By Jonathan Achampong, Residential Property Partner, Wedlake Bell, on behalf of Legal Futures Associate Search Acumen
Lawyers do not become legal practitioners to do paperwork, but when managing heavy workloads, it can sometimes be hard to think about innovation and adopting new processes. This can lead to frustrations as a result of inefficient practices that impact service delivery and slow down transaction times. Covid-19 has only served to aggravate the pitfalls of a paper-based way of working.
However, lawyers have acted fast to adapt to digital ways of working, being forced to change past practices that could have seen the property sector grind to a halt. As we continue to emerge from the pandemic, I am optimistic that lawyers will continue the spirit of innovation. I am confident that many more lawyers will stand firm in their convictions that a “digital first” approach is the way forward – bolstered by the overwhelming evidence from the past 18 months of the enhanced efficiencies and benefits to clients and lawyers alike.
Steps in the right direction
The pandemic has provided impetus for change with many processes having to be digitised to support the public health response. One area that has changed is verifying clients’ identity and proof of address. Previously done face to face with lawyers’ certifying their clients’ passport and utility bill, lawyers have increasingly now been using digital tools that have saved clients and lawyers’ time – not to mention ensuring safety for all. As has been the case throughout history, crisis inspires change and the pandemic has shifted the opinions of many who may have previously not invested the time to understand the benefits of new technology. Often, we need these nudges to be able to see the value of new innovations.
Verifying identity is not the end of the story, however. Another good example is that many parts of the transaction process are still facilitated by PDFs which need to be printed, signed and retuned by post as most clients’ lack the right software to process the forms digitally. Once clients have their offer accepted, the expectation is that the conveyancing process will be swift. However, sending physical documents out by post slows things down which can result in frustrations from clients who see either their conveyancer or the conveyancing process as a barrier to their dream home. There have been several innovations developed to address this.
One way I have sought to streamline the due diligence process is by using Search Acumen’s ForeSite platform. This gives me immediate access to key property information at the touch of a button. I can then see how complicated or straightforward a transaction might be and provide an accurate quote to the client as well as clear advice on how long the process might take. This avoids the timely and laborious process of visiting local authority websites and downloading planning permissions or searching for listed buildings on Historic England’s website. Clients appreciate the time saved, but also the level of detail we can provide in our quotes, so they know exactly how their money is being spent. This gives us a unique selling point over other firms and allows us to empower our customers which is an essential experience at Wedlake Bell.
Potential for greater integration in the future
I have seen a big change in industry attitudes towards technology during my career. In some cases, people who never wanted to go near digital solutions in the past, now see the benefits and sometimes even position themselves as pioneers! Despite this, for those who are accustomed to the status quo, there is inevitably concern about what the future will look like and how their role’s might evolve. What is the role of the conveyancer in a technologically enabled legal sector?
I am confident that technology will only enhance the conveyancing profession, allowing legal experts to spend more time doing what they are good at. Administration is not why I went to law school, I learned the law so I could help people – not get tied up in knots over admin. The value of a skilled conveyancer is our expertise, knowledge and the experienced advice we can provide to help clients navigate a sometimes complex and bureaucratic legal system. Technology enables this to come to the fore therefore improving our relationships with our clients and, frankly, our own personal enjoyment in our roles. Enhanced efficiencies that are delivered by digital ways of working, coupled with upskilling our people to incorporate technology into their day-to-day practice will make for an improved conveyancing industry.
Technology has vast potential to help reduce administrative burdens and there is an array of new tools for us to embrace, such as machine learning. Going forward, the key will be to approach digital ways of working with an open mindset, drawing on our experiences of the last 18 months where technological solutions we may not have previously considered are now improving our working lives immeasurably. Hopefully that spirit of openness to change and innovation will remain and strengthen from these experiences.