Last week’s story of Geronimo reminded me of a story from my school days.
In case you missed it, he was an Alpaca from Bristol (probably not a native) who had twice tested positive for tuberculosis. He was judged to be a threat to other livestock and was put down by the authorities. Obviously a quiet news day.
Even as Geronimo was roped and dragged away, its owner, Helen Macdonald, was still claiming the test results were invalid. She said they had made a mistake and there was nothing wrong – these people who thought they knew better just didn’t understand.
Which sounds a very similar refrain heard from owners of that other misunderstood breed.
Yes, I’m talking about lawyers.
Shipped off to the glue factory
If you studied Orwell’s Animal Farm for English GCSE, you’ll recognise the parallels between Geronimo and Boxer; the old horse who represented the well-meaning souls who worked so hard for the overall good. In return for his long hours and toil, he was promised utopia once everything was finished.
Which of course, didn’t end well, as the pigs running the farm tricked Boxer into boarding a lorry to the knackers’ yard to be turned into glue.
Having flogged their loyal workers half to death over the past year, law firm owners across the country are no doubt gazing into their navels and asking “how did I get away with that” and “how much longer can I get away with it?”
Although the Daily Mail promised us that the pandemic would change everything, agents will confirm that when it comes to buying and selling houses, everything’s pretty much the same as before. Let’s be clear, this problem is not down to the workforce, but the owners. Like the drunken pigs, (you’ll need to check the book for that bit) law firm owners have been in denial that anything is wrong at all.
After all, it’s not them, but everyone else that is at fault.
But here’s the thing.
If a law firm owner continues to spend most of his efforts finding the cheapest outsourcer or checking the delivery times for his new Bentley, it’s no wonder things are pretty shocking out there.
I have interviewed dozens of lawyers over the last year, I am still being told depressing stories of tiny fees and massive caseloads. Last week I learned of owners accepting £125 per case. This is about £10 an hour – less than Sainsburys’ pay in London. A few months ago, a colleague joined from a place where they were running 400 cases between three of them; a lawyer, paralegal and junior assistant. What can I say?
Technology will save us
In this [nearly] post-pandemic world, some strong decisions are needed about what we are going to do about this lack of progress. The cavalry we were promised in the form of new technology has stopped off at the McDonald’s drive-through and they’re still stuck in a queue waiting for extra mayo.
The technology gods have bestowed depressingly meagre gifts upon the legal industry in the last two years. If you honestly think that the current average transaction times of 120 days is going to be radically reduced any time soon, you’d better be prepared for some Arsenal-level disappointment.
Recent articles identified two “major advances”.
The introduction of online identification checking enabling clients to upload their photo to their phone. By my calculations, this might shave a day or so off the time. I’m not convinced this is going to be a life saver.
The other was electronic signatures from Land Registry. Without undermining the effort involved approving a technology that has existed for years, this might shorten it by about a week. As Michael Caine didn’t say in the Italian Job – it’s not exactly going to blow the doors off.
We do need to realise that we’ve hit a big bump in the road and reflect on the futile efforts the legal industry has made to improve things.
So what can we do about it?
Firstly, we must resist the overwhelming urge to hog-tie offending law firm owners and drag them off to the nearest abattoir. Like Helen, they genuinely believe what they are doing is right, despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary.
However, the blame game really has to stop, especially from those who have not set foot in a lawyer’s office recently. If I had 50p for every time an agent explains to me that “I’ve been in property for years, I know all about conveyancing” I’d be well on my way to covering the cost of a Big Mac meal by now.
Instead, agents need to take advantage of the perfect position they are in to spread the word. They should be warning clients away from those lawyers that did not adopt new working practices during the pandemic. They need to be escalating issues more frequently and having frank conversations with managers who signed deals with panel managers that kill their deals and upset their clients.
They need to establish better relationships with lawyers and get them to their offices to help them understand the tricky issues, not just leave a pile of poorly printed flowcharts showing the conveyancing process.
It can’t end here
The lack of any meaningful progress in recent years confirms once and for all that innovation is not going to come from law firms on their own.
Unless agents start to bring pressure on clients to make better choices when it comes to lawyers, we’re never going to force change.
Otherwise we’re going to see the disappearance of many more Geronimos, although this time they’ll be walking out the farm gate of their own accord.