Conveyancers were told last week they could choose between suicide, bankruptcy or a change of career – unless they changed business practices.
Speaking at the Solicitors Property Group (SPG) talks,
“Survival in the high street”, former vice-president of the Law Society Robert Sayer painted a picture of doom for the future of the conveyancer.
He said the only solution was for solicitors to cut out all unprofitable business, charge fees by the hour and start running estate agencies. “If you continue to quote prices,” he said, “the profession will be doomed.
“Don't worry about your competitors winning the business – it's better for them to carry the losses than you.”
Law Society Council member Eileen Pembridge said the “wise” and “dispirited” high street practitioners should get out and retrain for “something less taxing or more lucrative”.
She encouraged those who wanted to “make a go of it” to anticipate change.
She said solicitors must become business people, even entrepreneurs, in order to survive. “Those supposedly halcyon days of high earnings, high respect, low change are gone forever,” she said. “The consumer rules, so try not to despair. Don't just wring your hands – but don't shoot the messengers either.
Andrew Lockley, head of professional services at Irwin Mitchell and director of legal practice at the Law Society, said rather than expecting the Law Society to recover a past golden age through its statutory powers, practitioners should compete with other firms on “client-friendliness”. He said: “The real issue is whether we can deliver the kind of service which exceeds the client's expectations.”
The messages about client care and consumer power echoed the SPG's recent recommendation that the Law Society should publish public information on the levels of service and quality in conveyancing and stress that the public are likely to get what they pay for. Leslie Dubow, SPG executive officer, said an agreed specification of work to be done was “long overdue”.
The message to conveyancers: 'Try not to despair'
John Hawkridge, of Gill-ingham-based practice John Hawkridge & Co, has lost two partners, faced two bankruptcies and suffered profit falls of around £500,000 a year in the past five years. “What the profession needs is a separate representative body in the form of a trade union,” he said. “Regulation is killing us, and the Law Society's accreditation schemes are unrealistic.
“How can sole practitioners be expected to gain accreditation in everything? As soon as there is some money available I will expand into different fields. At the moment I am just trying to stabilise myself.”
David Crawford, a sole practitioner in Oswestry, was concerned that the conference speakers had dodged the issue of scale fees for conveyancing.
He said: “We should go back to scale fees so everyone knows where they stand. We should also charge for mortgage work. The profession must look back at its mistakes as well as looking forward. I think it was a mistake to introduce block insurance. We should insure ourselves independently, that way those who do not make mistakes do not have to pay for those who do.”
Peter Kimpton, of Bristol firm Lawrence Tucketts, said: “I came to this conference to find a solution but I am just having the problems repeated to me. The only solution I can come up with myself is to pack up as a high street practice and join a large commercial firm.”
Deborah Miles, conveyancing partner at London firm Gregsons, said: “I would love to be able to follow Robert Sayer's school of thought by ruthlessly charging more fees but I agree more with Eileen Pembridge's that the public needs to be given the best possible service at the best possible price. I'm not happy with that but we have to accept it.”