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COVID and technology

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 “My CRM was a cardboard box … that was full of files with no paperwork in them”

Those were the chilling words uttered by a lawyer I interviewed for a job last week.

Every few months, someone writes an article about how lazy lawyers are and how bad the conveyancing process is.  The comments are always the same; “tell us something we don’t know” or “lawyers are lazy and incompetent and the system needs to be scrapped”.

So why are things so bad and what is it going to take to make the change?

From my experience, it’s a combination of external factors, incompetent management and weak business tactics.

The good news is that help is at hand, from a most unlikely source – yes – it’s the “C” word.

The process IS clunky, but the times they are a-changing

If ever there was a time to quote Bob Dylan, it’s now, given the challenges of Covid-19.

Owning a law firm means I get to see first-hand the complexities in the process, and get to understand that safeguards are in place for really good reasons.  But some things are just plain annoying.

Like the delays caused by clients having to sign transfers and contracts.  Until last week, original signatures, witnessed by a non-family member, were required for transfer deeds.  When you’ve got two buyers in different places each with their own witness, this causes significant delays – from our experience, at least a week.

But all this changed last week when Land Registry confirmed they were authorising the use of electronic signatures with immediate effect.

Last Thursday, we saw at first-hand the future of how Deeds will be signed.  We witnessed a process that took a couple of minutes on our client’s mobile phone and the documents were at Land Registry before beer o’clock. ( I’m talking pre-lockdown times here – 6.00pm)

When consumers and agents see how easy and fast this technology is, like the new on-boarding technologies, lawyers will be forced to adopt it.

To be clear, this revolution only happened due to the inconveniences of daily life today, but if ever a silver lining was needed, this is one.

Law firm owners must step up or go home

I am talking to many candidates at the moment which gives me an insight into what is actually going on in the market.  The conversations are depressing to say the least, but go a long way to explain why conveyancing takes so long.

Firstly, we should not heap all the blame on the conveyancer for delays – many I speak to are regularly working 12 hour days and weekends trying to keep up.

In truth, some do need more training, but most talk of a lack of time to provide this.  However, for many, it is the environment and difficulty in getting accurate information about the cases themselves that causes the problems.

One candidate described how, at her current firm, she took over from a lawyer who had not done any work on her 60+ cases for several months.  The only information she had were some empty files in a cardboard box.  No case management system, just a few emails in folders.  Pity the client or agent wanting to know what was going on if the lawyer had no idea.

Another candidate had been made redundant because despite working a high caseload, the firm could not afford to keep her.  Her boss felt he could not win the work if he charged more than £350 per case, so this meant despite high caseloads and long hours, it did not make economic sense.  The future of her previous company is uncertain.

So why does this happen?

High caseloads combined with a lack of information is a toxic combination, caused, according to our evidence, by a deep-rooted fear by law firm owners about the future.  They are obsessed by the threat of a lack of work; this in turn drives the defensive behaviour of accepting the panel manager’s crack-cocaine promise of volume, under-investment and sweating the assets that are their employees.

Today, we are seeing significant pressure on these companies.  We are seeing redundancies in law firms and the closure of others.  Like Oasis, Laura Ashley and Warehouse, these zombie law firms will be swept away, leaving those with better bank balances, prepared to invest in new technologies, and more confident to resist low fees, to make time for staff training and improve the delivery of service.

Conclusion

Forget ripping up the conveyancing rulebook – this is not an option.

Forget the tiresome bleat of those preaching that “more information upfront” will speed up transactions.

The current economic climate is forcing change today.  Indeed, when we look back at 2020, one of the unexpected positive outcomes may well be a change in how conveyancing is delivered.

Which frankly, could not come soon enough.