What did computers ever do for us?

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.

Peter Ambrose is founder of conveyancing specialist The Partnership. 


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  1. Rob Hailstone

    Thought provoking, common sense article.
    I had a lengthy conversation with a company yesterday who are “on a mission to make complex cyber risks easy to understand and manage.”
    You can have the best cyber security protection measures in place (none I have seen guarantee 100% protection though), but it takes just one click, by one person, on a dodgy link or attachment and the door has been opened allowing the criminals in.

  2. Robert_May

    I recently did a live test of Stephen Hayter’s conveyancing technology, his tech got us from  memorandum of sale to ready to exchange contacts in 4 days, we set the following Friday  as the day we’d exchange and complete.

    We didn’t exchange and complete in 9 days for one reason- the human element, the people who had do stuff on another system. It wasn’t Stephen’s staff who let us all down it was one person who didn’t do what the process needed them to. They tried to cover their tracks by raising a spurious enquiry 2 minutes before exchange and completion [to buy themselves some time] but  us having sight of both sides of the transaction meant the deliberate procrastination was immediately apparent and obvious.

    Sitting in on the HBSG discussions has been an eye opener to me,  giving myself an understanding of the stakeholders and the processes even more enlightening.  Technology has changed conveyancing; it has speeded up communication, made it instant.  Tech can collate information, schedule tasks  and chase up stuff not done. That allows transparency of  who hasn’t done what, who is waiting on who.

    It mighty be a “fruity” view point but conveyancing will be changed by the transparency tech enables.






  3. Rob Hailstone

    Thirty odd years ago a foreign gentleman came into my office and said he had found a property to purchase and that he had cash. How quickly could I proceed?
    I said if the seller’s solicitors were local, held the deeds and could get replies to enquiries together, I would visit their offices and then carry out a personal (local) search, and if all was in order he could exchange and complete.
    We were ready by 4.00 pm that day. The sellers exchanged, but needed a coupe more days to move out, otherwise it would have been a six (ish) hour transaction.
    Different times now in so many ways.

  4. Bosky

    It was Life of Brian, not The Meaning of Life.  
    You should be crucified for making such a silly mistake; now write Life of Brian out 100 times, and if it is not done by sunrise, I will cut your computer b?lls off.

    1. Peter Ambrose (The Partnership)

      ARGGH!  I cannot believe I made such a rookie error.

      It was one of those things – you think “Life of Brian” and you write “Meaning of Life”.

      I’ve been a very naughty boy!

      Will get this fixed IMMEDIATELY!



      1. Bosky

        Human Error!

        1. Peter Ambrose (The Partnership)

          We are absolutely the weakest link in the house buying and selling process!

          1. Nick Salmon, M.D. Property Industry Eye

            Peter – Stoning or crucifixion?

            (We’ll amend it for you.)

  5. Property Mountaineer

    I think Simplify Group will come out of this quite well because of the way they have responed, and indeed the industry, has been very good. S**t happens and you just need to deal with it.  Look at how the Black Knight in Monty Python and the Holy Grail responded when he had his arms and legs chopped off, he kept going, didn’t give up. Technology is critical to businesses and the way conusmers want their services now.  Quill and parchment ain’t really progress. It’s the naesayers that you really need to worry about. 

  6. David Jabbari Solicitor CEO Muve

    I am struggling desperately to understand the point that is being made or debated here. It surely cannot be that “new technology” consists in case management systems rather than paper. Case and document management systems have been in place in law firms of reasonable size for over 25 years. They certainly are not new and I am not sure that they can really even be called “technology” any more  given how low tech they are. Surely no one who is criticising Simplify is suggesting that their problems relate to a decision to use case management systems rather than paper??? That would be the equivalent of suggesting that they should come into work on horses. The issue here is simply one of system security that affects all businesses. Unfortunately in conveyancing circles the tech agenda is as ancient as the underlying property law used in the transactions. The real issue here is nothing to do with case management systems v paper, it is how best do you insulate the conveyancing process from risk. Rather like the recent debates on “up front information” this is an example of debates in conveyancing seriously lagging debates in wider tech circles, and failing to see how newer tech will solve problems. A more interesting and contemporary analysis would root the Simplify issue in a look at what is on the horizon which may make the conveyancing process more secure, eg blockchain and automated settlement and lodgement technologies, as for example used by PEXA in Australia. Of course no law firm is going to return to paper, the question is what  mixture of steps by firms (eg secure client messaging portals) and wider developments (eg third party managed funds settlement) can reduce  the risk and incentive of cyber attacks. To employ  another Monty Python analogy I am afraid my take on this debate is: “Look my lad, I know a dead parrot when I see one, and I’m looking at one right now”.

  7. Rob Hailstone

    Well said David, but isn’t the point being made by Peter pretty clear:

    The use of tech can have its risks (via a cyber attack etc), the use of paper can have its risks (via fire etc). Tech is therefore no more vulnerable than paper is.

    Now going to work on a horse, that is an idea to be explored. Over to you Peter.

  8. David Jabbari Solicitor CEO Muve

    Thanks Rob and understood. I also appreciate that Peter was responding to some very antediluvian comments from others. It just strikes me that it is pointless to argue against those who seriously think that a return to paper is a credible option. It simply isn’t worth engaging with such a view as it is so ludicrous. The debate should be about the detail of genuinely new tech which will help mitigate these risks.


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