Legal Futures report: Exploiting data – The new frontier for commercial conveyancing

The Land Registry has unveiled plans to use artificial intelligence (AI) in conveyancing and also publish data on conveyancers’ performance.

It comes as a Legal Futures report – published today – highlights how the use of data is set to change commercial conveyancing and the law firms which do it.

The Land Registry’s five-year business strategy – which envisages having registered more than 90% of land in England and Wales by 2022 and all of it by 2030 – outlined how its ‘Digital Street’ project could improve the conveyancing process.

It will shortly finish creating a pilot digital register for a small selection of properties, which will be fully machine readable and able to be updated instantly.

The Land Registry said: “We will explore how a digital register might improve the conveyancing process by making transactions faster and more secure. The proof of concept digital register will link a home owner’s digital identity and the register, make identity verification more secure, improve fraud prevention and enable home owners to make simple changes to the register, such as a change of name, themselves.”

On AI, it said: “AI might assist conveyancers by processing and interpreting data from the register and taking unstructured data from documents to automatically identify the main information needed to complete the transaction.”

Digital Street would also enable novel business models, the strategy predicted.

“Digital Street will provide an opportunity to work closely with proptech, fintech and lawtech start-ups and innovative businesses, such as challenger banks, to explore how a digital register might enable new business models to make conveyancing simpler, faster and cheaper.”

Blockchain was also part of the picture. It might enable the register to be distributed among trusted parties such as lenders and conveyancers, “giving them the ability to operate and update in a secure and tamper-proof manner”.

The commitment to the Land Registry opening its data including “looking at publishing our comparative conveyancer data to provide the end consumer with a real picture of how well their conveyancer is performing, and to enable firms to track their relative performance”.

The report – featuring a roundtable of commercial conveyancing experts, sponsored by Search Acumen – focused on what increasing access to data meant for lawyers and their clients.

There was recognition that this would focus lawyers more on the legal and risk side of their work, rather than processing data.

That might mean clients absorbing this data before they even instruct their lawyers. John Danahy, a partner at Squire Patton Boggs, said: “There is a market for specialists in doing this stuff and just providing a service. Are the law firms gathered around this table really interested in this? I do not think so. It is a race to the bottom in a fees sense.”

Clifford Chance partner Matt Taylor added: “The very sophisticated clients who do this day in, day out will buy the product, bring it in-house, and do it as part of their own routine work. It goes hand in hand with what you are seeing with fees as well.”

But Law Society vice-president Christina Blacklaws said this was a “dangerous” road to go down.

“My vision of the future is that we as a profession embrace and own this technology. If we do not own it, then other people will, and we will struggle to be relevant to our client base.

Andrew Denye, a partner at Orrick, argued that there was a difference between a law firm investing millions of pounds in a platform, and using and paying a third-party provider to deliver the information for each transaction.

“I do not necessarily see law firms putting down £X million for it. However, if the market is going that way, I could see that being quite relevant. Your more sophisticated clients that are already doing it will do it with you, and then you can be the one bringing the interpretation and added value.”

David Wood, head of IT at Watson Farley & Williams, said this could lead to lawyers becoming the risk adviser to their clients: “You can take a step above and tell them, ‘We have got all this data from all the work we have done for you. We can tell you where your risks are’.”

Mr Denye continued: “If you took a multi-let building and downloaded all of the leases in a PDF, uploaded them to Kira, RAVN, or Luminance [all AI software providers], and ran that through, you would have suddenly extracted all of the key information about forfeiture; it is all there.”

Mr Taylor said this was where lawyers and data came together. “The shape of law firms will change. Law firms will almost start to move towards the consultant side and will have more technical teams; you will have lawyers working alongside or being data scientists and programmers as part of a skillset. It changes the whole shape of what a law firm is.”

The full report can be read online or downloaded here.


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