“Conveyancing Technology – when you don’t know what you don’t know”
The title of this piece might come across as somewhat negative.
It’s actually the phrase we use during interviews when an inexperienced candidate claims “a lot of expertise in conveyancing”. This normally elicits a raised eyebrow and the comment, “the problem is, you don’t know what you don’t know”.
Which is exactly the same issue with law firm owners who dismiss technology as not being the solution to the challenges facing the conveyancing industry today.
I’m not suggesting technology turns an inexperienced case handler into a 10 year PQE lawyer, but we ignore the promise of technology at our peril.
Surely the pandemic improved technology deployment?
In a word, no.
While 2020 accelerated many changes in society, widespread technological adoption in conveyancing wasn’t one of them. Most candidates I interview don’t have access to case management systems, and those that do, dismiss them as difficult to use and adding little value. Even the more modern types offer basic functionality – typically mailmerge and a bit of annoying workflow.
Which is hardly going to revolutionise how lawyers give advice.
The depressing reality is that not even a worldwide pandemic drove investment and adoption of effective technology.
What genuine benefits can technology bring?
There are many areas where appropriate, innovative technology can make a genuine difference to a property lawyer’s world, with electronic documents, structured enquiries and document interpretation being the quickest wins.
- Electronic documentation
Scanning documents brings obvious benefits, but many law firms are still not doing this, which, given the technology has been around since the 90’s, is quite shocking.
The problem though, is that while scanning is not difficult, getting it right can be challenging. The main issue is making a scanned document easily accessible. To achieve this, three aspects need to be addressed; logical naming so the filename can be found by a search, conversion to readable text so the content can be searched and finally categorisation so it can be grouped with other associated documents logically and found more quickly.
Contrast this with how lawyers implement scanning do it today.
We know of one firm that scans all incoming post for each lawyer into a single PDF so that they can be delivered to meet a deadline. They then rescan the documents again but into individual files so that the lawyer can upload them to the correct case.
People scanning documents typically use the automatic filename generated by the scanner and then either email it to the lawyer or copy it to shared folder. The lack of descriptive filename means that documents need to be opened to check their contents.
With an average of 164 documents for each purchase file, unless these are stored in a meaningful way, an awful lot of time is wasted hunting for the correct documents.
- Enquiry handling
This is the highest risk area for any property transaction, especially for purchases. Ensuring all client enquiries are asked and responded to, along with those required for the lender, is a daily challenge.
Ask a typical lawyer how they tackle enquiry handling today, and you will receive a jumble of answers ranging from “within emails” or “notes tacked to a file”. This extremely time consuming process is ripe for technological change.
Standard enquiries should be held in a way that makes it quick and easy for lawyers to select them based on property and instruction type. Storing them, responses from the other side and any associated documents in a structured format, will significantly reduce the time and risks involved.
Unfortunately, like scanning, the challenge is getting the data onto the case, which for most will require the information to be copied and pasted from either clients or the other side. Optical character recognition can be used to convert scanned letters to text but these will need to be assigned to each enquiry manually.
The solution is to make the process interactive, with clients and both sets of lawyers being able to interact with these enquiries held in a centralised location. This will significantly reduce the time involved and improve transparency for everyone involved.
- Document interpretation
Combining this technology with the two activities above is where genuine time saving benefits will be realised for the lawyer.
Rather than just scanning documents blindly, by training machines to identify document types, machines can then start to learn and recognise different document automatically. Once a machine can recognise a document type, it can give them searchable naming conventions and store them under appropriate categories to make them easier to find.
When combined with the use of structured enquiries, this will enable the system to recognise what enquiries are asked about specific document types. Once a sufficient body of knowledge of enquiries has been stored, the system will be able to determine the type of property through title documents, photographs, management packs and leases, and recognise what enquiries need to be raised.
The lawyers’ role will then change to verify the correct enquiries have been raised and refine them where necessary and give professional interpretation to clients.
Which is where technology becomes really smart.
The intriguing aspect of these ideas is that the technology to proven and available today.