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In conversation with Sir Nigel Knowles

Former DLA Piper boss speaks out on the need for digitisation in the legal sector and his decision to Chair the board of a Proptech startup.

As OneDome moves into the next phase of its journey to create a seamless experience for home movers, we spoke to our Chairman, Sir Nigel Knowles, about the need for digitisation in the legal sector.

Sir Nigel is best known as the former CEO of DLA Piper, who led the firm’s growth from a regional firm to what is now the world’s largest global business law firm, eventually becoming the firm’s Global Ambassador. He is also Chairman of Zeus Capital and was knighted in 2009 for services to the legal sector.

Zeus Capital handled the IPO for Onthemarket, and recently acted on behalf of Purplebricks Group plc on the strategic investment of £125 million in the company by Axel Springer, the German media group. Sir Nigel is therefore no stranger to the latest developments in the property industry, and is delighted to see a similar injection of ideas coming into legal tech.

“Investors are always on the lookout for innovation, and the opportunity for growth into new markets. No-one wants to be the last one to arrive at a party, and the world of investment is no different when it comes to taking on an opportunity.”

New secure transactional platform for legal property professionals

His statement coincides with the announcement that OneDome are about to launch their online conveyancing platform. The secure transactional platform, which is free to use, offers key services to facilitate a residential property transaction.

“There is no question that digitisation is vital for the evolution of the legal industry. We are under threat from cyber attacks, at risk of fraud, and with so many independent firms, the market is far too fragmented for people to navigate easily. With its emphasis on security, customer experience and business generation, OneDome’s vision to streamline the conveyancing process could not come at a better time.”

Interestingly, fraud is currently one of the biggest issues affecting home movers in the UK, but people are surprisingly unaware of the risks surrounding emailing sensitive information. Sir Nigel explains: “Often, the sender’s email address will not match the website address of the organisation it claims to be from, or there are spelling or grammatical errors. Many people will warn you about emails where there is a sense of urgency, but of course there is always urgency when you are trying to complete on a property purchase. Consumers simply need to be vigilant for anything out of the ordinary – it just means behaving the same way in a digital environment as you would in your everyday life.”

“Whatever happens, though, we mustn’t use this as a reason to fear change, or the implementation of new technologies”.

The government’s drive to improve the home moving process

And Sir Nigel is not alone in his views. Following the government’s response to the Home Buying Call For Evidence, which was released in April this year, more than 94% of those who responded felt that technology was the answer to the issues they experienced with the process. The government believes that technology has the potential to revolutionise the way in which we buy and sell property, and has set up an industry working group, which OneDome is delighted to be part of.

Along with HM Land Registry, their plan for conveyancing is to drive progress on ID verification and e-signatures. However, they also believe that there will always be a place for face-to-face contact.

“I was impressed by the government’s stance on conveyancers in their response document. Not only did they acknowledge concerns about the impact on the profession, but they take the view that technology should enhance the role of conveyancers and allow them to be recognised for their expertise.”

Annual survey of legal professionals

This view is corroborated in the PWC’s Annual Law Firm’s Survey, which was published towards the end of last year. The survey found that the highest priority for business support teams over the next 12 months, by a clear margin, was to improve the use of technology.

The report also asserts that work will still be very much driven by people and augmented by technology. This includes Artificial Intelligence, which will take a lot of the manual work out of key processes and allow risk management coverage that is unfeasible today.

“The interesting thing for me about all of this is the belief that large firms are more likely to be early adopters of technology like AI. There are certainly some big firms that make it their business to be at the cutting edge of any new developments, but the opportunity with digitalisation is actually for the smaller firms”.

The original growth hacker

When Sir Nigel executed one of the most aggressive growth strategies in the history of the legal sector, he did so through a series of acquisitions. However, he acknowledges that, had he tackled that same objective today, his approach might have been very different.

“Reputation has always been key, but these days customer experience – both on- and offline – has taken on a whole new level of importance. There is also no room for dead wood. I have always run a tight ship, but these days efficiency of process is absolutely vital in order to keep fees competitive.”

That said, it is no longer simply down to individual firms to adopt technology. With all eyes on conveyancers following the Government review, it begs the questions – are some firms are waiting to be told what to do?

“It’s highly unlikely” thinks Sir Nigel. “Whilst it may take some time for new regulations to be put in place, we all know that change is coming, so now is the time to get ducks in a row and review working practises.”

“It is an exciting time for the legal industry. Many people see ours as an industry that fears change, and that is slow to adapt to the rapidly evolving needs of the consumer. But there are many in our sector that understand the opportunities that a time like this can present, and the ambition of those people should not be underestimated.”

Support innovation in proptech

It is clear that Sir Nigel, despite having retired from his ambassadorial role with DLA Piper, is still in high demand, so it is interesting that he has decided to become involved in proptech. Also, with so many startups in the burgeoning industry, what was it that made him choose OneDome?

“I was first introduced to OneDome through my neighbour who said to me, ‘You must meet Babek Ismayil – he’s a really bright guy’. I consider my neighbour to be a really bright guy, so I agreed to the meeting.”

Sir Nigel, who is also an investor in OneDome, went on to describe how he realised that it was an opportunity he didn’t want to miss out on. “The vision of the company to improve the home moving journey for consumers is exactly in line with my belief that the current process needs to be modernised. Everyone I speak to about the OneDome platform tells me that it can’t come soon enough.”

It is often referenced that Sir Nigel used to take no prisoners during his time at DLA Piper, and addressed the annual partnership conference with the words: ‘If you are not a believer, you can leave’.

At a time when so much importance is being placed on retaining the best employees, I asked him if he still felt that this was the right message.

“Yes.” He replied. “Of course, I do”.

OneDome Conveyancing launches this summer. For more information or to arrange a demo, contact [email protected]

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