Henry Ford, of Ford Motors fame, once said: “If I had asked people what they wanted, they would have said faster horses.”
He was talking about the early days of the motor car – but he could have been talking about the conveyancing industry.
This is because, if you ask a lawyer how to improve the way they carry out conveyancing, they will reply that “You can’t’” or “Just do it quicker” – ie get a faster horse.
In our experience, lawyers have hardly changed their approach to conveyancing in the last ten years – the only noticeable improvements being email use and ordering title documents and searches online. Hardly innovation.
As an agent, you might think this sounds like a “you” problem. However, it’s actually a “me” problem, because unless new approaches are adopted, transaction timescales will only continue to get worse. Which helps neither clients wanting to move nor agents needing deals to go through.
So why haven’t lawyers changed how they do conveyancing?
Firstly, let’s address the argument that it’s because they are an intransigent and difficult bunch.
It’s not always the case.
For example, given their key role is to minimise risk for their client and their lender (if appropriate), we have seen lawyers rapidly embrace technology to verify the bank details of lawyers to whom they send client money – a facility that has demonstrably reduced fraud risk.
That said, we do know that traditional solicitors often struggle to implement change.
Sadly, what is more disappointing is where new entrants merely repeat the same approach they have seen before.
Whilst they might actually implement case management systems, this is merely putting a new shade of lipstick on the conveyancing pig.
The reality is the majority still use paper files, still raise irrelevant enquiries that they then do not track and, most depressingly, still sign agreements with panel managers that result in unmanageable caseloads and poor service delivery.
In our experience, a key reason why lawyers haven’t changed their ways of working is because frankly, no one has bothered to take the time to understand how to address the challenges they face and develop effective technology for them.
The reality is that it’s vital for lawyers to change, before clients and agents start voting with their feet.
Clients are becoming accustomed to the convenience and sophistication of modern online services, so their expectation of slick and transparent service delivery will only increase.
Financial pressure will continue to mount on agents.
The latest government plans to reveal the impact of disproportionate referral fees typically charged by panel managers, will start to influence which lawyers they recommend in an increasingly competitive market.
Unfortunately, even where lawyers do try and change, the technology available today is limited at best. The adoption of new processes requires decent software – for example, electronic communication only became accepted with the implementation of effective and functional email clients.
Despite the crying need for innovation, software vendors continue to roll out basic case management systems that demonstrate little understanding of conveyancing and few efficiencies beyond mail merging template letters.
There are a number of areas where technology can have a significant impact on the speed and efficiency of conveyancing.
After all, when a story makes the news that a law firm has implemented a “revolutionary” online client data entry form, we know the industry has some catching up to do.
Clients, lawyers, agents and mortgage brokers will all benefit from case-tracking portals (that are actually up to date), automated title analysis, optical character recognition for interpreting leasehold management information packs, machine-learning based systems for anticipating issues, integrated and shareable enquiry management, analysis of mortgage lender handbook requirements, and of course, effective caseload management.
This will reduce the risk, time and pain involved and will lead to reduced transaction times and less stress for agents, lawyers and clients alike.
A word of caution. As long as lawyers continue to use excuses such as “blame the chain”, change will not happen. It does not have to be this way.
For example, we are working with a supplier who has developed a technology designed to eliminate delays in transferring money between buyer and seller.
If it is adopted widely, this has the potential to significantly improve the completion process, irrespective of whether or not everyone in the chain is using it.
Changing the mechanism of how conveyancing is done will need people to start asking the right questions.
To come back to Mr Ford, because even if a horse could run at 70 miles per hour, you really wouldn’t want to use one to get you from London to Manchester on an icy Wednesday.
* Peter Ambrose is founder of The Partnership