Patrick Hartford is a lawyer and founder of NoticeConnect®, a legal technology company which provides tools that help estate law offices work more efficiently and cost-effectively. Their flagship product offers a simple, court-approved approach to posting legal notices and reducing both legal liability and estate trustee liability in Ontario. We sat down with Patrick to discuss NoticeConnect’s newest solution to a longstanding problem: the Canada Will Registry™.
DPI: Can you share your perspective on how NoticeConnect has changed over time?
PH: NoticeConnect started as an alternative way to advertise to creditors because the traditional newspaper method was so expensive and ineffective. As we expanded and worked with more firms, DoProcess and Estate-a-Base® often came up because our customers were very interested in seeing our programs connected. Honestly, it just made sense. Estate lawyers were using the same information in both programs and by integrating the two, they could save time and publish the notice without any risk of transcription error. Since NoticeConnect integrated with Estate‑a‑Base last year, our customers can now do everything from within the Estate‑a‑Base platform which they’re already using to administer the estate. I think our partnership with DoProcess has been a big part of why NoticeConnect has become the standard way to advertise for creditors. We estimate that we’re now handling 90-95% of all the creditor notices being published in Ontario.
DPI: How did the idea to build a Will Registry evolve from that foundation?
PH: Over the years since we launched and built NoticeConnect, we’ve developed strong relationships with our customers who kept telling us a common headache for them was missing wills. Ultimately, we were in the perfect position to build a will registry in a way that would be beneficial to the profession as a whole. We were so fortunate to work with some of our longstanding clients who were generous with their time in helping us design a registry that meets everyone’s needs.
DPI: How does the Will Registry work?
Often when someone makes a will, it’s not recorded on any central registry and so later on, it’s not clear to the family where the will is or if one even exists. While there are options such as publishing notices in the Ontario reports or with us, none of them are a comprehensive tool for locating a missing will. Everyone wants to do a better job but there hasn’t been a better way to do it.
With our Wills Registry, law practices can register the wills they have and search our database of existing wills when they’re administering an estate. This provides meaningful due diligence in an automated, efficient manner.
Right now we’re helping law offices organize and input their will vaults into the registry. They can do it one document at a time or they can register their entire vault at once, either way it’s at no charge. Once we have a critical mass of wills, we will open up the search functionality to anyone, law firm or private individual. When someone submits a search, we provide them with an official search certificate showing the relevant details proving that they did their due diligence. If there is matching will in the registry, the law firm holding it is notified and asked to get in touch with the searching party within 30 days. So in a case where you submit a search and don’t hear anything back, after that 30 day period as listed on the certificate, you’ll have absolute certainty that you’ve done meaningful due diligence and can proceed on the basis of the documents you do have.
DPI: And you’ve set that magic number for opening up the search functionality at 100,000 wills, right?
PH: That’s correct. Once we hit a critical mass of 100,000 wills, we can very confidently say that we are the single best place in Ontario to search for a will. That way, we’re only opening up the search functionality when it’s providing real value in exchange for a small fee, about the same as we charge to post a notice. Once we have enough wills in Ontario, we’re looking to expand region by region. Given how much people move around over the course of their lives, that will benefit everyone as you can search for a will in more than just your own province.
DPI: What problems is your Will Registry solving?
PH: Many of our customers are worried, very worried. We’ve heard horror stories where practitioners die unexpectedly and there are boxes of wills found in a shed or basement that need to be managed. At an event in St. Thomas, many of the practitioners told me that they’re very concerned because in the past when you retired, you could just sell your practice to somebody else in the same town and your will vault was an asset that helped attract business for the new owner. Now because people move around so much more, the likelihood that you’re going to find the people whose wills you have has decreased quite a bit. Our system helps by making it very easy to know when somebody is looking for a will in your vault so you can do the probate work.
It’s also very helpful to lawyers who move between firms or leave to start their own. With our Will Registry, it’s easy to transfer just the wills assigned to that lawyer to their new firm. It takes nearly all of the administrative work out of updating each firm’s will vault.
DPI: Legal professionals are often cautious about introducing new technologies to their practice. How do you reassure those individuals about using your new Will Registry?
PH: I think the tech world isn’t known for its sensitivity to the privacy concerns of lawyers or the public in general, but our Wills Registry is built by lawyers for lawyers. We’ve set it up carefully. I think coming to this as a lawyer myself is very helpful because I understand how our customers’ requirements are different than that of a regular business. Each law society has its own professional rules that go beyond what you’re going to see in federal or provincial privacy legislation. It’s reassuring to our customers that I come from the same background as them because I can make sure that our products are built from the ground up to be compliant with their professional obligations.
Many law offices understand that there are serious problems with the existing system for finding wills. As a result, they are quite open to using a technological system as long as it’s easy to use. Knowing this, we go out of our way to design our programs to be intuitive to learn and use. Because we made the experience of posting notices to creditors so positive, our customers are open to trying something new from us like our Will Registry.
DPI: What do you think law offices are going to look like in the near future?
PH: I think in 5 to 10 years there will be even more variation between law offices. More will be fully paperless and rely on established cloud services that offer strong security and backup protocols. I think there will be a general understanding that storing your data in professional facilities, such as those already being used by financial institutions and government, is a smart choice. As the owners of today’s paper-based practices start to build a succession plan, they’re going to need to leverage technology to smooth that transition. There are going to need to be people and businesses there to help because there will be a lot of work involved in transforming such an office into a more efficient, paperless model. There’s already a move to modernize those kinds of things.
We’ll also see a lot more acceptance of technology in law society rules including guidance to help law offices know what to look for in a technology partner. Here at NoticeConnect, our CTO works from the west coast and yet it’s like he’s here. With all the technology around communications and file sharing, there’s no real difference in terms of our ability to work together or to collaboratively edit software or a document. Those tools have just come such a long way. I think that it will be really exciting to see them applied in the legal context.