Law In The Time Of Corona

Wisdom comes to us when it can no longer do any good – Gabriel García Márquez, Love in the Time of Cholera

Change has tended to be treated with a healthy dose of scepticism by law firms. For an industry built on risk avoidance this is no bad thing, but an overly conservative mindset also brings its own risks. Firms now creating home-working strategies on the fly will be well aware of this.

The coronavirus has demanded immediate action and firms are adopting technologies they hadn’t heard of until only a few weeks ago. The rate of change in probate departments is usually slow, and many are asking if this new approach will bring about a longer term shift in attitude towards innovation.

Probate departments at law firms are currently being threatened by new entrants to the market. The Wills & Probate Consumer Research Report 2019 from IRN Research found that solicitors are instructed in 60% of probate matters. Individuals administer the estate in 27% of cases and others (e.g. financial advisers, banks, accountants and conveyancers) act 13% of the time. The number of estates not electing to instruct a solicitor continues to increase. In light of these challenges it is vital that probate departments at law firms continue to embrace innovation to remain competitive.

Probate practitioners seeking innovative solutions need not look far. Every aspect of the process has seen process improvement. There are electronic ‘know your customer’ checks (Lawyer Checker), taking initial instructions (Settify), property valuation, management and marketing (Executor Solutions), automated will drafting (Arken) and form completion (LEAP). Now would be a good time for firms to map out their processes to identify whether they are as effective as possible. There is no reason for law firms not to harness the technology and services that can improve their offering.

Excellent client care has always been important for servicing high net worth clients expecting a white glove service. However, those with more modest estates are now weighing up whether to instruct a probate solicitor or do it themselves. Individuals will be reluctant to pay extra without seeing reviews reassuring them that it is worthwhile. As a result, providing an outstanding client experience (and a forum for clients to share their experiences) is paramount.

Law firms indicate that the top reasons for client dissatisfaction are delay, excessive cost and failure to keep informed. Innovations that can help these areas should be of particular interest to solicitors.

Practitioners have a responsibility to stay abreast of new technology so they can continue to act in their client’s best interest. They need to be able to weigh up whether it is appropriate to take a video of a client’s instructions e.g. where a Larke v Nugus request may be anticipated. They will increasingly have to deal with estates including cryptocurrencies. It seems to be only a matter of time before Inheritance Tax forms will need to be submitted through online solutions. Law firms may soon need to provide methods for testators to sign and witness their will electronically and store it securely in the cloud for swift retrieval. Being a luddite is no longer an option for people providing legal services.

It will be interesting to see whether probate departments use these unprecedented times as an springboard to improve their processes. This may depend on how productive fee earners are during this period, and the extent of any problems caused by new ways of working. Given the threats to the probate market, firms would do well to ensure all steps are taken to provide clients with a service that is high quality, swift and cost effective. Hopefully Gabriel García Márquez’s suggestion that wisdom comes to us when it can no longer do any good will not prove to be true for probate practitioners.

Article collaboratively written by Oliver Jeffcott of Executor Solutions and Edward Kirk of Settify

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