If you have children or grandchildren and see them easily navigating their way across multiple digital devices – whether laptops, smartphones, tablets, PCs, smart televisions or game consoles – it's unlikely to come as a surprise to you to learn that just about every single facet of human life is in the process of being disrupted by technology. And, yes, this includes all areas surrounding those twin certainties: death and taxes.
In fact, so inevitable is this disruption that we should no longer even be asking the question of whether it is going to make things better or worse. Instead, we should be looking to ask, since continued disruption is inevitable, how are we going to ensure that other inevitable, such as probate administration, are made better?
Of course, there will be resistance to change. Just as many of us once guffawed at the idea of online banking or internet shopping (who on earth would buy fruit and veg over the internet?), so too we now stand on the edge of a brave new world wondering whether probate, of all areas of legal work, with its imperatives of sensitivity, physical checking and personal involvement, could be ripe for this kind of change.
The answer, of course, is that for lawyers at least it already has begun to progress.
Whether you use Ikoson, Proclaim or some other form of case management software, you are very much now part of the ascendant trend. For example, Isokon claims to already be in use by 40% of firms doing probate and private client work – with its clients reportedly claiming it has helped them become vastly more profitable.
Similarly, Proclaim sells itself on its ability to reduce the burden wrought by probate work that is "painstaking in character and necessitates heavy document production", all without reducing standards of service.
But what of the client? How do probate clients benefit from the technological disruptions currently flooding the legal market and, when faced with the realities of death and taxes, do they even want it?
The short answer is surely a resounding "yes". Will writing and the business of administering and distributing the assets of deceased people has been happening since the earliest times of man. And one thing is for sure; we are getting better at it.
Whereas we once had no means even to write down our wishes and instead would have relied on spoken decrees and kinship systems to uphold our wishes, nowadays we can make detailed plans regarding out legacies and can even do so online. And although the merits of these, the early days of the online Will, are still very much up for discussion, it is reasonable to speculate that it won't be too many decades before the process of probate takes place through the same portal from which testators draft and formalise their Wills.
And then there are the developments we can't even imagine yet. Just as early man couldn't have seen that the wishes of his descendants would one day be recorded in handwritten script and how, similarly, the Roman testator couldn't reasonably have foreseen the development and involvement of the typewriter, let alone the computer, so we too are reduced to the function of science fiction writers when trying to imagine what the future will hold.
Against such a broad historical canvas, thinking about how we can use technology to address the needs of present day probate clients seems like a relatively modest undertaking. It may sound boringly unrevolutionary, but what clients need when attempting to negotiate and take value from the probate legal market is security, trust, confidence, verifiability, and convenience.
After all, we most of us live the majority of our lives relatively oblivious to mortality and to the legacies we leave behind; the death of someone close to us, even of someone we might feel ambivalent, or worse, about, is perhaps the only time when everything is thrown into sharp relief. With so much in the mix and so many pressing practical concerns, there is enormous scope for emotional and psychological turbulence.
Quite simply, clients need to feel safe and to be presented with clear and consistently formatted information about who their prospective lawyer is, what he or she looks like, what their qualifications are, the kind of work they have undertaken and, finally, the key ingredient in a competitive and sometimes oversaturated market, how they compare to other specialists in the field.
Rather fittingly, given that the word "probate" derives from the Latin verb probare, meaning to "to try, test, prove, examine", clients need probate lawyers to prove that they are right for them. This can't be done from within the Yellow Pages, it can't be done from the High Street and it can't even be done to convincing effect from a firm's own website. Instead, what it needs is a forum, a platform, for the proving to take place.
This is the here and now. We will make our industry better only by increments that together add up to small revolutions. One thing is certain about the distant future though: we can't imagine it and in some ways it will be unrecognisable and yet it will still be familiar.
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