Recent research revealed that the two most popular reasons for men to visit Amsterdam is the red-light district (“De Wallen”) and the freedom to take recreational drugs. Although that statistic was obviously made up, it sounds perfectly reasonable – both are obvious attractions, although for the sake of this article, let’s gloss over the whole drugs thing.
For anyone who hasn’t been there, the Amsterdam red-light district revolves around the concept of putting women on show behind windows for men to select like lobsters in a restaurant’s tank, which by any measure is an abhorrent practice. However, what is equally abhorrent is the argument that justifies its existence – “they are meeting a market demand.”
Which was exactly the same response I received from a panel manager on LinkedIn last week when I expressed an opinion that panel managers were the cause of many of the problems we see in the house buying and selling process today.
It’s a fair question – can we blame the existence of panel managers for conveyancing delays? It pretty blindingly obvious that we can.
The fundamental issue – caseloads
Discussions between agents and lawyers over the conveyancing process have been escalating in recent months, most of which degenerate, pantomime-like, into back-and-forth arguments. Agent typically opens with “lawyer standards have never been lower”, to which the lawyers replies “oh no they haven’t”; and the agent responds “but conveyancing hasn’t changed for 20 years” to which the lawyer replies “oh yes it has.” Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs at the Hackney Empire, this aint.
One thing is clear – the process HAS got slower over the last five years and the cause is primarily too many cases being worked by too few people, skilled or otherwise. In our company, we have found the figure for optimum efficiency is around 65 cases for a full time lawyer and legal assistant working in a paperless environment with a decent case management system. We have seen service problems arise when the number goes above that, so where firms run significantly higher caseloads in less efficient environments, the issues multiply. I just hired a lawyer from a small firm doing panel work who was running 150 cases by herself, being paid about £250 per case. She admits she barely knew the names of her clients let alone anything about the case.
Volume is driven by low prices – those suggesting that law firms increase their fees need to acknowledge this as these are typically set by panel managers who need to pass on margin to their customers. Where there is a high volume-per-conveyancer firm in a chain, and it’s important not to confuse volume with the size of firm, everyone is affected. Despite the protestations of the LinkedIn panel manager this is not just “another person’s business decision, so why worry” because it affects everyone’s business.
The Fairtrade charity was established in 1992 with the aim to protect coffee growers in Mexico against exploitation, quickly followed by cocoa growers in Belize. These days it is a well-known brand and people know when they are buying a Fairtrade product that they are not contributing to the abuse of workers.
Maybe law firms that haven’t sold out to panel managers should publicise this – they could have a badge for their website; “We Say NO To Panels” or “Fairtrade Conveyancing” so agents, brokers and clients would know they are not contributing to the conveyancing problem. Now, before any trolls start warming up their stumpy troll-fingers, exploitation has always been part of history and we are not for one moment comparing this scenario with, say, the cotton plantations in the southern US, but it’s abuse and it needs to stop.
So, here’s the answer
In the last couple of weeks, we have been approached by two London agents who have reached the conclusion that panel firms were damaging their business and are dropping them. It’s only two but it’s a start.
Conveyancing delays are not going away, so rather than complaining that ”the conveyancing process is broken” or “lawyers don’t know what they are doing” we need to get rid of high caseloads and this can only be achieved by removing the supply chains that promote them.
Maybe a visit to Amsterdam to look at the faces of the women in “De Wallen” to witness first-hand the effects of exploitation might change a few minds.
Peter Ambrose is founder of conveyancing specialist The Partnership.