Acronyms and acrimony in the property wars

And you thought Bosnia was complicated… Chris Fogarty reports on the confusion surrounding the solicitors who would be estate agents.

It's fast becoming the battle of the acronyms.

A publicly well-mannered but privately bitter war of words is currently raging between solicitors' organisations preparing to wade into the dangerous waters of property selling.

Solicitors are being asked to support either Solicitors Property Centres (SPC), the Solicitors Property Group (SPG), the Independent Property Solicitors Organisation (IPSO) or the Edinburgh Solicitors Property Centre (ESPC), although admittedly the last three are closely linked.

At the start of the year the various parties seemed to have realised that it was a case of “co-operate or die”. The SPG, which has 100 member firms, echoed property-selling solicitor Michael Garson's call for a conference to examine ways of setting up solicitors property centres.

But when SPG went to register the name Solicitors Property Centres it found, to its surprise, that solicitor Richard Berenson of Conquest Legal Marketing had got there first.

The ball of confusion was gathering momentum.

Initially the two camps made an attempt to court each other and there was a prospect of them working together – but then Law Society councillor Tony Bogan became disenchanted with internal indecision on the way ahead for the SPG, resigned from the organisation and joined SPC as a director.

So far SPC has managed to convince 540 firms to pay over £700 to join a nationwide network.

Meanwhile, the SPG is promoting a grassroots, do-it-yourself property selling scheme – Garson's IPSO – and it has also forged links with the highly successful ESPC.

The Edinburgh solicitors have 9,000 people coming through the doors of their property display centre each week, and are considering setting up in England (see story, p48).

However, as one Law Society official has pointed out, SPG has in the past been sceptical about the prospects of the Sottish system succeeding in the English legal environment.

SPG member and solicitor Richard Green, who has undertaken a detailed study of Berenson's proposals, is critical of the lack of direct involvement of solicitors.

Under Berenson's scheme solicitors in various towns will band together to set up and own a separate property shop which will be staffed by estate agents and promoted nationally as part of a national network by a parent company.

By contrast, the SPG favours local solicitors banding together to run their own property centre as part of a joint venture.

Green says of the SPC scheme: “I think if there is an underlying criticism it is that the proposal is not solicitor property selling at all. It's just a real estate agency that happens to be owned by solicitors.”

“If the SPCs allow property selling by solicitors rather than just having a separate business, we would be a lot more comfortable with that.”

Berenson replies that, no, solicitors will not be directly selling property, that is not their job. And anyway, he says, current Law Society rules against multidisciplinary partnerships do not allow solicitors to directly own estate agents.

If, as is anticipitated, the rules are relaxed, he says solicitors will be able to make their local SPC part of their practice.

Berenson admits that “technically” under the present rules his project cannot use the term “solicitor” in its marketing as property centres will effectively be estate agents.

But he will continue to promote the “SPC” brand name and expects the Law Society's rules to change soon.

Smooth-talking Berenson has in six months turned the SPC from an idea to a reality, despite much negativity to his scheme from the profession. He believes the speed of his success has upset the 12-year-old SPG. “I never really do know where the SPG sits,” sighs Berenson. “They seem to blow hot or cold from one minute to the next.

Over the next few months the Law Society will be called upon to play the peacemaker's role and tell an often very confused profession that there is no one-size-fits-all solution.

Battle of the acronyms

SPC (Solicitors' Property Centres)

The brainchild of solicitor Richard Berenson. Has 540 law firms in its nationwide network.

SPG (Solicitors Property Group)

Vocal lobby group that has 100-plus member firms. Has helped solicitors who have sold property over the last 12 years.

IPso (Independent Property Solicitors Organisation)

Being developed by property-selling solicitor Michael Garson, who aims to help firms who do not want to be part of a big network.

ESPC (Edinburgh Solicitors Property Centre)

Hugely successful Edinburgh-based property display centre that has captured 90 per cent of the house-buying market in the Scottish capital.