The Highs and Lows of Digitising Conveyancing

Report by InfoTrack, The Highs and Lows of Digitising Conveyancing

Sam Jordan, who chaired the discussion, starts by sharing the results from the InfoTrack Index Report, which analysed how digital the conveyancing process is at different firms. Some of the key findings were:

  • The overall average of digitisation stands at 43%;
  • At the top end, some firms scored over 90%;
  • The results revealed that a thin margin of firms in the market are very digital, and another small margin are not digital at all, with most firms residing somewhere in between (although the average is relatively low);
  • The top 10 is made up of: 5 small firms, 4 medium-sized firms (20-200 people), and 1 large firm;
  • 2 Specialist Conveyancing firms were amongst the top 10.

One of the two specialist firms was The Partnership, whose Managing Director, Peter Ambrose, was present amongst the roundtable attendees. Thus, turning to him, Sam poses the first question: What are your thoughts on the results? Do you find anything surprising?

The low up-take of technology doesn’t surprise Peter. Speaking from interactions he’s had with lawyers looking to join his firm, he believes that oftentimes many firms are convinced of the “amazing tech” they have, but in reality, they fail to understand what minimal effect that technology is having on their business.

While we are not seeing very high levels of tech investment, Lloyd Davies points to how the pandemic helped speed up the industry, and while there’s still a long way to go, the future looks bright with better journeys and a happier clientele.

This point resonates with everyone around the table; Emma Gilroy agrees that COVID gave people the push they so desperately needed, fast-forwarding conveyancing years beyond where it would otherwise be. As Gareth Fullbrook explains, where budgeting might have deterred investment pre-pandemic, firms were left with no choice unless they wished to remain behind.

The chair acknowledges that indeed the Index does indicate a correlation between required change and tech integration, particularly in the case of HMLR’s mandated change to digital AP1s and the necessity of digital ID checks over the pandemic.

A sense of exasperation is shared by the panel, who feels that the industry never takes advantage of new technology until it is forced to. Angelo Piccirillo calls it “a tragedy”, arguing that employers have a responsibility to digitise as a way of better looking after their employees. Lawyers constantly find themselves time-poor and firms are going out of business, and yet not enough firms are taking whatever profit they make and re-investing it into the business – a mistake, warns Angelo, that could cost many their hard-working employees.

However, he also warns of the importance for a fine balance between automation and manual systems, as human contact remains critical in conveyancing. Emma makes a similar point, vouching for the personal touch
in the conveyancing process while emphasising the advantages to better tech-implementation. Ultimately, allowing your employees to better manage their workload will improve their wellbeing, which results in a happier team, offering a better service, and boosting profitability.

Having taken over a well-established company – that has been running since the 80’s – Rachael’s main driver of change is the modernisation of pre-existing systems in order to maximise efficiency. Building on this idea of ‘modernisation’ as the main driver, Emma stresses the importance of not rushing into the adoption of new systems; she notes how it is key to ensure that what you onboard is always what works best for your specific company. Peter agrees, sharing his own experience of working with service providers and observing how selective a firm should be over what technological systems it onboards. He highlights how important it is for vendors to be malleable to your needs, and improve upon systems to fit with what you require.

Mike and David also agree that the client’s journey is the main driver for their firm, with David explaining that the journey is where most conveyancers risk letting their client down. Mike shares how 98% of his clients use the firm’s app, and the feedback is very positive. He emphasises that most clients today “expect a digital journey”, as it allows them to do things on their own time. David believes that in conveyancing it’s easy to end up focussing too much on “vanilla systems” like case management, CRM, and ID-checking, which could all be done very effectively by an external provider; what conveyancers need to focus on are the processes around those systems.

How have your people been impacted?

Given how client-driven the cohort seems, Sam asks them to discuss whether digitalisation has also improved employee experience.

Is mandating the answer?

It is suggested by some that authorities – like the Land Registry – should pressure firms to move faster towards technology. Picking up on this point, Sam asks who could make things move forward, and whether it’s wise to argue that it might take mandates to do so.

Angelo maintains that firms “have to bite the bullet and invest in innovation”. He stresses how clients are demanding much more from their lawyers today, and “mandated may be the only way to change” the industry and ensure more tech boundaries are pushed, and conveyancers are offered the help they need.

Rachael Briggs believes that a good starting point would be a more efficient relationship between lenders and conveyancers. She argues that there is much-needed amelioration in the document-sharing processes used by lenders. In a similar vein, Wessley Huyton argues that the likes of LMS and Lender Exchange must do more; the systems in place are useful to transactions, but if more automation were to be introduced, it would reduce the need to chase multiple avenues for different pieces of information.

Lloyd contends that the issue goes far deeper than what has been mentioned by the panel, as lenders themselves face the same struggles lawyers face, having to deal with “antiquated systems” before arriving at the point of document-upload. He refers to both lending and conveyancing systems as “fractured”, believing that nothing will change until a disruptor is introduced to the system and offers the latest revolutionary tech for free.

It is not simply a matter of introducing new tech either, adds Sam, the industry must understand what best practice means in light of today’s advanced tech, and it must stop trying to replicate traditional methods using digital platforms.

Peter disagrees that the system is entirely broken, instead he believes that it’s “simply not good enough”, and firms will keep getting away with using it unless they are faced with the need for a ‘burning platform’, such as was the case with digital ID checks over the pandemic. He also introduces the issue of ‘integration’ to the table, noting that many firms are not willing to adopt new technology as it would require them to completely alter their systems.

“Integration is the pitfall”, agrees Michelle Oliver. She recounts her own firm’s experience with new-tech introduction, emphasising how crucial it was to find systems that can easily integrate with those already existing. This led the panel to debate one question often asked around firm boardrooms: ‘Is it worth changing systems?’ Most agree that time is most rewardingly invested in searching for systems that will benefit the firm and integrate without hassle.

What’s next in 2023?

Looking forward towards the new year, Sam asks the attendees: “What are your digital priorities? What do you think every firm should be doing?”

Angelo believes it is using qualified or advance signatures for TR1s, instead of relying on the postal service to send across paperwork.

Similarly, and referring back to the Index Report, Lloyd reveals how one of the most worrying statistics he read is the large number of people still not using digital ID and e-signatures – this should be the priority for him, particularly when conducting due diligence.

For Wessley, Emma, Michelle, and Gareth, the focus should be on customer onboarding, streamlining the process, and making sure it’s at its best capacity. They all note their own respective firms’ work on the matter. This client-centred priority is shared by Rachael, whose firm is reviewing their client portal and considering how to ameliorate the way clients can check the progress of their case, as well as better facilitate agents to log in and track documents, reducing the overall level of admin required.

Victoria’s focus is on report on title, taking a step back to analyse the firm’s current methods and figuring out a way to speed up the process. Peter’s attention turns to ‘straight-through processing’, a procedure that banks have been using for over 40 years, which he believes the conveyancing industry is missing out on.

As the country battles a recession – with impact across all areas of the law, including conveyancing – the cohort believes that, generally, a stronger focus will be put on technology and digitisation over the coming year to hopefully ease the obstacles every firm will face.

For Simon, the most important advancement for his employees has been an increased agility in their work process. The firm has focused on increasing their integration with external providers, which has allowed for everything to be done through the main case management system. Mary shares a similar experience, with her firm’s focus on remote working, full integration of new technologies into the main system is crucial for employees.

The reduction in admin work as a direct benefit of digitalisation is praised by the entire cohort. Christine explains how the introduction of their app has greatly reduced the number of calls and emails that her team receive, as matters can be more swiftly resolved online. Natalie adds how risk is also reduced as a result of technology like ID-verification, with less pressure put on the team to detect fraud.

Taking up the topic of ID-verification, Sam expresses his worry that some people might feel like their job is threatened as more administrative tasks become automated. He asks the group whether they’ve faced much resistance.

Throughout the discussion, many praised the benefits that they witnessed their firm gain as a direct result of digital solutions; for example, when dealing with overseas clients as Victoria Marshall explains, or with the introduction of electronic signatures during lockdown as Wessley points out. Yet, the debate kept returning to mandates and whether they were needed to ensure change. While electronic solutions work with overseas clients, you still face pushback by those unwilling to bend to modernisation, recounts Victoria from experience. Or, despite the Land Registry publishing a guide promoting the use of electronic signatures, approval was still needed from both parties before making use of the technology in transactions, much to the disapproval of Wessley, who describes how many people he has had to deal with who continue to object to their use.

When there is this much debate around the adoption of simple tech, many prefer to stick with traditional systems, and so, the cycle keeps going. The natural way around these issues would be a mandate, and while no explicit consensus was reached, many of the points made during the roundtable discussion point towards authority- intervention being the best course of action if the industry wishes for real change.

What is driving change in firms?

Turning now towards the question of ‘what drives people forward’, Sam asks the cohort to discuss their own firms and what active drivers they believe lie behind change at their companies.

Wellbeing is at the forefront for Angelo, who highlights the recent mass exodus of doctors and nurses from the medical industry as a very possible reality for lawyers in the near future. “People are our main motivator”, he stresses, noting how hard his firm works to ensure its employees are treated correctly and don’t form part of the ever- growing number of lawyers feeling disengaged from their jobs due to insufficient pay and unrealistic workloads.

Gareth shares Angelo’s enthusiasm for automation, commenting how admin-heavy conveyancing could benefit from better streamlining of processes in order to free up more time for lawyers to focus on other tasks.
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January 31, 2023