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“Technology? That’s for kids, not Conveyancers”

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If you’ve not actually said it, you’ve no doubt thought it: “most lawyers are slow and inefficient.” We don’t disagree, but the burning question is, “why?”

Typically, it’s because of a historically sceptical attitude towards the benefits of technology and how it is implemented. Businesses are underpinned by the quality of their technology, and if people saw how law firms typically use it, they’d start to understand why their service levels are often so appalling. Our experience of speaking to and hiring lawyers from a range of firms give us an insight into how they are run and their sheer incompetence when it comes to the systems they use.

Or don’t.

Surely everyone uses case management software?

No doubt you’ve worked with someone with a rose-tinted view of the good old days when client details were on card indexes.Sadly, for more lawyers than you’d imagine, many of them continue to struggle in this pre-computerised world with paper files and no case management systems whatsoever.

We recently interviewed a solicitor who was running over 100 cases herself, no case management system and everything (including emails) was printed out.  It was no surprise to learn that her average exchange times were over 5 months and she spent most of her time dealing with phone calls from complaining clients.

And the law firm owner’s solution to this problem – work at the weekend.

Electronic documents – will they ever catch on?

Conveyancing involves a LOT of documents. Analysis of recent cases found that each, on average, involved about 130 documents and 300 messages and emails with clients, agents and other lawyers.

Yet the vast majority of law firms are still not scanning documents centrally and so that even if they do use a case management system, their lawyers waste hours looking through their paperwork manually.  Sometimes, and it is rare, lawyers take it upon themselves to scan documents themselves.

And you wonder why it takes so long to find out what on earth is going on?

Poor quality software

It’s a running joke that the only software lawyers can rely on is Excel and Outlook – the first to create financial statements and the other to remind them of expiry dates.

The problem is that the quality of legal software is generally pretty appalling.  Lawyers try to cover up how bad it is with excuses like; “it’s just not configured properly” but frankly, this is optimism triumphing over reality. We know this because we regularly have people come and try and sell us some of their terrible software, most of it looking like it was last updated in 1995, but with the promise that they “are bringing out a web-based version very soon”. Then you get the equally hopelessly optimistic newer products that are so basic and are promoted by salespeople who know so little about the process that we’re amazed to see if they are able to sell the stuff at all.

Which they typically don’t.

Back of the queue

Finally, when partners bite the bullet and actually do buy software, the way they implement it often beggars belief.

We know a firm who, to save money, bought only two licences for six lawyers, so each had to wait in turn to use the system. We talked to one lawyer who spent hours learning how to write code herself to implement a workflow system “because no-one else would.”

The problem is that for most traditional law firms, residential property isn’t the sexy side of the business.  The commercial department may well soak up any meagre consultancy budget the software salesman managed to wring out of a senior partner’s grasp.  One lawyer told me that whilst their department was the first to implement their new software, this was four years ago and they were still waiting for the consultants to make the changes asked for in the first place.

Even when case management systems have been implemented, sometimes it is done in such a way as to make it counter-productive.  We know a firm where they configured the system so users could not change the due date of a task, so management could monitor those who were falling behind.  The problem was that overdue tasks therefore joined an ever-increasing list, making it impossible to prioritise.  Despite service complaints, the management team has not changed its approach.

Enquiries –a spotlight on how bad things are

If you want to see how technology currently plays such a minor role in conveyancing, let’s go back to basics.

Enquiry handling.

Anyone who knows anything about sales progression knows this is where lawyers fall down.  Forget “intelligent” software that shows when a search has been ordered – it’s the nitty-gritty of resolving enquiries where the grief really arises. Next time you are talking to a lawyer, ask to see a summary of the enquiries on a case.  Then sit back, make a cup of coffee (or three) because it’s not going to happen.  Most lawyers have no technology solution whatsoever for tracking enquiries.

Which, given they are the most time-consuming aspect of a deal, is a bit surprising.

How do we fix this?

It will be driven by client demand as expectations of immediate access to information is fast ­­repair, clients expect to track what is happening and will require lawyers change. It will take time, but it will happen. So the next time you’re getting frustrated listening on the telephone to a solicitor rifling through a file to see if a local search has been returned, forgive them.  No doubt their senior partner will be on the golf course congratulating themselves they have just started using online banking.

Heaven forbid they might start actually scanning documents.