The subject of fixing the house buying and selling process never gets old, although it does get pretty tedious. Bright-eyed idealists explain how they could solve it, if only the entire market used their software. The slightly less bright-eyed opine that “the process is broken – we should start again”. Even Michael Gove claimed that removing the fundamental principle of leasehold would solve the conundrum.
All these approaches are laudable, but come on, they are not going to happen.
We need to resign ourselves to the conclusion that while humans still transact properties, Tony Blair was wrong when he sang, “Things can only get better”. Yes, we know he didn’t actually sing that, but why let the facts get in the way of a great story?
But suppose we didn’t actually need humans to carry out the due diligence involved in the process?
ChatGPT – solving every problem
The two main culprits behind the pain that is house buying and selling are the process itself and lawyers. Searches and mortgage offers are now coming back in a few weeks, so those traditional scapegoats can take a backseat right now.
However, with nearly 1.5 million transactions last year and current estimates of around 1.1m this year, it’s difficult to accept that the process is actually broken. It’s frustrating, difficult and uncertain, but these figures prove it’s not actually broken. Sure, it could do with some streamlining, but caveat emptor is a decent concept and lenders do need someone to help them gauge the risks involved.
Which means the finger of blame points, depressingly inevitably, at the lawyers. We’re often asked why transactions are taking 22 weeks and while we’d never intentionally throw anyone under the bus, if seems that if there’s a human involved, there are delays.
Clearly we need to eliminate the humans from the process. Which is a tricky sell, especially coming from the owner of a property law firm.
But this is exactly the topic of discussion that has erupted online since the release of that cheeky ( and sometimes threatening and abusive ) robot, ChatGPT. Faced with software that can appear to interpret and summarise huge amounts of data in seconds, the initial scepticism of lawyers has subtly changed to “actually that contract it produced wasn’t that bad”.
Anyone that has played with ChatGPT has seen that it can produce remarkable results. It can write a job application letter with the same casual disregard for the facts as the most able of candidates. It can deliver press releases with numerous hackneyed clichés that would put the most experienced PR executive to shame. Finally, it can produce a plagiarised analysis of the works of Bernard Shaw that even the most tech-savvy student would struggle to match.
It’s a small step to imagining what would happen if you shared a bunch of property documents with ChatGPT. It could summarise all the issues found in searches, leases and management packs, and would know what questions to raise. It could then send those questions to another robot who would know where to find the answers. Rough calculations would suggest this would take about 1 minute.
So that’s great news then?
A lawyer’s role is to interpret documents to identify risk on behalf of their clients, referring back to learned experience and base their advice on that. Which sounds awfully like what this new generation of artificial intelligence ( AI ) software is rather good at. Except that this type of AI is based on large language models which interpret how words follow one another, and use statistical analysis to predict the outcome. They seem intelligent, but are actually based on probability rather than actual facts, which, when it comes to the law, is a bit of a problem.
Despite the most hysterical responses to how ChatGPT might be changing our lives, when it comes to conveyancing, it will not be replacing humans any time soon. However, what it does have the ability to do is reduce the amount of manual work and processing required, and will be able to offer smarter advice about what enquiries to raise and highlight problems quicker and more consistently.
When Microsoft introduced Excel, accountants feared it was going to take away their jobs. Clearly this has not happened, and the same will not happen with conveyancing lawyers. But, if its use brings the end of lawyers raising enquiries about conservatories on third floor flats, this can only be a good thing.
Peter Ambrose is founder of conveyancing specialist The Partnership.
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