So this is why it all falls apart when the conveyancer goes on holiday

“Should lawyers be allowed to take summer holidays?”

Thinking about Jon Snow’s concerns in Game of Thrones that “winter is coming” brought to mind an issue that arises in the summer months and drives terror into the hearts of even hardened agents.

This issue is typically revealed after a call to a conveyancer for a case update elicits the following response: “I am sorry but the lawyer on that case is on holiday.”

Now, we’re not saying lawyers shouldn’t take holidays. Frankly, given the fractiousness we’ve experienced from our counterparts recently, some of these keyboard warriors could do with a bit of time away to relax.

However, the way lawyers typically handle holiday cover highlights one of the core problems of conveyancing – how the performance of one individual impacts on the numerous people in a chain.

It’s all in their head

Most conveyancing lawyers have information about the case that they don’t write down anywhere. This means that when they take holiday, leave the company or are unlucky enough to fall under the proverbial bus, this information disappears with them.

Unfortunately, for most owners of law firms this is in the “too-difficult” pile to solve and so they just ignore this risk – the lawyer is paid to manage the case and as long as they keep turning up there is no problem.

For the client, unfortunately, in the event of that lawyer not being available, having someone pick up the file on their behalf often means going back to square one on the case, with the inevitable duplication of questions and research, which can be extremely frustrating.

What typically happens when lawyers DO take holidays?

There is a certain irony around the thought process of clients when they learn that their lawyer is off on holiday.

Conveyancing is slow and painful, so if a lawyer is out for one week out of the national average of 16 weeks, in reality it has less impact than people think. However, the idea that a lawyer may not be available causes panic amongst clients who are certain it will cause their case to fall through in that time.

The situation is often made worse by the lawyer who, knowing their clients will panic, merely avoids telling them altogether, resulting in a nasty surprise when the client (or agent) calls in and finds they are not available.

From the lawyer’s perspective, it’s not plain sailing either. Many say that the grief they receive on their return – complaints and unhappy clients – undermines taking the holiday in the first place.

Pity the smaller firm

The problem is worse in smaller firms where there may only be a couple of people who actually do conveyancing, so asking a colleague to cover may not even be an option.

These are the firms that have to resort to temporary cover from locums, which typically causes more trouble than it solves. The locum is unlikely to know the case management system (if there is one), the case or the client, and have their own special ways of doing things: most are older and so take a more “traditional” approach.

They are starting from scratch each time and it’s a sticking plaster solution at best. At worst, they probably shouldn’t even bother.

For those smaller, typically technology-averse firms whose bosses have agreed to be pimped out by panel managers, the situation is even worse.

With case handlers running anything from 100 to 200 instructions, the idea of a colleague covering their work as well as their own, is simply not practical. With the low fees that they get paid, the company cannot afford to employ more than one person to run these cases, so there is simply no fall-back.

How do we fix the problem?

There are two issues here – communication and affording cover.

Firstly, if lawyers used more technology, information about the case would be available to people in their organisation and their clients.

This would enable someone to pick up the case more quickly to assist and move the deal forward.

If more elements of the conveyancing process were captured automatically, such as when mortgage offers are received or searches are ordered, reliance on the individual would be further reduced.

Case technology could be integrated with personnel systems so clients (and agents) could be warned in advance of holiday plans and be told who was responsible for their case during the period.

Unfortunately, most lawyers don’t have functioning case management systems, so a piecemeal approach may need to be taken.

Firms should know when staff are going on holiday and simple measures such as giving clients several weeks’ notice should reduce the panic that typically arises.

Secondly, if firms charged higher fees primarily by ditching panel work, they could afford to hire more people to work on each case and would provide additional cover at all times.

It should be noted that small firms with just one of two conveyancers may have to consider the realities of providing conveyancing in general.

Clients require consistency and availability and will not tolerate such a lack of holiday cover.

If law firms introduced just some of these changes, we just might see a reduction in the levels of panic the like of which would cause even a certain Mr Snow to quake in his furry boots.

* Peter Ambrose is founder of conveyancing practice The Partnership

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8 Comments

  1. Rob Hailstone

    I used to hate taking holidays. I knew it would result in me doing a lot of extra work before going and playing catch up after. It is also unnerving leaving your clients (yes estate agents, clients that we have grown close to, empathise with and care about) in the care and control of someone else.

    The simple, but time consuming solution was to spend a day, or more, before your holiday writing up to date file notes on each and every file. Three short examples are set out below:

    Purchase only. Clients are keen to exchange and complete by mid-November as Mrs Jones is due to give birth in December. See file check list for current state of progress. No unusual problems spotted.

    Sale and purchase. Long chain of 7. Mr & Mrs Smith are in the middle. Sale proceeding well, no unusual problems. Purchase, problem with septic tank, see additional enquiries. Clients are in no particular hurry to complete but would like to exchange asap.

    Complicated new build purchase with numerous issues unresolved (including drains, roads and lack of NHBC). Mortgage offer in file but funds being released in tranches. Client phones three times a day and will try to get you to cut corners. Proceed with care.

    I could go on and on as each case is, of course, different.

    As for informing the ‘holiday cover’ whether the Mortgage Offer was in or if Enquiries had been raised etc. That was (and still should be) simple. A ‘quick glance’ file check list on the inside of the cover with dates and ticks used to suffice. In addition, (and from a PII point of view) the file should contain notes on all calls made and received and all (non-check list) actions taken.

    The trickier problems are finding a good available and reliable locum, or a colleague who has enough time to carry their own case load and yours!

    I took most of my holidays over the Christmas and New Year period when things tended to go a little quieter.

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  2. TwitterSalisPropNews53

    (Tim Higham of Trethowans solicitors)

    HOLIDAY taking conveyancers!!

    As a conveyancer, I always warn family and friends – for whom I will not act  – to make sure their chosen conveyancer:

    1. has at least 4 conveyancers in the office, otherwise holiday cover will be non-existent

    2. that they obtain a guarantee that their conveyancer is not going on holiday OR if they are (all employees in the UK get holidays, you and me included) then what is proposed to cover that…and if you don’t like the sound of that, don’t chose them

    3. that they promise NOT to use locums, as I find locums push papers, but are scared to commit to anything, certainly not an exchange of contracts

    WHY the warmings?

    Because there are law firms who – as Peter says above – will actually reply “I am sorry but the lawyer on that case is on holiday. The matter will have to wait their return.” And it can be for 2 weeks!?

    That is a disrespectful firm who should incur Law Society/SRA sanction, as it impacts their own client and the whole property chain.

    Instead, a conveyancing team of at least 4 can manage to cover, and the departing conveyancer should always – I require it at my firm – ensure they:

    a. leave full notes on EACH file

    b. warn each client they shall be away and reassure them that there will be seamless cover

    c. ensure they report to each client, before they go, do not expect the covering conveyancers to be able to do a report on the whole file and their own work

    Clients and Estate Agents will be delighted as a result, I know this as it works, year after year with us.

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    1. Peter Ambrose (The Partnership)

      You forgot the fourth warning Tim;

      4. Never use a law firm that gets work from a panel manager.

       

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  3. Fairfax87

    Here again are the pinky and perky of the legal profession, boring the socks off everyone (including friends and family) with their pearls of wisdom…. and panel manager bashing, as usual.   You must be such popular dinner party guests…

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    1. Rob Hailstone

      Assuming I am neither Pinky or Perky, maybe Andy Pandy?

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      1. AgencyInsider

        I take it you are a panel manager then Fairfax87?

        Hailstone and Ambrose (sounds like a good name for a firm of lawyers) are two of the most level headed and reasonable people in the business and I for one respect their opinions whether or not I happen to agree with them. At least they care enough to make a positive contribution to debate and ideas. Unlike so many, many others.

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  4. P-Daddy

    Contact management systems…even those simple enough for a conveyancer to use are out in the market!  Its getting people to change habits to do file notes after meetings whilst they are fresh in the mind and a system that charts the processes of search/mortgage application offer/etc to act as a reminder. The weak link is the humans and bad habits, as the information is only as good as the info put into them. Tim and Peter do make fair comments and being a cynic, a locum makes people feel that their matter is important, but only if some progress can be made and be able to help action exchanges and completions. They can still be planned whist the solicitor is away on holiday.

    Likewise, a locum is not going to have time to plough through the 3 sets or re issued enquiries and additional enquiries sitting on most files. If they are important, ask them once and get the answer first time using professional legal competence…not by indemnity policy.

    A few years ago, a solicitor who worked with a few of my long standing clients was struck off after an issue occurred on a probate sale. When the Law Society investigated, they were horrified to hear he ran over 100 cases…if I recall correctly they felt it was 50 too many. Now look how many are run at low fees! The system will continue to grind to a halt without new habits and legal qualifications standing for something rather than hiding behind PI risk and Indemnity get outs. We are supposed to be heading to a world of registered Titles and electro conveyancing

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  5. Sara

    I recently took the decision to start working as a locum and whilst I have heard that there are some locums who will inform callers that their usual lawyer is away for a week, suggesting that nothing will happen until their return, I do hope that they are few and far between.

    Having worked as a permanent lawyer for a number of years, building up good relationships with clients so that they come back to me for their next property transaction and so that they refer friends and family to me (even going to the effort of finding where I’d moved to when I switched firms a number of years ago), with agents so that they refer work to me and have trust in me to get the job done and with other lawyers (whether they’re known/local or not), this hasn’t changed since I switched to being a locum. I still take pride in doing a good job and getting people moved. Exchanges and completions still happen in the lawyer’s absence as does chasing and post-completion work.

    If it’s a new firm I’m working for, there will inevitably be a short settling in period whilst I get to grips with their particular systems etc, but helpful/knowledgeable support staff and good handover notes mean that I can be confident of where the file is up to and can take incoming post, calls, emails forward to keep the matter moving, and can help in progressing matters. If I didn’t, I wouldn’t get repeat business and it’s been great to see thank you notes which have come in from clients who have included me in their thanks for helping whilst their regular lawyer was away. A thank you goes a long way.

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