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Burning platform

Want to fix conveyancing? We need a burning platform

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When Boris Johnson made his early return from holiday to rescue the country from itself, there were interesting parallels with those trying to rescue the conveyancing process from itself.

The argument for those supporting Boris’ attempt to stand for prime minister was simple.  He’d got them elected before, so was the best person to do it again.

However, the problem was more complex; the party’s credibility was being undermined and the infighting meant Conservative’s chances of winning the next election were slim.  Those that thought this magic bullet of parachuting Boris back into his previous role share the same characteristics as those who claim that “up-front information will resolve the issues with conveyancing”.  The kindest of these characteristics would be “deliriously optimistic”.

The conveyancing system is broken

Firstly, let’s deal with the age-old argument that the conveyancing process is broken and we need to start again.  That argument is for the birds – it’s not going to happen, so let’s not waste any more time on it.  If it was broken, no-one would move at all – which is what hundreds of thousands of people do every month.  Granted, many would prefer a day at Chessington World of Adventures than the seemingly unending pain of this opaque process, but fundamentally it works.

The real problem is the system is not broken enough.

Unfortunately, like the “Bring Back Boris” concept, the argument that we can solve the issues with conveyancing if only clients provided Fensa certificates and lease lengths when putting their properties on the market, is just too simplistic.  This can be proved by asking the question; when was the last time a deal fell through due to a lack of publicly available information?  Sure – there are a couple of cases but they are the exception not the rule.

Technology – why don’t lawyers use it?

The property industry has been complaining for years about the lack of uptake of technology by lawyers.  However, the response from lawyers has been one of deafening silence.  This issue is highlighted by the impact, or more accurately, the complete lack of it, of the global pandemic on technology adoption.  A candidate told us that during lockdown their office started scanning documents so they could be accessed remotely.  However, when they returned to the office full-time, the owners decided that as the lawyers didn’t have to access documents remotely, they could stop scanning.  So they did.

The reason why lawyers are not adopting new technology is because there are not good enough reasons to do so – the current processes work well enough.  That said, one area that the pandemic brought technology adoption was identity checking.  But this only happened because the lawyers had no choice but to adopt it; their offices were closed so clients couldn’t bring in their paper ID.

This is an example of the “Burning Platform” concept where someone working on an oil rig that suffers an explosion has to make the choice whether to jump into a sea of burning oil or burn on the platform.  In other words, the maintenance of the status quo is no longer an option.  Which is what is required to bring change to the way the conveyancing process is implemented.

Have we found our burning platform?

The provision of upfront information is not a burning platform. Lawyers receive information about the property as the transaction progresses; if it’s not available, it doesn’t stop the deal and they don’t need it before they can proceed.

However, it appears help is on its way from an unexpected source – “market economics”.  Anecdotally, it appears conveyancers have been leaving the residential property industry.  Recruiters are warning of candidate shortages as those remaining prepare themselves for the apparent impending apocalypse.  We are seeing firms closing, mostly due to not having enough money to pay their bills, no doubt because they believed the Panel Managers’ “jam today and jam tomorrow” promises of massive caseloads at £300 a go.

This could be the burning platform we’ve been waiting for.  Firms will be forced into making some difficult decisions; either deploy technology to reduce the requirement for people or stop taking on the work.

What happens now

The next few months are going to be critical; with the slowdown, or to give it the proper name, “normal market forces”, decisions are needed.

The problem is that for many, they will have left it too late and they can’t actually afford to invest in new technology and training.   They will close, exiting the market, leaving those with more viable offerings to thrive.

As Boris demonstrated, hope isn’t a strategy for success and the solutions to complicated problems are often painful, which is exactly what is needed to bring change to the industry.

as published: