Adopting new technology

The Austin Lafferty Solicitors new website has gone live. Being no tech expert, someone cleverer than I has been the creator, but it does everything a modern site should – advertises, informs, communicates, facilitates. And has some smashing photos of me. What’s not to like?

I have been a solicitor for coming up to 40 years this January. In my day young person (in my day you used to say “In my day, young man”), the cutting edge of technology was the electric typewriter. My father had his own wee firm, with two perjink lady secretaries who bashed away on manual typewriters, and if you wanted something photocopied you walked round to Nash’s in Queen St. I spent my apprenticeship in the early 80’s going to other firms’ chambers to settle house purchase transactions in person, handing over a cheque and getting an executed disposition and pile of old title deeds in return. With – usually – a cup of tea.

I have seen the rise of information and communication technology, not just in my and everyone’s daily lives, but in legal practice specifically. You may have heard/read before my story of the fax. When I started a law office in 1987, I was persuaded to acquire a facsimile machine. Sounds undramatic, but it was the first fax in our office building in East Kilbride. I was probably scoffed at elsewhere for having been suckered into paying out money for a frivolous fad, but after a few days, one by one, my colleagues in other firms started begging favours. They tended to send their most doe-eyed young lady staff members to shily ask if we minded faxing out this offer, or receive in that invoice etc. Well of course, happy to help.

But it got to be a nuisance, so I hit on the idea – a service charge: £1 a page out, 50p a page in. After no more than 2 weeks every office had got its own fax machine. The story proves two points: one is that technology improves legal practice; the other is that lawyers more than almost any human species HATE change and criticise it, but when necessary, they will grudgingly accept it - then promptly forget that they had any doubts. I recall being in Hamilton Sheriff Court one day and brought my laptop out in the common room. Howls of sarcastic, if occasionally witty, scathery. Fast forward even a few years from then, and certainly to now, the sarcasm would be if you had forgotten to bring your tablet/phone/iPad/Macbook etc to court with you.

The law still has a whiff of tradition and the old-fashioned about it. Only a couple of months ago was there a change in the ancient rules in the Court of Session to allow advocates (Scottish equivalent of English barristers) to appear in some routine hearings without 17th Century wig and gown, just in plain suits (get my smelling salts, Farquhar. The world is ending!). I still possess – though I have not done any serious amount of court work for years – a dusty old black gown which I have owned since being presented with it on qualifying as a solicitor (actually I really should get it dry cleaned, it’s been 40 years. Memo to self). When the Law Society of Scotland a number of years ago mounted an advertising campaign for our profession, the slogan was “It’s never too early to call your solicitor” – which slightly baffled people with its implied double negative – was personalised by an avuncular middle-aged man in glasses smiling and holding a phone. Not quite half-moon specs and a powdered wig, but not far off.

Male, pale and stale is not today’s legal profession. Diverse in age, sex, class, ability, it seeks to cast its net as wide as it can. The LawScot Foundation established a few years ago by the Law Society of Scotland promotes the education of law students from those backgrounds that would threaten to exclude entry to the profession. Lots of us offer work experience and do outreach to schools and other bodies to spread the word about law and legal practice.

But the biggest change in legal practice has been in methodology. From the old days of copperplate writing on vellum, we have seen IT come in, sometimes creeping, sometimes rushing. Our own firm’s remote desktop and case management systems have allowed us so far to respond to the Covid-19 crisis by staff working safely in their own homes, me perched in one of the offices doing those (relatively few) tasks that need physical bits of paper, pushing buttons, sticking things in post boxes and other processing. Most of our financial processes – payments of house prices, receipt of fees and mortgage funds – are done by electronic banking, and, with one big exception, the vast majority of our casework for clients can be done at a distance.

I say distance, as physically I am remote from Mr. A or Ms B, but email, a phone call, or videocall allow information and advice to flow back and forth speedily. Indeed yesterday I was interviewed by the BBC for TV – a Douglas Fraser piece to come on Reporting Scotland about the difficulties faced by people wanting to move house after the Registers of Scotland closed its doors without warning last week. I was in my office facing my laptop and the interview was skyped, as so many TV contributions now are.

Two things to finish with today. One is – see previous blogs and Facebook posts from me and news output from the media - the aforementioned Registers of Scotland abrupt closure has brought to the boil a long-running frustration that we lawyers have had with its methodology. While some piecemeal land/document/title registration processes allow email or online submission, the Keeper, as the head of Registers is known, still requires original documents with wet signatures to be sent or taken physically to the Registers premises before a title will be issued or changed. Pretty well everyone else allows you to scan/email or upload. The Public Guardian allows this for Powers of Attorney, Companies House prefers online filing, even our courts have embraced the electronic. I can summon down millions of pounds in mortgage money from banks on an email. So if I am trusted as a solicitor and Officer of the Court (still got the gown!) not to falsify documents for all the other commercial public authorities and registries, why do they think there is any risk with a one-page transfer of title disposition? It has been the law for years in Scotland that digital signatures are valid for most purposes. Time for a reboot.

Anyway, if it has taken this unprecedented crisis to find a solution from left field, that’s fine. As I write I await the announcement of a new digital system replacing the need to lodge wet-signed paperwork with scans or digitally-created document. I hope to chuck out or recycle the quill pen at last.

The second, i.e. final final thing is that among my new oldest-office-junior-in-town duties has been learning to use the credit card machine to accept payments to the firm. A triumph - I have not lost anyone’s money yet. Just there I had a call with a gentleman client who had been self-isolating for some time due to an active rather than underlying condition. While getting the card details over the phone from him, he asked me to thank the staff who dealt with him, and said in terms that he had not been out of his house for weeks now, but thanks to the efficient and gracious work of my colleagues, using all relevant technological tools at our command, his instructions had been carried out remotely, but swiftly.

So we are open for business, even at a distance.

Austin and the card machine

Austin and the card machine

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