OPINION: Covid and technology will force lawyers to change their conveyancing ways

 “My CRM was a cardboard box … that was full of files with no paperwork in them”

Those were the chilling words uttered by a lawyer I interviewed for a job last week.

Every few months, someone writes an article about how lazy lawyers are and how bad the conveyancing process is.  The comments are always the same; “tell us something we don’t know” or “lawyers are lazy and incompetent and the system needs to be scrapped”.

So why are things so bad and what is it going to take to make the change?

From my experience, it’s a combination of external factors, incompetent management and weak business tactics.

The good news is that help is at hand, from a most unlikely source – yes – it’s the “C” word.

The process IS clunky, but the times they are a-changing

If ever there was a time to quote Bob Dylan, it’s now, given the challenges of Covid-19.

Owning a law firm means I get to see first-hand the complexities in the process, and get to understand that safeguards are in place for really good reasons.  But some things are just plain annoying.

Like the delays caused by clients having to sign transfers and contracts.  Until last week, original signatures, witnessed by a non-family member, were required for transfer deeds.  When you’ve got two buyers in different places each with their own witness, this causes significant delays – from our experience, at least a week.

But all this changed last week when Land Registry confirmed they were authorising the use of electronic signatures with immediate effect.

Last Thursday, we saw at first-hand the future of how Deeds will be signed.  We witnessed a process that took a couple of minutes on our client’s mobile phone and the documents were at Land Registry before beer o’clock. ( I’m talking pre-lockdown times here – 6.00pm)

When consumers and agents see how easy and fast this technology is, like the new on-boarding technologies, lawyers will be forced to adopt it.

To be clear, this revolution only happened due to the inconveniences of daily life today, but if ever a silver lining was needed, this is one.

Law firm owners must step up or go home

I am talking to many candidates at the moment which gives me an insight into what is actually going on in the market.  The conversations are depressing to say the least, but go a long way to explain why conveyancing takes so long.

Firstly, we should not heap all the blame on the conveyancer for delays – many I speak to are regularly working 12 hour days and weekends trying to keep up.

In truth, some do need more training, but most talk of a lack of time to provide this.  However, for many, it is the environment and difficulty in getting accurate information about the cases themselves that causes the problems.

One candidate described how, at her current firm, she took over from a lawyer who had not done any work on her 60+ cases for several months.  The only information she had were some empty files in a cardboard box.  No case management system, just a few emails in folders.  Pity the client or agent wanting to know what was going on if the lawyer had no idea.

Another candidate had been made redundant because despite working a high caseload, the firm could not afford to keep her.  Her boss felt he could not win the work if he charged more than £350 per case, so this meant despite high caseloads and long hours, it did not make economic sense.  The future of her previous company is uncertain.

So why does this happen?

High caseloads combined with a lack of information is a toxic combination, caused, according to our evidence, by a deep-rooted fear by law firm owners about the future.  They are obsessed by the threat of a lack of work; this in turn drives the defensive behaviour of accepting the panel manager’s crack-cocaine promise of volume, under-investment and sweating the assets that are their employees.

Today, we are seeing significant pressure on these companies.  We are seeing redundancies in law firms and the closure of others.  Like Oasis, Laura Ashley and Warehouse, these zombie law firms will be swept away, leaving those with better bank balances, prepared to invest in new technologies, and more confident to resist low fees, to make time for staff training and improve the delivery of service.

Conclusion

Forget ripping up the conveyancing rulebook – this is not an option.

Forget the tiresome bleat of those preaching that “more information upfront” will speed up transactions.

The current economic climate is forcing change today.  Indeed, when we look back at 2020, one of the unexpected positive outcomes may well be a change in how conveyancing is delivered.

Which frankly, could not come soon enough.

 

Peter Ambrose is the owner and managing director of The Partnership specialising in the delivery of conveyancing service.

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16 Comments

  1. iainwhite87

    What a shame a whole industry needed forcing to innovate for the benefit of consumers by a global pandemic .

    i hope if they do innovate and evolve it becomes a constant state of mind to challenge the norm to be better rather than obstruct, block and deny future positive changes.

     

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  2. MichaelDay

    I largely agree and this follows on the same theme as my PIE article published yesterday.

    Conveyancers have seen themselves slip to the bottom of the “food chain” often seeing volume as the only critical business metric and undertaking work at uneconomic fee levels In ever increasing volumes just to try and stand still.

    The lack of investment in training and technology has left many operating with outdated methodologies and the lack of innovation in the industry has been stark (with a few exceptions).

    Covid-19 will see a paradigm shift with winners emerging and losers disappearing.

    Greater alignment and mutual understanding across the home buying and selling industry will be key to improving speed, efficiency and service.

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  3. JustaThought

    How many more articles do we have to read bashing conveyancers and saying ‘throwing money at technology’ is the answer to providing a proper Conveyancing service?

    Covid 19 is not the reason the new signature process has been introduced. This was in the pipeline well before we knew the word COVID.

    Peter’s article provides us with the information –  conveyancers working 12 hour days running 60+ cases at one time for £350 a pop. Of course the industry is losing many bright lawyers – they can see this isn’t working for themselves. They don’t need others outside of the profession to tell them.

    For those who continue to push the message that technology is the answer I would remind them that few had deeper pockets than Countrywide to invest in technology as far back as 20 years ago and we know how that ended up.

    It may be that technology has a part to play but it is not technology alone that will provide the answer.  Until lawyers are able to charge a proper (and justifiable) fee for Conveyancing so that they don’t have to run 60+ cases and work exhausting 12 hour days the industry will always struggle to provide true service.

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  4. Rob Hailstone

    In summary:
    ·        Many lawyers work 12-hour days and weekends
    ·        It was HMLR that needed to initiate the use of electronic signatures
    ·        Lawyers don’t (or market forces (and maybe some referral fees)) won’t allow them to charge enough
    ·        Peter doesn’t like the idea of using the ‘legally dead’ time to collect more information up front so, let’s not bother. Although, as Peter was an ex Home Information Pack provider, and an avid supporter of HIPS, that surprises me
    There are 4000 law firms that carry out conveyancing. A lot of the higher volume firms do have good CRM’s etc. I agree that some change is being forced, but what is really likely to happen is that those firms that cannot afford (or are unwilling) to move with the times will go bust. Maybe not a bad thing for the survivors (who will be able to charge more) and the home buying and selling process generally.

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    1. Peter Ambrose (The Partnership)

      Its not that I don’t believe in getting information up front Rob!!

      It’s just that it’s nothing like the panacea that people think it is!  Also, the idea that sellers will provide information voluntarily is optimistic at best.

      Data needs to be collected automatically – a 16 page form is not going to help.

      If you need an example of how information should be obtained up front just look at Sprift and their implementation of providing leasehold information from Land Registry direct to the desktop.

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  5. smile please

    I very much doubt it. Most conveyancers I speak to still have staff on furlough despite the upturn in the market.

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    1. JamesDB

      balls… downvoted this when I completely meant to agree with you… SORRY!

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  6. flockfollower102

    What a waste of an article. The conveyancing process is broken and conveyancers  for some reason do not want to make it better. How many sales progressors have been in the situation where one side is waiting for information and the other side claim to have sent it! The talk of new technology is a complete red herring. Conveyancers do not not even make use of the the telephone to even talk to each other!!!!! Pathetic! Change the SYSTEM! Stop doing conveyancing as a battle between two parties. Make sellers legally responsible for disclosing information and make the provision of legally necessary information better organised. This is not rocket science despite what some people with a vested interest in the status quo tell us.

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  7. Rob Hailstone

    Low legal fees are an issue it seems.
    I had to have a small private operation this week and it cost me £500.00. Although I didn’t want the op really, (who really wants to be sliced and diced?) I jumped at the chance and didn’t baulk at the fee because the daily pain and inconvenience needed to go, asap. A distress purchase I guess, much like conveyancing is.
    Most conveyancers charge way less than £1,000.00 to act on a sale or a purchase (many even charge below half of that) yet the relatively modest legal fee gets caught up in the overall cost of moving, SDLT, search fees, HMLR, agents fees, etc
    Maybe the conveyancing sales message should be:
    Your home move is likely to cost you between £10,000.00 and £15,000.00, included in that is our fee of £1,500.00. We have no control over the other £13,500.00. What do we do for our fee? Make sure you legally own your property (your biggest ever asset) and you can use it as you wish, without inconvenience or interruption.

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  8. Alan Murray

    It’s that old chestnut again – technology will speed up the conveyancing process.
    No it won’t. Firms have more technology available to them these days than ever before, and claim to be using it more. So that being the case, how is it that conveyancing standards have never been lower, and are getting worse? It is because the firms using it are doing so as a substitute for proper experienced staff. We can all name the thirty or so factories and bucketshops we love to hate when we see their names on the other side of transactions.
    As a Locum I work with many firms, and none of those use technology as a substitute for professional competence and expertise. I won’t work with any firm whose standards are not as high as my own. Conveyancing transaction times are not going to increase until Firms face up to the obvious, that investment in employing experienced able staff and training them to a sufficient standard is the way forward, not technology. It is not rocket science but I have been reading the same old nonsense about technology for a few years now, but it is like the people bleating on about it are fiddling whilst Rome burns.
    It is all becoming boring zzzzzzzzzz. So I guess we can expect things to get worse before they get better. Worse in the last recession a lot of experienced conveyancers took the opportunity to retire. It is one reason why there are so few of us good ones remaining. This recession is likely to see even more of us go as the profession plummets ever downwards and I for one feel “what is the point”? That cannot be good for the long term.
    And you know what? It is not people like me with years of experience to give out who are consulted about how to improve the processes. It is the hot shots and self publicists straight out of university with their media savvy articles who shout loudest who get heard. Which probably explains why the profession is where it is now.
    It just makes me want to shake people until they see what is staring them in the face! Hey just ask me and the others like me who have a lifetime’s experience!
    Technology – don’t believe the hype!

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    1. Rob Hailstone

      How much do you think the average ‘coal face’ conveyancer earns Alan? Maybe, what I am guessing is a relatively low salary, is one of the reasons why “standards have never been lower.”

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      1. Alan Murray

        Hi Rob, I am guessing very little, though I know their earnings tend to be on a bonus system which is target based which can explain why near the end of a month the files can suddenly all become very live again at those firms. For my sins I did a  contract at a local factory several years ago so I know about their working practices. Not to mention the stories I could tell!!
        But it is an investment thing again. A good experienced conveyancer can work on probably eighty files on his own. Because these firms employ case handlers, there are probably two layers at least of people above them who are checking their work. So the cost involved with working on one file is still pretty hiigh when accounting for all the layers, when one person capable of taking the file through start to finish may well be similar, and certainly more efficient. So employ the right person in the first place surely. Although as I allude to above there are few of us left.

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      2. smile please

        Conveyancer i recommend is driving around in an X6 and lives on an exclusive estate, he charges the norm and as **** as the rest!

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  9. Thinker89

    Volume and low fees will kill conveyancing just as it has squeezed agents in the last decade.

    A good conveyancer who is an excellent communicator and takes personal responsiblity for his or her transactions will always be recommended.

    This is the basis on which I recommend. I have NO financial agreements with any conveyancer and I recommed three to clients and sugest they choose the one who they feel they can get on with as their relationship is going to be longer than their relationship has been with me so far!

    I have a conveyancer who has gone independent and is now a consulant solicitor with Setfords in the same way that mortage brokers are under a compliance umbrella with people like Ramptons. He was fed up of being squeezed and wants to provide better, faster service the way I do. I feel for him as I know who he used to work for and they were not a company we ever recommended.

    If he starts turning round sales fast with excellent communication he’ll be the top of my list for recommendations and clients will have to get used to paying slightyly higher fees to get good service – just like in every area of their life.

    We have a client who is the sole beneficiary of a sale of over £250k and he’s ignored every recommendation we’ve made and chosen what we refer to as a conveyancing wh*rehouse in Wales to ‘save on costs’. I don’t know what more we can do to steer clients away from this kind of service and I’m bracing myself for all sorts of tick box conveyancing nonsense.

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    1. RedRebel

      Maybe explain the benefits better.

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  10. RedRebel

    There is little point in continually smashing poor conveyancers for the slow down in the process, like in all sectors you have good examples and bad. I know many agents who are to blame for slow transactions just as much as conveyancers. Badly put together deals, serious lack of chain checks and so the deal is doomed from the start. When both Aeros of actors in this play finally realise that they both work on behalf of the people that are moving and they must come first, then things will change. I am not holding my breath until regulation comes in to the agency sector. The best we can hope for is the mandating of the How to Sell guide which will attempt to get sellers doing their paperwork (online) before the list.

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