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What did computers ever do for us?

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The online response to the recent trauma for the Simplify Group reminded me of Monty Python’s “Life of Brian”, when John Cleese’s character Reg, answered the question; “what did the Romans ever do for us?” with “Well, apart from sanitation, medicine, education, wine, public order, irrigation, roads, the fresh water system and public health that is”.

The difficult situation serves as a wakeup call to everyone working in every business today. However, the responses I have read on social media has once more demonstrated that the property industry continues to defy commercial norms.

Solicitors have been preaching fire and brimstone from their paper-stuffed ivory towers. “This would NEVER happen with an SRA firm” they opined. “That’s what happens when you use technology” they wailed.  Finally, they finished with a flourish “Those people that advocate technology are very quiet aren’t they”.

As all law firms use technology, these comments are not only unhelpful but are actually quite embarrassing and undermine the credibility of anyone making them.

Old technology good, new technology bad

When it comes to identifying problems with the house buying and selling process, agents and clients have been asking the wrong question.

Instead of asking “why aren’t lawyers using technology” they should be asking what is holding them back from using technology even more?

What seems to be getting people most excited is the storage of electronic documents instead of paper and how this introduces risk into the process.  But since when is scanning a document into a case management system such a bad thing?

Especially since that other electronic document type, email, the recommended choice for criminals and cyberscammers, is used with reckless abandon across the legal industry and no-one bats an eyelid.   The closest anyone gets to thinking about the huge risk it presents is a bit of text in red 6pt Courier font in their email signature with vague warnings of hell and damnation if anyone relies on anything in it.

So why aren’t the anti-tech-ers grabbing their torches and pitchforks and pursuing those Shrek-like email users who continue to use this technology on a daily basis?  After all, unlike the safety of the post, those emails could be spoofed, intercepted and changed, resulting in an unsuspecting client sending their deposit to a fraudster.

Could it just be that because email is familiar that the risk is seen as lower, when in reality this is a far more dangerous activity than scanning documents.

The real problem out there?

The unenviable situation that Simplify find themselves in is not a technology problem in the same way that fire is not a paper problem.

We have centuries-worth of experience protecting information and documents.  Fire-proof safes give peace of mind that in the event of a fire that everything will be fine.   They think.  But when did you ever hear of a test on a fire-safe?  They are also quite small so only the special documents get in there – the rest will be left to perish like the third class passengers on the Titanic.

As almost all candidates I interview work in law firms that rely on paper files, it’s safe to say the majority of firms in this country would be in serious bother in the event of a fire.   According to the Home Office, there were over 153,000 fires in England in 2020.  What would a law firm with paper files do to resolve THAT situation.  Sprinklers are hardly a manilla file’s best friend.  As for backups – well, that’s just going to make Greta Thunberg even crosser than she already is.

Which does make a good case that a file is more likely to be destroyed by fire than either lost or made unavailable by a cyberattack.

It’s how risk is mitigated that is the issue, not how documents are stored.  It is far easier to take copies of electronic documents than of paper documents.

Who’s the risky one here?

What’s the answer?

At this point, an anonymous troll will no doubt jump up Vicki Pollard-like and say “yeah, but no but, it’s because it’s a large firm that the impact to other transactions is much higher”.  Which is true – if a small firm in Torquay had a fire, it would not attract attention beyond “Devon Tonight”.  However, there are plenty of large firms that are using paper files that would have a major impact in the same circumstances.

Any reader who has suffered data loss or cyberattack will understand the devastation it can cause and realise that “there by the grace of God go I”.  Obviously, the larger the firm the more the responsibility, but that is true of all aspects of the business that they run, and companies do need to review their disaster recovery strategies, no matter how difficult that is to do In practice.

On balance, modern cloud-based solutions offer the best protection against data loss, but this takes investment, vision and commitment.

Which, given that a candidate told me last week they had to share a computer with two other employees, sadly seems in rather short supply right now.


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