David Buchanan shares his thoughts on the future of conveyancing
Something interesting happened to me recently. This is a rare thing for a solicitor doing conveyancing. A student hoping to go to law school asked for work experience in our firm. Of course, we agreed immediately after completing several lengthy and complex health and safety risk assessments. Fortunately, he turned out not to be dangerous. The said student turned up a few weeks later at 9:00am on Monday morning for ‘duties.’
During the work experience the student showed some interest and started asking me about the conveyancing file I was finishing. Inevitably, the conversation steered towards the point of him asking me if he should ‘do conveyancing?’? I gave it not a lot of thought before answering ‘No,’ and some more thought after which I said ‘Absolutely not.’ How could you in good conscience tell someone young enthusiastic, ambitious and talented to take up residential conveyancing in today’s environment? Also, how could I explain this to him without sounding like a terrible fool? A bit like a cancer riddled smoker saying ‘Don’t smoke because it’s bad for you.’
I showed him the timesheet showing around 40 hours of work, as recorded by our database, with one inane CQS check after another overlaid to the sound track of ‘so the client can’t complain about it later on.’ Which is nonsense of course because any expression of dissatisfaction is considered to be a formal complaint, even a complaint which is entirely dishonest.
I explained that most clients are actually nice people with good intentions, but a lot of your time and attention is taken up by people who are trying to game the system. So, in exchange for the 40 hours of recorded work, the firm charged around £800 plus VAT. This equated to an hourly rate of £20.
If billed in half units the same work would equate to £40 per hour. However, we don’t even bother to check the hours normally because unless we agree do the work for this much money then we won’t get any of this kind of work at all. I had to check my calculation because even by an unqualified conveyancers’ standards it was ‘not a lot.’
However, 20 hours work at £21 per unit would be around £4200 plus VAT – which would be about right for a probate, claim for possession or breach of trust with the same amount of time recorded. The work experience student politely queried my intelligence. I explained that this was because there are volume conveyancers who can make this work profitable if they employ enough people to do it on a big enough scale. That it is profitable to do in that way if they employ a lot of unqualified people - they don’t have to pay them high wages and they use a computer system to monitor it all and hope they don’t make any basic mistakes.
The trouble with this is that cases slip through the net, and if they do it is often on an industrial scale. How so? ‘A bit like PPI insurance,’ I replied. For example, leasehold houses or flats which qualify as tenancies under the Housing Act because the rents are over the prescribed thresholds. Missing easements. Freeholds subject to estate rent charges (aka ‘service charges’), which mean you can be dispossessed by the builder if you do not pay an invoice that was not demanded. Then your client having to buy back a lease of the debt from a company director who is a trustee of the money. The lease over your house being rent free to said director. I also explained, much to the work experience student’s surprise, that providing the correct advice to your client will frequently result in getting a one-star review on Google, because it’s not the advice the client wants. And that having received said advice the client won’t want to pay for it, because they don’t like it.
We did agree however, that it is important to know the reviewer - the head of a Russian paramilitary group could indeed give his solicitor a five-star review on Google for his SLAPP case. But you have to consider whether that is the road you want to go down - the consequences of getting it wrong may be slightly worse than a bad review if your client has access to chemical weapons or long-range artillery, and he is ready, willing and able to use them. I also explained the meaning of ‘ready, willing and able’ in the context of the exchange of contracts. This was valuable advice for my work experience student and he nodded earnestly.
So, perhaps the future of conveyancing for the next generation lies not in tier one - competing on costs for work which is already cost ineffective and hoping any mistakes are not your fault (hence, insurance premiums rising from five per cent of turnover to 20 per cent of turnover for some conveyancing firms).
Perhaps, there will be a second tier to the system which means you’re paid for your time to solve a specific problem which is outside the scope of the first tier, possibly because the problem emerged out of tier one in the first place. Or, maybe finding clients/unicorns who actually want your advice and are prepared to pay for the time you spend working on their case. There is some hope in conveyancing after all, just not in the way we’ve been doing it.
David Buchanan is a solicitor at Clifford Smith & Buchanan
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