OPINION: Lawyers Vs agents – we need a war, not a truce

Peter Ambrose

The climate activist, Greta Thunberg, asks great questions.

In a recent documentary, she questioned whether planting trees reduces carbon dioxide.

The answer was, in the short term, no. It takes 15 to 20 years before they absorb more carbon dioxide than the area harvested to grow them actually produces. When it comes to solving that particular problem, ancient forests are more effective than young trees.
Which is exactly the same argument we hear from lawyers – old is good, new is bad.

Except that unlike trees, these older specimens typically contribute more toxic gas to the environment than reduce it.

Which is why, as we saw here last week, discussions between agents and lawyers typically degenerate into a “lawyers are lazy, agents are thick” shouting match. This latest spat came, ironically, after an article calling for “a truce between lawyers and agents” – the author obviously hadn’t read about the prime minister Neville Chamberlain’s visit to see Adolf Hitler in 1938.

Although, as Greta has demonstrated, direct action is much more effective, I’m not up for a trip to Warwick to superglue myself to the doors of PropertyMark just yet, but we do need to move past these outdated arguments.

Taking a knife to a gunfight

When arguments about lawyers start brewing, it take just a few comments before the traditionalists start wading in with the usual “not enough experience”. It’s at this point that “I Got You Babe” starts playing on the clock radio and Bill Murray learns that “it’s cold out there”.

For anyone planning to kick off another Groundhog Day rant after this piece, let’s be clear.

Conveyancing fees are too low and lawyers need better training.

But the real question is, what are we going to do about it?

Like the person who claims to worry about climate change but beyond buying vegan sausages does little about it, lawyers simply blame the evils of the market. They then to proceed to pimp out their solicitors, forcing them to walk the streets, offering their services to estate agents.

The problem is that solicitors are not sales people, so find themselves pants-down, cutting fees or offering bribes just to win work.
Law firms should be recruiting sales people to drive up the fees needed to reduce caseloads. This will mean reduced pressure on lawyers to deliver exchanges, giving them more time to communicate with agents and clients, which, let’s face it, is what most of the fuss is about.

More time being freed up will also help to solve the problem of young lawyers not being given benefit of the experience of senior colleagues. Expert lawyers need to stop complaining about the lack of expertise in the industry and take the time and effort to actually teach and advise those less knowledgeable than themselves. Even if those lawyers don’t work for their firm, because every deal has two sides and without solutions, no-one is moving house.

In conveyancing, ivory towers can be very lonely places.

What HAS the pandemic done for us?

Let’s get one thing straight.

The one thing that 2020 didn’t do was bring widespread technological change to conveyancing. As some bloke once said, “Advertorials and LinkedIn posts do not a revolution make”. I interview 3 to 4 candidates a week and most don’t use case management systems, let alone some new platform doodad.

What the pandemic has done has created more work than the industry can handle and the over-supply is taking its toll. As the lock-down roots start to show through the blonde curls of Sunak’s Stamp Duty holiday highlights, it has meant many are leaving front-line roles for other areas of property.

Put simply, the expertise that continues to leave the front-line must be found elsewhere. Whether those in their ivory towers like it or not, the only achievable solution is better technology. We’re not talking mailmerge and workflows here. We need to develop property meta-data and combine this with machine learning solutions to deliver risk-based models to identify and deduce problems with both properties and titles.

Sadly, those that cannot even begin to imagine this technology are too quick to dismiss it as a mythical silver bullet. That said, I guess Steve Jobs got a few sidelong glances when he suggested we would be viewing movies on a glass tablet streamed from a wireless network. “Yeah, but Steve, everyone wants to watch Coronation Street on ITV at 7.30 on Mondays”.

Conclusion

Those suggesting a truce between agents and lawyers where everyone puts down their pointy blame sticks and pretends to be understanding, have got it all wrong. Brutal bluntness rather than cosy “be kind” badges is needed, because law firm owners, like those football club owners who thought the European Super League was a good idea, have forgotten about why they are here.

The tiny handful of companies who are bringing change to the industry should be embraced, with their ideas nurtured and developed. The remaining dead wood that refuses to adapt should be boycotted by referrers and replaced with a much more sustainable species.

Something we know Greta would agree with.

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

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40 Comments

  1. Rob Hailstone

    A typically thoughtful and entertaining article by Mr Ambrose.
    One thing the pandemic and the up-turn in work volumes has brought is, on the whole, an increase in conveyancing fees. However, it remains to be seen if property lawyers hold their nerve and keep those fees up when conditions change, or referral fee agents smell a slightly bigger cake baking and demand a much bigger piece. If they don’t, let’s hope going forward law firms invest their increased profits in training and technology.
    Unless the whole home buying and selling process is changed there is and will be no overnight solution. However, a more streamlined procedure (info up front for example) and better technology together would be a good starting place and may be the wooden stake that would do the job equally as well as the elusive silver bullet.
    Brutal bluntness would be the order of the day if I was hosting a legal ‘celebrity’ roast for Peter. But when it comes to agents and property lawyers, I think constructive criticism might be a more productive way forward.

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    1. Peter Ambrose (The Partnership)

      I do agree that *some* prices have gone up – indeed, one firm offering guarantees of deadline-hitting services have increased their fees 5 fold, but it’s not across the board.

      As my old mate Winston would say, “We’ve had 30 years of jaw-jaw” …

      Tried that method, didn’t work.

       

       

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  2. DerekSharpham

    This is a joke, right?

    The only truce needed is between lawyers. The lack of pedantic communication between the two parties will greatly speed up the process.

    I’m not wrong.

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  3. Rob Hailstone

    “I’m not wrong.” That is it then, must try that with the missus next time we disagree.

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    1. Peter Ambrose (The Partnership)

      Don’t forget the counter-argument.
      “You are wrong”.

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      1. Rob Hailstone

        Would not expect that to come back at me! Bit brutally blunt Peter.

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        1. Peter Ambrose (The Partnership)

          Just ripping off that bandage.

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  4. Property Searches Direct

    The work has to go somewhere. Fees have increased and firms have found it not to slow the influx of new cases. What will help is when more estate agents realise that they need to understand the process and embrace the elements that their clients can be getting on with during marketing.
    The agent doesn’t need to do anything other than point clients in the right direction.
    Giving a vendor something to do will better engage them, keep them busy and let the estate agent get on with their job, let alone help speed up the process and eliminate much of the administrative burden invariably dumped on the conveyancer.

    The war can remain as long as outcomes are positively pursued.

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    1. Peter Ambrose (The Partnership)

      Absolutely, Property Searches Direct ( unusual name – bet you got teased at school ) I’m not suggesting negativity but just that the “let’s be best friends” just isn’t going to have outcomes.
      I am curious though who will be doing this work if the market continues to be strong for the remainder of the year ( at least September ) 

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      1. Property Searches Direct

        Any conveyancer that has not had a mental breakdown due to the daily beating up they are getting from agents and clients I’d imagine. And they are going to be some tough people.

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        1. Local Independent

          Peter I think you’ve just picked up a potential new client lol! And no “Local independent” isn’t my real name but I was still bullied at school (ha ha)! Great comments, and the replies have shown some of the very sentiments you intimated. Perhaps they need to employ ex-agents as progressors? They’d soon be the perfect hybrid betwixt sales focused and communicative and legally aware and knowledgable! What have we created? lol.

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          1. Peter Ambrose (The Partnership)

            I’m actually delighted that we’ve [ so far ] managed to avoid the fire storm that normally surrounds any discussion about agents and lawyers.  
            5 out of 6 of my sales team are ex-agents and that works really well because they understand the pressures that agents are under and also how to have constructive conversations with clients.
            I do know a lawyer who has switched across to being a progressor and that is a FANTASTIC idea – especially as they can offer solutions to the lawyers that they are talking to.  Sadly, they are like hens teeth.
            I’m really starting to think that a legal progressor would be a great job for agents who want to take a step back from sales side of things …

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        2. Local Independent

          However as I posted in the wrong section I neglected to comment on this. With all due respect PSD if the communication outwards was better then “beating up” would not be needed. We agents are “beaten up” all day, every day, every month, year in year out by clients trying to get sense/returned calls/serivice/dates/explainations fom their “conveyancer” (let’s not say lawyer, that adds another dimension to the debate). We have worked out that nearly 40% of vendor communication from instruction to completion is “can I have an update”. If the ones doing the work had better tech (let’s blame tech not will/attitude/ability/time etc) then agents wouldn’t need to chase! Don’t get me wrong sale progression is an art, invoice chasing is for Connells and the corporates/bad independnats. 

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          1. Peter Ambrose (The Partnership)

            It IS absolutely about the technology.  
            I can say that with confidence because I can see the number of agents using our portal ( no this is NOT self promotion, just facts !) has been increasing over the past month, to nearly double what it was in March. 
            Currently, about 45 agents logon every day to check progress of their cases.  If say, they log in once a week on average, that is about 15% of agents in a typical month – bit of a fag packet calculation but you get the picture! 

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            1. Local Independent

              Agreed, although not getting returned calls/serivice/dates/explainations from conveyancers doesn’t help. 

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              1. Peter Ambrose (The Partnership)

                I can see that can cause a few issues.
                Sundown strategies sort of work but a lawyer then gets a particularly gnarly case and suddenly it 5.30pm and those callbacks never happened …

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  5. Mrlondon52

    It strikes me there is a parallel betweeen conveyancing and referencing. Most referencing companies are cr@p, or at least all the ones I’ve used come with problems. And the reason? We don’t pay enough. The market has driven down the price so that everyone offers a poor service as how else do you compete?

    Volume conveyancing is the same.

    In my experience as a customer, my lawyer is slow – and he’s good and I like him, so I use him, but the mindset of a conveyancer is dominated by two things:

    a) I am going to wait for the other side to respond rather than chase them

    b) What is urgent and I need to deal with (eg what’s exchanging this week).

    I have no problem with b) but I find a) totally F-ING exasperating. Most conveyancers do not chase, so they wait and wait and they do not care. That’s my experience. And like I said, my lawyer is very good on quality and a good guy.

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    1. Peter Ambrose (The Partnership)

      You raise a very interesting point which I was going to cover in the piece but decided it was worthy of an article all by itself.
      In much the same way that I ask, is it the lawyer’s job to play the business development manager and win work (no) is it their job to chase other lawyers 
      It’s tricky because our role is to act in our clients’ best interests and ensure they are legally protected.  How does this purely legal activity include chasing?  Problemis, if we don’t, who does, other than the agent. But lawyers are typically too busy to interact with agents …
      It’s a conundrum…

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      1. htsnom79

        “How does this purely legal activity include chasing?”

        There, in eight words, the problem.

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        1. Peter Ambrose (The Partnership)

          I’m not saying that we don’t chase transactions – particularly at the moment, we are spending a lot of time chasing and in turn being chased.  Although this is part and parcel of what we do, the question is, are lawyers best equipped to do this role.

          This is not buck-passing but we need to have a long hard look in the mirror and work out who is the best at doing what in the transaction.

          I interview too many lawyers who are expected to be new business people, KYC experts, spreadsheet wizards and SDLT submissions specialists.

          We need to get smarter at identifying who should be doing what, and I’m not sure lawyers have the time to chase deals.

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  6. #ImpressiveConveyancing

    Agents and conveyancers will have much time on their hands to work things out, as the property market tanks in a few months. Signs of it are starting now sadly. Expect at least 25-75% revenue drops over the next 12 months.

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    1. Peter Ambrose (The Partnership)

      Gracious impressiveconveyancing ( guess you were teased as much as Property Searches at school 😉 – that’s awfully gloomy ( and obviously picked out of thin air ) for such a beautiful sunny morning.
       If we’ve learned anything from the last 12 months it’s that it’s awfully difficult to make predictions.

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  7. Yatesy5486

    Completely agree with you Peter regarding the uncomfortable truth that many conveyancers don’t sell the value of their services effectively enough to get the fees they deserve.The lower the fees, the heavier the workload, hence the stress, slower turnaround times and a poorer customer experience.

    Like

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  8. Woodentop

    Lawyers Vs agents – we need a war, not a truce

     

    1. Agents should do their work.

     

    2. Conveyancers should do their work.

     

    Not expect 1 to do 2 work which their client has paid them to do. Maybe ‘performance’ related fee’s should be adopted by the conveyancing industry!

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    1. Peter Ambrose (The Partnership)

      Agree with you 100%, but again I ask the question – are we putting the right people in the right places to do this type of work.
       
      There is an argument ( and one that we’ve been looking at for a while now ) for law firms to employ progressors.
       
      Just putting it out there.

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      1. Local Independent

        Peter I think you’ve just picked up a potential new client lol! And no “Local independent” isn’t my real name but I was still bullied at school (ha ha)! Great comments, and the replies have shown some of the very sentiments you intimated. Perhaps they need to employ ex-agents as progressors? They’d soon be the perfect hybrid betwixt sales focused and communicative and legally aware and knowledgable! What have we created? lol.

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  9. AcornsRNuts

    As a vendor I would say that some lawyers need to put away their quill pens and join the modern age. My buyers’ solicitors came up with no less than five separate covenant queries regarding the original purchase some forty odd years ago.

    Did they raise these queries all at once? Of course not, they raised them in five separate queries spread over as many weeks. My solicitor simply emailed me and had replies the same day only for a few days to pass before she advised that another letter had arrived from said buyers’ solicitors.

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    1. Peter Ambrose (The Partnership)

      Its always more valuable to get feedback from people who are actually in the process.
      If you saw how enquiries are raised and tracking during the process, you would be genuinely shocked – a lot of printing of emails and Post-It notes involved.  
      This is the main source of frustration in conveyancing – it’s not a process problem, but a data problem.  In our direct experience, the vast majority of law firms are woefully unprepared for the change that needs to happen to this process.  
      Enquiries need to be recorded electronically and shared online.
      This is NOT happening any time soon while law firms refuse to buy case management systems, and most of these  systems don’t even support this process anyway!

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      1. AcornsRNuts

        I suspect it was more deliberate, almost as if they read a page a day and raised queries in the same way. My solicitor was very responsive and efficient.
        Now the delays are from the mortgage company with a different query every time. I wonder if they are related to the buyers’ solicitor?

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        1. Peter Ambrose (The Partnership)

          It might appear deliberate but that is highly unlikely! 
          Depending on how they are structured, it could be that a junior lawyer was running the case which was then reviewed by a senior colleague who then raised more issues.
          If the buyer’s lawyer is representing the lender ( usually, but not always the case ) then yes – there will be additional enquiries coming from that direction.   They really shouldn’t be piecemeal though.

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          1. AcornsRNuts

            NIce try! The Mortgage company is even worse.

            They asked fo:

            a normal survey – understandable.

            a Mundic test – not necessary and surprise, surpise, it passed

            a further structural survey – it passed

            the QUALIFICATIONS of the surveyor!

             

            One might think that they didn’t want to lend to the buyers!

             

             

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            1. Peter Ambrose (The Partnership)

              I couldn’t even BEGIN to come back on those comments!!

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  10. RetiredConveyancer

    Excellent article Peter, echoing my views completely…. higher levels of fees that enable a Conveyancer to handle a smaller caseload proactively, combined with better training and mentoring from experienced Conveyancers. I fear that if the market cools, Conveyancers may undo the small incremental jncreases achieved in fees by outbidding each other again to achieve the lowest price.. Estate Agents need to help educate customers that cheapest is certainly not best in the world of Conveyancing.

    I do support technology solutions too… for  instance, why can you get a comprehensive environmental, flood and planning search within hours, but a Local Authority Search can take weeks?  Why can’t technology harvest and share all the information Agents collect upfront, to save Conveyancers collecting it all in again on a paper form? Why do Conveyancers, Lenders and Estate Agents all have to verify identity seperately, following different standards and requirements, rather than it being done just once, and shared electronically, for the benefit of all? The list goes on….

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    1. Peter Ambrose (The Partnership)

      Thank you!
      I just think that if people have expertise then that should be shared around.  Holding the expertise cards close to your chest is an excercise in futility because, as I say, conveyancing does not thrive from ivory tower seige mentality.
      I cannot tell you the amount of drafting that we carry out for free for other lawyers just to help get deals over the line and I get so disappointed when we see one-upmanship at work.   This morning I had a law firm charging us for their time for changes they wanted made to a Stat Dec that we produced for them. 

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  11. KW

    “The tiny handful of companies who are bringing change to the industry should be embraced, with their ideas nurtured and developed. The remaining dead wood that refuses to adapt should be boycotted by referrers and replaced with a much more sustainable species.”

    Actually, you are a massive part of the problem Peter. I saw the previous article you refer to and you were quite blatantly putting down “one of those handful of companies trying to bring about change” and automatically dismissed them to the dead wood. Your approach is pretty damaging as you are sending out a message that only those handful you see fit are worthy of being embraced and nurtured.

    We are a pretty forward thinking agency and will try most things out, particularly if there is some kind of free trial. We support a number of small suppliers trying to break into the industry and to be honest some are pretty innovative even in their early stages but would be shot down by the likes of you. With attitudes like yours, we will never move forward.

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    1. Peter Ambrose (The Partnership)

      Not really sure how I’m part of the problem!
      I wasn’t referring to new technology as deadwood – not by any stretch.  The dead wood I refer to are the lawyers that sit and complain about lack of legal expertise and do not offer to help or give training.  
      We actively embrace and support many initiatives. 
      Whether it’s Rob Hailstone’s Bold Move, Reapit’s Marketplace, Coadjute’s distributed ledger technology, Yourkeys’ developer platform, Armalytix’s proof of funds module, ShieldPay’s anti money laundering checks, Infotrack’s data platform, Openbrix or Sprift’s property reports … we are up for anything that offers genuine advantage. 
      That said – we’ve also seen some solutions that offered very limited offerings; naturally I won’t namecheck them.

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      1. Peter Ambrose (The Partnership)

        Just realised that I meant to say “Thirdfort for anti money laundering checks” is a fantastic onboarding solution was well.

        Sorry Olly!

         

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  12. KW

    You need to proof read what you write as it doesn’t come across like that at all. In fact you are contradicting yourself with this article and your comments in the last.
    Oh and we don’t need a war, that’s what has got us in to this mess. We need to eradicate the big egos and arragance that’s rife on all sides and start working together as one. 

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  13. flockfollower102

    Why are multiple technology platforms being proposed? Why can’t the information be held centrally (by the Land Registry?) for all of the ‘conveyance’ information that is required? Why do conveyancers ask for information that was asked by the conveyancer that acted for the seller when they bought it?

    Centralise it, or do away with buyer beware and bring in title insurance. I am sure neither would be perfect, but in the 21st century why do have two intelligent people (conveyancers) arguing over the title instead of having a system that enables the transaction to move forward at a reasonable and realistic pace.

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    1. Peter Ambrose (The Partnership)

      Its a very fair question and your point about re-using existing information is absolutely spot on.

      The problem with centralising data is collecting and maintaining is remarkably difficult.  For example, Land Registry started collecting local land charge data in 2018 have completed 12 authorities so far ( out of 300).  Note that’s JUST the local land charges, not the planning data.  Then take a look at leasehold information ( such as management packs for example ) and the scale of the issue becomes overwhelming.

      This isn’t to say, not to do it, but it is literally ( and depresssingly ) decades of work there.

      With respect to title issues, these are typically a small aspect of the problems involved, more often its defective or problematic leases.  In the US title insurance is very commonly used and it would certainly address certain issues.

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