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20. Confessions of a cyber conveyancer

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In the good old Wall Street days of “greed is good” and “lunch is for wimps” there was a saying that “when taxi drivers start giving stock tips, you know we’re heading for a crash”.  The markets that is, not the cab, ideally.

With mainstream media picking up on artificial intelligence ( AI ) and marketing directors looking to see which jobs it can eliminate, there’s definitely a déjà vu feeling right now.

That said, it took only a few weeks to morph from a game-changing plaything to almost Bond-like villainous status of evil genius.  Microsoft’s BingAI which uses the technology behind the best known chatbot, ChatGPT, has been accused of threatening behaviour and encouraging marriage breakups.

Which, when combined with last week’s news of a major law firm’s plans to introduce this technology, does raise an ominous question.

Is AI going to take the jobs of conveyancers and how worried should they be?

What’s it good at

Let’s get one thing straight.  This technology has been around for years, but they just hadn’t fed it enough data and there wasn’t a cute way to communicate with it.  ChatGPT for example, has addressed this by processing internet data up to 2021 and providing a friendly interaction screen –resulting in the mild hysteria we’ve seen from anyone with a job that involves words.

There is no doubt it will affect the work that some people do – we’re already seeing press releases being generated by it.  Although there are arguments about this is creativity or not, it really is good at sifting through lots of historic data and producing effective summaries.

Which, bluntly, is a big part of a conveyancer’s job.  Interpret lots of words and identify those that are important.

It does seem to make an awful lot of sense to allow these things to cast a quick eye over a title, a lease or even, heaven forbid, a management information pack.

What’s it not so good at

Unfortunately, there’s a rather large fly in the ointment which is that this technology is based on statistics and probability rather than just simple word analysis.  Which, when it comes to the law is a touch problematic.  We’ve seen it make assumptions based on certain behaviours drawn from evidence collected from similar scenarios, which turn out to be fundamentally wrong.

Which is OK if you’re drafting a cover letter for a job application – most of these already incorporate a certain amount of fiction today.

However, when it comes to conveyancing, to quote Lily Allen, that’s really not OK.  We just have to look at the issues that can arise when buying a flat in a block, none of which arose with other units.  They may be due to way the property was bought in the first place; a defective lease that was overlooked, or that the particular lender has different requirements.

Leaving the technology to sort all these issues out itself is clearly a high risk strategy, and not one that either insurers or lenders will be particularly happy with.

The challenge is that it is necessary to combine the statistical analysis of previous cases with the actual facts of the case currently being worked.

This is most definitely possible, but will take some time to work out how to achieve this – there are studies currently underway, but combining property specific data with probability-based analysis is a touch tricky.

So will AI be taking conveyancing jobs?

Experience shows new technologies force those that are exposed to them to adapt.

However, given the ability of law firms to refuse to adopt even basic technologies such as electronic signatures or even client portals, I would suggest there won’t be many rushing to adopt this new and unproven technology.

Which is ironic because it has the ability to radically improve the lives of conveyancers and make them more secure by reinforcing their role as moderators, interpreters and communicators.

After all, when Microsoft launched Excel, accountants feared that it would make them redundant.  Only it didn’t.  It merely eliminated the mind-numbing manual work which they shouldn’t have been doing in the first place.

Which is worth bearing in mind the next time you’re checking that your client’s names on the mortgage offer are spelled correctly.


Peter Ambrose is the owner and Managing Director of The Partnership – a boutique legal provider specialising in the delivery of transparent and ultra-efficient conveyancing services.

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