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After last month’s piece about the myths of conveyancing, a reader posted the message, “that’s all good, but how do we fix it?

This constructive feedback made a pleasant change and was just one of many other comments which were definitely more considered and polite than we’d usually see after an article about the house buying and selling process.

Generally, it degenerates into comments about “lazy and ineffectual lawyers and a broken system” that we need to replace wholesale.  Which frankly doesn’t help anyone or offer constructive suggestions as to how we fix this unholy mess we’ve got ourselves into.

Given that we might be entering into a brave new world of enlightenment, it seemed a good time to look at how we can go about sorting some of this stuff out.

Tricky problems need simple solutions

Let’s be clear, improving the conveyancing process is not easy.  The current flavour of the month is that “upfront information” is the magic bullet, but that’s got a whiff of Boris’s “pea-shooter to a gunfight” comparison.  It makes sense to store property information centrally but we need to know where it’s from, or we’ll need to ship it off to Rwanda – another Boris-esque suggestion.

Although our favourite metaphor for solving tricky problems is “you eat a chocolate elephant by breaking it into little bits” solving the Conveyancing Conundrum needs some help from another – “don’t try and boil the ocean”.

Instead of trying to solve the entire problem of lawyers inefficiently running too many cases with insufficient support and experience, we must identify which issues cause the major delays and how do we solve them with technology to free up time and reduce the problems caused by a lack of it.

Enquiries – the Blackhole of Conveyancing

Ask any agent what the main sticking point is with conveyancing and they won’t say client on-boarding or document signing.  Which is a shame, as they are the only areas where any sort of headway has been made in the last few years.

No, it’s that tricky bit in the middle – the pre-exchange enquiries.  Right now it’s a shambles from start to finish; from what questions should actually be asked in the first place, through to getting real answers and finally confirming that they are satisfactory.  Let’s not shout this too loudly, but lawyers are often just as much in the dark about progress as agents are.

If you want to see this in action, look at the first response from a buyer’s lawyer to initial enquiries; no doubt many will be “to follow”.  Although this gives the buyer’s lawyer recourse to the handy half-truth “we have responded to their enquiries”, it does muddy the water a bit.

The irony is that this, the most painfully inefficient part of the process, is probably the easiest to solve with technology.  Just in our company alone, we’ve nearly ¾ of a million of these enquiries and the technology is used to determine which questions need to be asked about a particular type of property and enables our clients to answer the questions themselves.  We have seen incredible efficiencies over the last year and the challenge is to make the technology easy enough for other lawyers to quickly get the benefits from using it.

Settlement – remove the lawyer from process

Ever wondered why lawyers handle client money?  No, we don’t know either.  It’s a massive risk and like others, we spend thousands of hours protecting clients from being defrauded or ensuring the correct money is sent – it’s slow and unpredictable and lawyers really shouldn’t be involved with it.

Whether its requesting mortgage funds from the buyer, deposits from clients or actually transferring the money between buyer and seller, this fraught part of the process will benefit massively from the use of the right technology.

The first remortgage settlement systems to work directly with lenders and the Bank of England are in testing, shortly to be followed by sale and purchase settlements.  This will have a huge impact on the time and effort wasted by lawyers, freeing them up to do the actual legal work rather than banking.

Use of electronic  data

The most difficult is left to last but will be spurred on by the changes in the first two areas and the increasing use of portals and online document storage.  Lawyers need information to be provided in electronic form so they can use it more effectively to make decision making, reporting and distribution easier.

Progress is being made such as Land Registry holding search data, and search companies themselves are starting to provide their information in a more consumable form to enable lawyers to make quicker and more informed decisions.

How long will this take?

It’s easy to sceptical about positive change in the legal industry – especially since we’ve seen precious little evidence of it in the past few years.

However, solutions to the first two of these issues are coming this year and although the third will take a little longer, simple, usable tools that deliver genuine improvements will drive technology adoption quicker.

Let’s face it, those campaigning for the alternative, to replace the entire system, are going to need an awful lot of kettles to boil that particular ocean.

As published in