British Wills and Probate Awards: Judges’ Insights with Emily Deane and Ian Bond

In only 4 weeks’ time, Exizent will be joining the brightest legal practitioners working in wills and probate at the British Wills and Probate Awards 2021.

We’re excited to be involved in our first awards as Champagne Sponsors. To celebrate, we’re sharing a series of interviews with the judges themselves to get their views on the future of the industry and what firms need to do to excel.

This week we’re delighted to introduce the series with Emily Deane, Technical Counsel at the Society of Trust and Estate Practitioners (LinkedIn), and Ian Bond, Director and Head of Wills & Estates at Thursfields Solicitors (LinkedIn).

Ian’s championing of technology is easy to see in his contributions to The Probate Practitioner’s Handbook. Beyond chapters on working with clients and other areas, he writes authoritatively about digital assets – an increasingly important area in the probate process.

Emily is no stranger to the pen either and is one of the main contributors to the STEP blog. Writing on a range of legal subjects, from insight on some of the industry’s biggest changes to different ways to get involved with STEP activities. As a specialist in private client matters and with broader policy experience, she brings invaluable insight.

What is the greatest industry change/shift you’ve observed in your career to date?

Emily: A significant development in my career was the Ministry of Justice’s implementation of secondary legislation to allow the video witnessing execution of wills during the COVID-19 pandemic. This was a remarkable change and important update to a longstanding and historic formality. This upcoming year the Law Commission of England & Wales will also be considering wider reforms to the law of wills, which is also very dated and needs a major legislative overhaul. The combination of these reforms will result in an unprecedented modernisation of the law of wills during my career.

Ian: The embrace of technology by legal professionals has been the biggest change that I’ve seen over the course of my career. This was first seen in technology firms that made the lives of lawyers easier (such as those responsible for case management systems to produce precedents, standardised letters, and storing information). All this was with the aim of making the lawyer more efficient to allow for greater billing and standardisation. More recently, legal technology has become more focused on customer needs and allowing them to interact more with the transaction or matter at hand – clients being able to amend and receive information in a way that works for them rather than the lawyer.  The impact of Covid-19 has demonstrated how technology can allow us to make changes to systems and processes without compromising on great customer service.

What do you see as the greatest challenge facing the wills and probate industry today?

“The wills and probate industry has within itself the power to reinvent, reform and reimagine, but only if we choose to do so”

Ian Bond, Thursfields Solicitors

Ian: Covid-19 has changed, and will continue to change, the way that the wills and probate sector works. Once the economy reopens the challenge will likely be capitalising on progress made rather than retreating to the old ways of doing things. The wills and probate industry has within itself the power to reinvent, reform and reimagine, but only if we choose to do so. Technology will allow for more people to take on the challenge of obtaining grants of representation for themselves and to administer estates without the help of lawyers. As an industry we need to adapt to this challenging market and provide services that clients want.

Emily: The industry has seen significant social and technological changes in recent years. Additionally, the families that our members advise are increasingly international and complex in relation to their financial needs. Digital assets have become far more prevalent. However, the recent shift to online procedures, such as the probate service, has caused difficulties for practitioners. It seems inevitable that wills and lasting powers of attorney will also transition to an online platform, which may likely incur similar difficulties, so the industry should brace itself for that challenge, but embrace these changes as positive steps in the right direction.

What was the greatest lesson of the events of the past year and a half, and what will be the lasting effect of the pandemic on wills and estate management?

Emily: Broadly I think the pandemic taught us a valuable lesson about the need to be quick to respond legislatively in times of crisis. Some countries were more reactive than others. In the legal profession specifically, I believe practitioners were incredibly responsive to the new way of working virtually and findings ways to assist clients without physically being present, which was a practically difficult and emotionally challenging time. However, the industry swiftly embraced the new working arrangements – encouraging given it will inevitably need to keep adapting to a more digital way of life.

Ian: Covid-19 has shone a light on the wills and probate industry and the sector has worked admirably in embracing technology and coming up with ingenious ways to carry on providing services in the face of adversity. We will now have clients who want to make lifestyle choices to see their lawyers only via video conferencing rather than coming to city centre offices for face-to-face meetings. Clients want the simplicity of exchanging documents and information at a time and in a way that is convenient for them. Whilst brought about by lockdown, it is here to stay.

What barriers need to be overcome to encourage greater integration of technology by practitioners in the industry?

Ian: It is my belief that practitioners are very willing to embrace technology so long as they can see the benefits and how it serves to make their lives simpler. The use of technology for technology’s sake doesn’t and will never work; many firms introduce new systems without first ensuring that the technology actually solves a problem that exists for its lawyers. This means most lawyers ‘switch off’ and stick with their tried and trusted methods. It can mean the legal industry is perceived as somewhat old fashioned and traditional, but the problem is a failure to understand the benefits rather than a failure to embrace technology.

We are seeing clients and members frequently experience difficulties accessing digital assets on the death or incapacity of a family member, causing distress and frustration”

Emily Deane, STEP

Emily: STEP recognises there is an urgent need for service providers to provide further clarity on how people can ensure that their digitals assets are passed on in accordance with their wishes. Our personal and work lives are becoming more digitally dependent and the digital transformation of the estate industry challenges us to evolve and adapt. Digital assets have become a common part of modern estate planning and estate administration, with demand for advice expected to increase significantly in future. We are seeing clients and members frequently experience difficulties accessing digital assets on the death or incapacity of a family member, causing distress and frustration. Therefore, we are in the process of speaking to third-party service providers and urging them to present practical, procedural and legal solutions to these issues.

What is the most important area to focus investment on across the industry right now?

“The management and integration of data is the next area where we expect a leap forward for probate practitioners”

— Ian Bond

Ian: The management and integration of data is the next area where we expect a leap forward for probate practitioners. We are all far too used to having bundles of paper from deceased’s estates, however, with the technology that is now available, we should be focusing on the financial footprint of transactions between organisations to discover asset and liabilities, not relying on speculative letters, after sifting through mountains of paperwork.

How do you expect the industry will expand in future years and what improvements need to be made to the wills, probate and estate management sector?

Ian: I wouldn’t rush to say that the industry is likely to expand in the short run. As clients move into more self-service and DIY products at a simple level, it leaves practitioners the freedom to focus on the more complex and higher value clients – the clients that have the ability and time to deal with matters for themselves but would rather engage with professionals will ensure there is enough work to go around.

What are some of the biggest challenges facing the private client sector as a result of the pandemic?

Emily: The pandemic has presented the private client sector with multiple technical and practical issues this year, some of which have been addressed and others that are still pending. The use of digital platforms and remote witnessing will inevitably become more prevalent. This development will continue to bring legislative change that needs to be monitored as we move towards a more digitally modern landscape.

Our population is ageing, which means that capacity issues and the need for more rigorous incapacity planning must be addressed. We need to ensure that the necessary safeguards are in place to prevent abuse. The key consideration for the industry is to ensure that the right balance is maintained between the new technological options, which have become more important than ever due to the pandemic, and the privacy and protection of the families that it advises.

“The use of digital platforms and remote witnessing will inevitably become more prevalent”

— Emily Deane

Ian: By and large most firms had to embrace remote working. However, firms which previously relied entirely on paper soon suffered, by not being able to efficiently work from home. I know many situations where firms were not prepared, and without access to paper files many estates went un-administered for long periods of time; much to the frustration of many beneficiaries and charities who were delayed in receiving legacies. I believe some firms even stopped taking new work as they could not provide service to sufficient standards. In the long term this will unfortunately lose them goodwill and could potentially impact employee retention. As the world moves to a hybrid model and the flexibility to work both in the office and remotely continues to be encouraged, it’s something law firms will need to adapt to and work efficiently in, to maintain both clients and staff.

What are the most important factors for clients to consider when approaching firms and how can firms position themselves as the first choice within their sector?

Ian: Although regulators, such as the SRA, would prefer consumers to be focused on pricing (especially for probate and estate administration matters where pricing transparency is mandatory), firms need to make sure they show potential clients the full value of their proposition, demonstrating how they will communicate clearly, concisely, at a time and in a manner that suits the client. They can show the work they do and the results they receive – for example demonstrating “95% of our grant applications are accepted first time without requisitions” would be quite a draw for estates with related and dependant property sales. Firms focusing on the outputs that they control and the value they add for clients will take the conversation away from simply being “who’s cheapest?” and will likely be more successful.

Emily: It is incredibly important for firms and their employees to ensure that they continue to learn and stay up to date with ever changing requirements. STEP provides valuable CPD for its members through advanced qualifications, regular webinars and technical updates. We also provide an invaluable network to ensure our members stay on top of their game and can deliver the best service at a time of personal difficulty for their clients. These combined elements keep the standards of trust and estate practitioners at the highest level and maintain them as leading practitioners with specialist, practical education and access to a huge network of local and international experts.

What legislative changes will have the biggest impact on the industry?

Emily: The modern blended family has become increasingly difficult to advise nowadays with family members and assets being spread across multiple jurisdictions which can result in costly and contentious rifts. STEP is in the process of gathering information in relation to inadequacies in legislation across areas, such as cohabitation and non-biological children, across a variety of regions and we hope to be able to address some of the restrictions and difficulties that currently face advisors.

Ian: The most impactful legislative changes will be the rationalisation of inheritance tax forms and the removal of the need for approximately 90% of estates that do not pay inheritance tax to submit forms to HMRC. This will make life simpler for clients to self-serve without the need for practitioners. This may mean that probate professionals get a lower volume of work, but work with greater complexity. As a consequence, the major financial institutions will have to change the way that they deliver bereavement services to the public. Whilst the pandemic has showed how resilient the legal sector can be, it has also shown how out of date many of the systems and processes operated by the large banks and other financial organisations have become. Dealing with the accounts of deceased loved ones has for too long been a low priority for the banking industry, however, they now must really address the processes in place, or risk being called out publicly, as has been the case for a number of institutions on social media.

As a champion of tech adoption in the legal sector, are there any major gaps you see in the market or areas you think would benefit most from innovation?

Ian: The area that will benefit most from innovation will be lost and dormant accounts – such as a case where many assets have fallen from the radar due to records not being kept up to date. As data trails will become more easily searchable, it will become less “needle in a haystack” and far more systematic to spot and claim. Literally billions of unclaimed assets of the deceased lay unaccounted for across the globe. They should be searchable so the rightful owners can be located.

 

This article was submitted to be published by Exizent as part of their advertising agreement with Today’s Wills and Probate. The views expressed in this article are those of the submitter and not those of Today’s Wills and Probate.

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