There's more than one way to stay in property

A conference held in Dorking today will map out how to establish and run a Solicitors Property Centre.

Jointly organised by the Surrey Law Society and the Solicitors' Property Group, it will mark the latest in a series of attempts by the country's beleaguered conveyancing lawyers to boost profits.

But SPCs are just one road for solicitors to head down – all of which have their promises and pitfalls.

The options include:

Doing nothing – House sales are booming again. According to the Nationwide Building Society, prices have risen by 9.7 per cent in the last year and Law Society researcher John Jenkins says there was an 8 per cent increase in conveyancing transactions in 1996 compared to the previous year. Solicitors conduct 96 per cent of conveyancing, while there are only 300 licensed conveyancers and 800 in training around England and Wales.

Competition between solicitors, rather than with any external force, is driving fees down.

However, the total gross fee income for conveyancing has fallen steadily from its 1989 high and nearly £400m in fees has been lost since then. So doing nothing is not proving attractive.

Join a property centre – SPCs in Scotland have been so successful that the Monopolies and Mergers Commission, which is investigating their activities, initially did not believe Glasgow's SPC had captured a 30 per cent share of the property market in just over three years.

Yet Scottish solicitors claim they don't make their money on conveyancing, but by offering financial services.

An SPC is also difficult to establish, needing agreement and financing from, potentially, hundreds of solicitors.

And, as one Law Society paper pointed out recently, the route could prove dangerous given the fact that, in England and Wales at least, estate agents actually enjoy a worse reputation than lawyers.

Join the opposition – Last week, in Woking, estate agents Hambros Countrywide opened the first of a planned network of in-house conveyancing centres. If successful, other estate agents are likely to follow.

They will need to hire staff to offer in-house conveyancing services to house sellers, and will probably join Hambros in forging links with regional law firms to provide a swift conveyancing service to the buyers.

This option, however, will only be open to a few law firms, and a relatively small number of individuals.

Title insurance – This represents something of a doomsday option for solicitor con- veyancers, because if it does take off, only a tiny number of solicitors will be needed to handle thousands of transactions.

This, at least, is the vision of Brian Marson, senior partner at Kent firm Marsons, who has already teamed up with insurance giant First American and the Halifax Building Society to offer a remortgage service backed by title insurance.

Ominously, title insurance cuts out the need for local land searches, while property titles are checked via a computer link. Marson envisages a handful of solicitors or legal executives handling thousands of transactions a week.

But Law Society property and commercial services committee head Karen Aldred questions whether consumers want a financial pay-out if a title is faulty or would prefer the security of knowing solicitors had thoroughly checked their purchase in the first place.

Go to Bermuda – A firm in the Caribbean paradise is advertising for a conveyancing solicitor. The sole drawback is that they are looking for only one.