How Can Wills And Probate Professionals Maintain Business Continuity?
How can wills and probate professionals maintain business continuity during the COVID-19 crisis?
By Alison Beech, Partner, Percy Huges & Roberts Solicitors
The COVID-19 pandemic has caused significant disruption and difficulty for every business in every sector, and the wills and probate profession is clearly no exception to this. Firms throughout the UK have been forced to make significant changes and adaptations to remain operational, productive and available during this trying time.
For wills and probate teams, the challenge is twofold. Clearly, business as usual is an impossibility in the current climate, but at the same time, demand for these vital services is seeing a significant spike, making it essential that as much continuity is preserved as possible.
As such, legal firms across the country will need to make proactive adjustments to the way they do business in order to stay active and agile during the current lockdown. They will also need to keep a close eye on developments in what remains an unusually fast-changing landscape, in order to ensure they are ready for what comes next.
A spike in demand
With some inevitability, the evidence suggests that the current public health crisis has had a significant impact on demand for will writing services in the UK, with a massive spike having been observed in the number of people looking to make sure their affairs are in order.
According to data from financial consultancy deVere Group, demand for wills jumped by 76% during the final two weeks of March, a time period that included the commencement of the UK COVID-19 lockdown. Many firms have reported even larger increases than this, with some dedicated will-writing services seeing their requests double or triple as a result.
This will not only be due to individuals moving to secure their family’s financial future due to a pronounced feeling of vulnerability, but also because many will feel the enforced lockdown and the disruption of their busy schedules provides them with a rare opportunity to do so.
Sadly, many are also turning to their solicitors for probate services due to a coronavirus-related death in their family. With mortality rates from the disease remaining high and no viable vaccine in sight, this is likely to remain the case for some time – which is why law firms must take the necessary steps to continue providing the advice and support people need right now.
Adaptive working models
Circumstances as exceptional as these require a similarly unconventional approach to ensuring business continuity. Most wills and probate services typically depend heavily on in-person consultations and the exchanging of physical documentation, but with the lockdown making this impossible, firms are looking for new ways to adapt.
Here are some of the changes that the wills and probate team at Percy Hughes & Roberts Solicitors have made to ensure that clients continue to receive the level of service they require, even in spite of the current lockdown:
- A complete transition to remote working, with systems set up to provide direct computer access, and phone calls being answered and forwarded to the relevant fee earners
- The adoption of new service models, with staff now taking instructions for wills and probate over the telephone. Draft wills and probate documentation are sent out for approval via email or through the post; once approved, engrossed wills are sent out physically with instructions for signing in order to legally validate them
- A wider integration of remote communication with clients, with all relevant correspondence and consultations now being carried out via phone or email, foregoing the need for in-person meetings
Although times remain challenging for wills and probate teams due to the sheer scale of the disruption caused by COVID-19, measures such as these have proven invaluable in helping PHR Solicitors weather the worst impact of the storm. Many of these adaptations will also help the firm become more flexible and ready to respond to any future business interruptions, whatever form they may take.
Preparing for lasting change
It is also vital for law firms to understand that many of the changes brought about by the COVID-19 crisis will not necessarily revert or disappear once the pandemic is brought under control.
Already, lawmakers are looking into reviewing the way in which wills are executed in the UK, with the pandemic having highlighted flaws, inefficiencies and outdated aspects within the current system. The Ministry of Justice and the Law Society are looking at a number of options, including relaxing the rules around witnessing wills, or allowing digital signatures for the first time; there may also be support for a system under which judges have more flexibility when deciding what constitutes a legally valid will.
The scale of this crisis is also likely to drive a lasting culture change around will writing, bringing the importance of wills into the public eye like never before – and emphasising the need to get this protection in place before something truly unexpected happens. If this is the case, then solicitors can expect to see higher demand for their services long after the pandemic has abated.
Only time will tell whether the COVID-19 crisis is remembered as an unusual period of disruption for the wills and probate sector, or the catalyst for a true paradigm shift. For the time being, professionals should be focused on taking the necessary steps to maintain continuity and carry on serving the public, at a point where their services have never felt so essential.