Dust down your GCSE knowledge – they’re shipping Boxer off to the glue factory

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.

 

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7 Comments

  1. Rob Hailstone

    Good article Peter. You are correct with the ID checking and electronic signatures, very useful, but not complete game changers. However, there are still rumblings in the distance of Reservation Agreements, Property Logbooks, Property Transaction Packs and some new tech products possibly arriving on the scene. Hopefully, there will be some real progress sooner, rather than later, and the incumbent Geronimos will delay beating a hasty retreat in the meantime.
     

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  2. AgencyInsider

    Good point about each industry being ignorant of the realities of the other. If conveyancers and agents had a day in each other’s workplaces they might better understand the pressures that each have to deal with.

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  3. Peter Rollings

    Very entertaining Peter! As usual with some very pertinent observations. I’d constantly bang on about the importance of a good lawyer- ‘your first sale is the property, your second is a competent lawyer.’ I’ve never really understood why an agent recommends a lawyer/conveyancer just because they’ll get a kick back, however poor they know their service to be? Surely the idea is to get the transaction through, get the fee and move on to the next….

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    1. hsillo@gklgroup.co.uk

      Totally agree.  Years ago I worked for a conveyancing firm but it is often not entirely the fault of those who front the organisation but that of the bosses of these firms who are chasing more and more work for lower and lower returns.  The case loads for case handlers got higher , the customer satisfaction got worse. We started at 60 cases each and ended at 100/120. ( More if you were covering for a colleague on holiday)

      You simply can’t give good service at these levels and many case handlers are not even paralegals the pyramid upwards to the title lawyer is a log jam for a title check , and then if there are issues case handlers are not trained or qualified to deal with them and you are stuck in the middle unhappy clients and estate agents on one side and your place in the queue for attention on the other.

      I always tell people to do some homework and get a good lawyer,  not a cheap one or worse still one heavily recommended by an Agent ( there is probably a kick back  influencing the recommendation ) but many chain estate agents hands are also tied to recommended X, cos that’s the best kick back for the firm, even though we all know the actual conveyance will be slowed down by doing so.

      And anyway you are only as good as the worst conveyancer in the chain!   The system is not fit for purpose and requires major overhaul on both sides.  Speeding up the process would be in everyone’s interest,  but no one seems prepared to tackle the fundamentals or set benchmarks to judge against.  We all know your heart sinks when you find out someone hopeless is on the other side whichever side of this divide you sit….

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  4. Woodentop

    Animal Farm is lost on todays generation!

     

    So is trying to convince the system that technology is the holy grail to change. It can only grease the cogs.

     

    Agents can certainly help and I haven’t found one who ‘is an agent‘ that doesn’t. The advent of the bedroom boy or girl is another matter, as are sloppy agents who can’t be bothered.

     

    Conveyancers can help more. After all it is they that do it! Some are good, some are bad and some are just downright ugly and flatly refuse to have an agent interfere (help).

     

    How fast is a train? All depends on the engine at the front and the number of carriages being pulled and stations it has to stop at. And that is the rub …. chains and legal issues.

     

    You will never end chains, that would require a major overhaul of the home buying process and with the full commitment by the public. You can only grease the cog so much and some will be quicker completions than others even in a perfect system.

     

    Professions would do far better to get their own houses in order and not complain about someone else’s who they have no control over. Its more like a zoo than a farm.

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  5. Andrew Stanton Proptech Real Estate Influencer

    Rather than Animal Farm by Eric Blair, a more apt read will be the comments section in the Law Society Gazette, this is where the legal elite post their sanguine thoughts, and technology, well it does not really figure in many of their 1970’s mindsets. In fact they seem to revel in being outdated, not having a website and relying on administrative staff to be their rock. Residential real estate will move on when, the mortgage providers and the legal classes realise that the angry mob at their door is not the estate agent, but the tech savvy general public who want to buy and sell, and are wondering why solicitors have physical files, and do not ‘use’ email, when the angry mobs children at the age of 8 could probably digitally streamline most high street conveyancing practices. In twenty years when all the senior partners are long gone, and the generations that grow up with a mobile in their hand from cradle to grave are in the driving seat, then real change will come. At present tech enabled agents are stealing a big march on low tech agents, only to find at point of sale, the usual delays exist, which sort of skews the whole point of doing modern agency. But even lenders with Bitcoin now breathing down their necks must see that in a glistening NFT world, doing things the same old way is not even an option.

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  6. drasperger

    Seems to me to be more like Swelter’s kitchen in Peake’s Gormenghast trilogy that Peter describes? @andrewstanton……. the seismic shift in transaction mechanics will not wait until the mobile gen are at the helm….. block-chain contracts will leave the current players dead in the water…… It will start with a progressive new build player.

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