded videos and really helps bring the context to life.’

Maxwell Chambers working on developing their own in-house drone service capable of operating in Singapore, at least. But for the moment, the service is being outsourced. The reason is that ‘when we had this idea, we wanted to quickly spin it up. It is working well, though. The drone companies we work with have the capability of doing this anywhere in the world.’ Ban says.

Drones go in the air, but also underwater, they can film pipelines and undersea cables. They can also fit in tiny nooks and crannies, inaccessible to the human eye, and help create 3D digital images based on the recordings. ‘We want to remain the interface that the law firms deal with when they need drone services so that they do not have to understand the technicalities of it, bother to get drone licenses, proceed to rehearsal flights, worry about the weather conditions on the day of the hearing, and so on, and so forth,’ Ban explains.

‘This service gets people very intrigued,’ Ban continues. ‘Of course, the cost of the service is determined by where it is required and how extensive it needs to be, but we have received many inquiries from lawyers operating in the oil and gas, and the construction industries. Drones are already used in the inspection of high-rise buildings and roofings.’ This procedure has not fully percolated into the space of dispute resolution yet, but ‘it opens up some new possibilities that do not exist currently,’ Ban concludes.

In parallel, Ban is also studying opportunities to take advantage of blockchain technology. ‘Blockchain is still quite nascent, but like many, we are thinking of ways to possibly use it in meaningful ways other than just cryptocurrencies,’ Ban says. ‘Artificial intelligence is yet another area we are exploring,’ he continues. Generative AI is starting to look interesting for law firms – as well as for other organisations –, when it comes to drafting documents or carrying on legal research. ‘We have not found a compelling enough way to use blockchain in the space of ADR yet, but we are keeping a close eye on this space. The Metaverse is one of the directions that we are exploring, but again, stakeholders and clients have made it clear that they still want to meet in person, and if needed, they are happy to use the existing video-conferencing platforms,’ Ban develops. One way, however, could be to couple this idea with the 3D imagery created with the drones’ photographs. ‘We could equip the members of the tribunal with virtual reality headsets for them to explore rooms and locations digitally or, in the case of patent disputes, look at objects as if they were holding them in their hands or in front of them. This could be interesting when the issue is with heavy and bulky material, such as excavators, cranes, or aircraft engines, all objects that we cannot bring into a hearing room. These are all in development.’

Pondering these possibilities, an important element to factor is cost. ‘In our uncertain economic environment, it is normal that clients watch their expenses more closely. Some mechanisms are more cost-effective, like mediation, and there are some who feel that the arbitration industry needs to take a good hard look at itself, to decide whether it’s getting too expensive for parties. That said, Maxwell Chambers is very keen to provide them with the best and most effective offer possible.’

Another component that an organisation needs to consider during its evolution is sustainability. In this field, ‘Maxwell also tries to make meaningful changes,’ Ban explains. ‘Nobody wants to leave a messed-up planet for our children. It is an ongoing conversation we are having with all parties. Changing our expectations and behaviours, as lawyers, is important.’

Beyond the hearing room: creative pursuits and philosophies

On the topic of making a positive impact, Ban tries to contribute to the cause in his free time. ‘In the interim time between my two stints at Maxwell Chambers, I tried my hand at a few interesting things I had been wanted to do,’ Ban recalls. ‘I helped with the setting up of an art centre at a theatre for underprivileged youths, wrote three novels, and created educational board games, which have been used in Singapore schools. It was a chance to do things I always wanted but never had time for.’

‘Of all these things I did,’ he continues, ‘the only one that still keeps me busy is the writing of fiction. The first three novels I wrote were fantasy books for young adults. But I have now just finished a science fiction book for adults, and I am already working on the next one.’ These stories Ban tells are not only here to entertain the reader, though. ‘I always try to convey a message, in my books. I have a strong interest in sustainability and education, and this generation’s concerns. I really do not like preachy books; I do not want to scold the reader – or anyone else for the matter. Rather, I want my books to be fun. I try to show interesting or new points of view, and I believe that we can all work to improve society,’ he confides.

These hobbies beg the question of whether there is enough free time. ‘It took me over a year to write my first book while doing it full time, and another year to create my first board game,’ Ban remembers. ‘When I returned to a day job, it took me even longer – three years – to write my fourth book. I might try full-time writing in the future, but I am not done with my work at Maxwell Chambers yet, he continues. ‘Rather than time, the most difficult is to find the right headspace. It is difficult to immerse yourself in the creative space when you have spent your day thinking about work and other commitments. I am not alone in this case. Most creators are faced with the same issue. I try to find pockets of time, on weekends, when I try to set aside a whole afternoon for writing only, with as few distractions as possible. I would sit down and write, even if I do not have breakthrough ideas at that very moment. Sometimes, even writing unimpressive stuff is better than nothing at all, because you still maintain some momentum.’

Ban also shares his ultimate writing tip. ‘I get some of the best ideas while in the shower,’ he says. ‘We all shower using muscle memory. This frees the brain and helps you think. When I noticed that I had some of my best ideas in those moments, I placed some old, empty CD cases within reach. Now, I jot my ideas on them with permanent markers if I get inspiration in the middle of a shower. I realise that this is a bizarre solution, but it really works for me!’

‘Too many people assume that someone else is going to figure things out for them, from how to use new technology to writing books,’ Ban says. ‘And because of that, many people are just waiting around for a solution to be given to them. But – if we stick to the tech example – a lot of technology is already here; it just might be used in an adjacent industry or for a different purpose than the one you need. I believe that if one puts their mind to it, they will realise there are so many things they could tweak to turn them into solutions for problems that seem insurmountable. This applies to the ADR industry as well. At Maxwell, we never tried to reinvent the wheel or pretended that we came up with revolutionary ideas. We just get a bit creative and test things out. Along the way, we have also realised that the cost of adopting these technologies or other solutions is lower than what lawyers anticipate – we know this because we have surveyed them. The drone service happened to be about ten times cheaper than what lawyers from the industry, on average, had anticipated. What I am trying to say,’ he continues, ‘is that your mindset is more important than it seems – for whatever you do. This is a philosophy we are applying at Maxwell.’

‘Singapore is a small country,’ Ban concludes. ‘Nobody would invite us to the table if we did not earn our place at it. Therefore, we have learned to improve and get positive results on most things quickly, to improve things for all our clients and partners. With time, this has become a habit, and this is exactly how the country works.’