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Property lawyers must embrace AI to digitise legal processes

Andy SommervilleIt is easy to focus on the severe disruption that the coronavirus pandemic has inflicted on almost all sectors of the UK economy. Business closures resulting from Covid prevention measures and pivoting to remote working practices have forced firms to rapidly change their operations. However, while this has been enormously disruptive for many companies, some sectors have also captured efficiency gains as a result.

In the property industry, significant progress has been made to digitise legal processes to ensure that transactions could take place safely and securely and conveyancers have adapted to remote working to allow them to continue to facilitate property transactions during the pandemic. 

As we progress through 2021, it is vital the property market continues to accelerate its march toward digitisation even after the pandemic begins to subside to ensure that we double down on progress and build back better.

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Riding the wave of digitisation

Despite bottoming out at the height of lockdown, the property market has experienced a sharp rise in activity since it reopened in May last year, due to a combination of the release of pent-up demand and the stamp duty holiday announced by the Government. 

Elevated levels of demand has put enormous strain on those involved in the transaction process, causing delays in completion times and to people moving into their new homes. The inability of the property market to overcome these hurdles has highlighted the urgent need to increase efficiency in the transaction process.

To help break the log jam it is important that the industry rides the wave of the shift to digitisation, both through incremental operational efficiency gains and through the integration of transformative technology such as AI and machine learning into business operations.

AI in the property industry

Artificial intelligence can help property lawyers clear a swelling backlog of work resulting from a mini-housing market boom in the UK. At Search Acumen, we are working hard to integrate AI into our business and last year have released two initial tools to improve our service to customers and streamline cumbersome manual tasks.

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The first of these tools uses AI to support property transactions by interrogating and cleansing address data submitted by legal firms. In just a few seconds, our algorithms scour through the large address files and cross references them against over 30 million UK postal addresses, patching up any errors and flagging inconsistencies for further analysis.

The result is consistently accurate and can then be matched against external records from HM Land Registry, Local Authorities and other sources. This innovation reduces hours or even days of administrative time spent error-checking and correcting property addresses.

Incorrect address data can be a major issue, in particular for complex transactions with hundreds or thousands of addresses, as an isolated error can hold back the entire process until it is resolved. By reducing the need for human intervention, our introduction of AI enables forward looking law firms and their clients to avoid the risk of lengthy delays to this vital part of the legal process. 

The second AI tool that we have developed helps our Customer Support team by accelerating the processing of daily requests. As a business we receive thousands of emails from Local Authorities and other external sources. Whilst we have previously achieved a good level of traditional automation with these communications, using the AI tool allows us to take this process to another level. It is trained to be capable of categorising, sorting and combining all of these emails and attachments in the same way that a person would but in a fraction of the time. We can then ensure an even faster and more reliable delivery of search results to clients in a usable format, by minimising internal processing needed on top of lengthy local authority waiting times.

Building back better

It is clear that these early applications of AI in the property industry are just the beginning. There is little doubt that AI has the potential to transform many more parts of the property transaction process and improve the quality and efficiency of service that property lawyers are able to provide to their clients.  Rather than replacing jobs, the introduction of AI and machine learning to property transactions enables lawyers and support staff to get back to their role as expert consultants and provide first-class service to their clients.

The distribution of an effective vaccine is fuelling hopes that economic activity may return to ‘normal’ by the end of 2021, which will improve business confidence throughout the UK. However, it would be a waste if businesses decided to ignore the progress they have made by reverting to the same old pre-pandemic practices.  

Greater technological integration will enormously improve productivity, a crucial factor to strengthening the UK’s wider economic recovery. Implementing new, innovative methods can be daunting for businesses – but, if enough firms do take the leap, it could thrust the economy back onto the path to growth. 

Andy Sommerville is the Director at Search Acumen. His 35 years of experience in property searches spans both public and private sectors. He is committed to advancing government’s digitisation drive and to using technology to deliver products and services for the next generation of property law.
 

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