Spotify the law: Are the OPG trying to make us redundant?
Online legal tools can be liberating and confusing in equal measure, which is why lawyers are still need, so why can't this be acknowledged, asks Gary Rycroft
As highlighted in this Journal last month there are fears that the SRA’s new handbook now renamed ‘SRA Standards and Regulations’ will usher in an era where the solicitor brand will be adrift in a sea of lawyers who do not share our values and history.
Which puts our very survival at risk. I gather the rationale behind it all is apparently ‘access to justice’ in the sense that more lawyers will allow more people to take legal advice.
And I get the argument, though I worry about the consumers of legal services who do not understand that a ‘lawyer’ who went on a will-writing course one weekend is not the same deal as solicitor with all the qualifications and training that go hand in hand with that moniker – never mind the gold-standard insurance policy to boot which, at present at least, all solicitors have.
So as usual we are under threat as a profession. Legal tech, too, should be added to that discussion, as an ever-growing conundrum of ‘threat or opportunity’ – or both. I can never make my mind up which it is.
Technology which smoothes the sometimes repetitive aspects of the job in hand, and which eases communication and a sharing of knowledge is wonderful, but I fear the day we cross the line, where our contribution to giving legal advice becomes so minimum that we, human lawyers, are just the warm up act for main event computer lawyer.
However, I am not a futurist. I find it hard to envision how our profession will work and interact with our clients in years hence. Maybe this is because I exist partly in the past – my heavy rotation music artist on Spotify is usually Thomas Tallis – but my gut feeling is we do have a future.
Again, as my fellow writer Dr Bob Murray explained in this Journal last month, gut feelings are reliable in terms of decision making. But then I have an anxiety that the fact I love Spotify is an indication that technology will always triumph over human frailty.
Thus the conundrum. As a private client solicitor a particular flash point is making wills and lasting powers of attorney (LPAs) online. The Office of the Public Guardian (OPG) have invested significantly in their Digital LPA Tool, which allows professionals and private individuals to create LPAs online. It is a good piece of kit; very easy to use and efficient in producing an LPA at the push of a button.
The digital thing
At the moment an LPA created online still has to be signed in the real world, although the OPG wants to push the boundaries ever further and allow for ‘wet signatures’ to be optional and for a fully digital LPA both created and ‘signed’ online to be a reality.
We’ll have a discussion in this column at a later date about how that may pan out. But what the Digital LPA Tool has shown me is both how liberating and confusing for the consumer the choices offered by online law can be.
I once went up to the top floor at Chancery to see the chief executive. A lovely person, who was shocked to hear that solicitors were still involved in making LPAs for their clients.
The assumption was that now that this ‘digital online thing’ had arrived didn’t everyone just do it for themselves? Well no they don’t and this is because, quite rightly, as solicitors what we do is offer advice and guidance.
The LPA is the ‘thing’ and the ‘thing’ can be easily produced online, but the wider legal issues and advice appertaining to it are more than just the ‘thing’ itself. Which is another conundrum.
This time, a conundrum for the OPG; because while their stated ambition is for more people to make LPAs themselves – and their online tool is the digital manifestation of that – they also know that solicitors are their best customers.
The work solicitors do encouraging and helping clients to make LPAs drives a significant amount of the business the OPG receives.
Without us they would be seriously quiet, which points to the irony for those pushing for more ‘access to justice’, in that surely it actually means more expert lawyers – dare I say, solicitors – are required, not fewer solicitors and more robots. Surely more people thinking about legal matters leads to more questions for lawyers to answer.
You could even say that the OPG marketing campaign to get more people to make LPAs is doing a great marketing job for solicitors. So the Digital LPA Tool is something we should embrace and run with.
Certainly, I felt this just before Christmas when a client came in and said she had been trying to use the OPG’s Digital LPA tool for about two years and in the end decided it was far better to come in and see me and talk about it all and what it would mean in practical terms for her and her chosen attorneys (her children) rather than simply producing a shiny form online that she did not really understand and so was therefore not overly happy to sign.
Listen, talk, advise
The advice and guidance we offer our clients about LPAs means we add value to the legal process of making LPAs. Among other things, we can talk through when is a good time to do it, who and how attorneys may be appointed and whether any preferences or instructions are desirable or not. In other words we listen, talk and offer professional advice.
So we should thank the OPG for all they are doing to encourage the population at large to plan ahead, just as the OPG should celebrate what we as solicitors do to pick to up the mantle and go with it in terms of offering legal services which allow clients to plan ahead in confidence and with peace of mind.
Access to justice should go hand in hand with consumer choice. Some consumers will be content to dive into legal products with minimum or no professional advice, whereas others will see the value of taking expert advice.
Which is all absolutely fine as long as consumers know there is such a choice and so we should be making that choice clear within the market place. I once had a client who thought he had no choice but to appoint his eldest son only as his attorney.
Just because of some rule which existed in his head only, he could not appoint his other two children as well. It was a family tinder box waiting to be lit, which luckily was dampened down by me telling him he could appoint all three if that was what he wanted (he did).
And I have always had clients who, when pressed kindly, have acknowledged they have children who are not good with money so maybe are not suitable attorneys.
I fear what the outcome would have been if they had been let loose on the online tool alone. All of which means clients using a solicitor hopefully end up with LPAs that suit them and their requirements and also gives them reassurance that what they have done is sensible and legally sound.
Sometimes, it has to be human-to-human interaction which gives clients that feeling of a job well done and all important peace of mind. And that must have a knock on effect on the whole LPA industry.
If a solicitor can head off a dispute between family members or potential financial abuse because of advice given at stage the LPA is being made, it helps everyone involved. So, hopefully, not such conundrum. I love both Spotify and the Digital LPA Tool.
Both make life easier, but it is how we interpret the technology and adapt it for our own benefit which is key. The tools perhaps designed to make us redundant may make us even more in demand, as technology opens up legal choices to consumers but fails to offer those same consumers reliable advice.
Thomas Tallis himself knew only too well how important it is to adapt, serving no less than four monarchs as a Musician and Gentleman of the Chapel Royal in the perilous Tudor Era of ever changing loyalties and doctrines. He kept his head and so should we.
Gary Rycroft is a partner at Joseph A. Jones