As Network Sponsors at this year’s British Wills and Probate Awards, Exizent continue to celebrate the 2022 event with their Judge’s Insights series — weekly interviews with the judges themselves to get their views on the future of the industry and what firms need to do to excel.
This week, we are joined by Jacqueline Emmerson of Emmersons Solicitors and Clive Ponder of CTT Group, to discuss the challenges professionals in the sector face now, the key to success as a professional working in the industry and the future sector trends to be aware of.
Working in wills and probate can be challenging both technically and emotionally, what drew you to this area and what about it do you find most rewarding?
“I hadn’t set out to become involved in wills and probate, but it was one of my seats when I was an articled clerk. Working in two high street firms meant that I had to cover a breadth of areas of law — my generation have always been good all-rounders.
Working in this area I found that wills and probate work is methodical, it is a calm area of law compared to litigation and I enjoy being able to spend more time with clients. I love Probate work because it allows me to show compassion especially if I am organising a funeral. I like to celebrate a person’s life and ensure they have a dignified funeral. This was especially so during the pandemic.”
“When I left the mining industry, I wanted to start a business that was recession-proof, one that everybody requires and one that, if structured properly, was in little or no debt. That’s what drew me to the area and, what I find most rewarding about it is when a client says thank you at the conclusion of the work you’re doing with them.”
What is the greatest industry shift you’ve observed in your career to date?
“In terms of wills and probate work there aren’t really huge industry shifts. However, I would say that the introduction of care home fees has had an impact upon how we plan estates. The obligations upon executors and administrators are now far more onerous than in the past and, therefore, I really do think that solicitors should be involved far more often in order to protect them. The trouble is they don’t know what they don’t know and could end up being financially responsible to the tune of tens of thousands of pounds.”
“The greatest industry shift I’ve observed is the effect that the non-regulated will sector has had on the industry and the drive for change. A report from the Legal Services Board stated recently that the unregulated sector is twice as likely to use new technology as the regulated sector. An example of this is software, where most will writers use software for producing legal documents whereas many in the regulated sector still use templated wills which are high risk and, because the data is not held digitally, it is difficult to make use of technology.”
What do you see as the greatest challenge facing the wills and probate industry today?
“Our greatest challenge comes from ill thought-out government policy. Whether this is around care home fees or the re-organisation of government departments, such as the Probate Registry, which just causes delay.”
“For me, the greatest challenge I see is embracing change – it seems lawyers are being dragged kicking and screaming into the 21st Century.”
Does Emmersons Solicitors use technology. If so, how is it helping solve firm and client issues?
“We don’t use IT for the drafting of wills as we have our own detailed precedent which we all use. We do use software to run our probate files which is handy for the computation of the value of an estate.”
As Founder of a leading multi-disciplinary support system for the UK’s Professional Adviser community, what do you see is the key to your success?
“It is about putting the client first, second and third, being open to innovation and bringing new products to market that the client is asking for and finally, the ability in oneself to build all the specialist skills the client may require.”
How do you think you and your team will need to adapt in future to enhance your services and keep up with current trends?
“My team will adapt to any service enhancements required very easily as we are always looking to change systems to make them better and improve the client experience. In the future, we will expand our current electronic system for collecting ID to send documents, messages, event notifications and full electronically-generated reports, as well as to be the route for all communications with our clients. The objective of this will be to eliminate the use of e mail and create a full audit trail of all communications with clients. Our staff understand how clients want and expect change and will support the business and our clients on this journey.”
What barriers need to be overcome to encourage greater integration of technology in the industry?
“I think it is a matter of choice as to whether firms adopt more technology or not. We have heavily invested in back-office IT, which meant we were very agile during the lockdown period and when staff have needed to work at home for various reasons.”
“The greatest barrier I see is the reluctance to change and use IT systems to improve the client experience. To make maximum use of your IT systems your data needs to be in electronic format. This means we must stop taking instructions and information on paper and start to construct it within templated documents digitally.”
Do you feel that the industry is doing enough to protect vulnerable customers, or could we be doing more to improve bereaved customer services?
“I think that solicitors always have the needs of vulnerable clients at the forefront of their minds. However, I am sometimes shocked at the state of play with financial institutions. Some have taken this on board and are helpful and supportive to clients and their families however losing branches and leaving so much to chance online is very worrying as far as undue influence is concerned.
I am also concerned that some of the checks and balances with Lasting Powers of Attorney have now been removed.
As a firm we have taken on board the needs of vulnerable clients and I have even organised and delivered presentations to the financial services industry on the needs and risks related to the vulnerable.”
“There is already much debate about vulnerable customers. To effectively protect them, I would like to first see a definition of a vulnerable client and then put a system in place for that specific client. What I do believe is impossible, is creating a system that both supports a vulnerable client and, that supports, for example, a 21-year-old client. Both of these require different services and we should be able to offer them 2 different systems that suit their individual needs.
With the current archaic system in place, the younger generation are reluctant to make wills or discuss the processes involved with being an executor. If we can make the system more open, simpler and quicker, I believe that we can alleviate the issues which arise during a clients most vulnerable state. To me that’s the biggest blocker in moving forward as an industry.
I also believe that regulators need to get involved at the point that financial institutions become involved in the bereavement journey. The slowest and most frustrating part of the probate service is dealing with financial institutions who have no IT systems in place and seem not to bother about their clients when they die. At the moment, they force us to do more work like post documents on the financial information of a client, which costs more money and slows the service down, impacting the bereaved.”
What trend, beyond tech-adoption, are you most excited to see in future?
“I am very excited that people are now taking on board the needs of those living with Dementia. We have come a long way in such a short period of time. It is possible to live a good, but different life, with Dementia for a number of years. Undergoing Dementia Friends training has certainly helped our staff and our clients.”
“I am excited to see the possibility of both LPA’s and wills being sent down a secure portal to the client and signed and witnessed, if required, electronically. This will move the industry into the modern world that clients are insisting on.”
What is the value of mentorship, collaboration and knowledge sharing within the industry?
“It can be quite lonely undertaking pProbate work, it can be shocking at times. Often a solicitor is the first person to enter a house after a person has died on the premises. You really don’t know what you are going to be facing. It is therefore good to talk to other professionals dealing with this area of law, to share experiences and to feel that you are not alone. We often work in small teams and we rarely meet other solicitors unlike litigators who are able to chat with one another at court.”
“We need to make the industry more appealing to younger individuals and part of that is down to the IT systems used. Youngsters coming out of university do not do anything on paper, yet when they join the industry the first thing we do is give them a piece of paper and a pen. The market is large enough for all of us, so I have no problem with collaboration.”
This article was submitted to be published by Exizent as part of their advertising agreement with Today’s Wills and Probate. The views expressed in this article are those of the submitter and not those of Today’s Wills and Probate.