Conveying a crisis

Clarke Willmott & Clarke, with long roots in deepest Somerset, no longer has conveyancing sections. It has CWC-HomeMover, a drop-in-anytime office that owes more to the supermarket than the traditional solicitor's office.

“Conveyancing is a retail product; don't let anybody kid you it's anything else,” declares Jonathan Stokes, the partner who is head of CWC's HomeMover and technology.

“It has to be done professionally but it's beyond the chest-beating of the old days, pretending it was only lawyers' work. Of course you have to have lawyers dealing with the legal side, but what went wrong in the past was that expensive lawyers were doing all of it.”

In each HomeMover team in Taunton, Yeovil, Crewkerne, Chard, Bridgwater and in Bristol, there is just one lawyer, four para-legals and one support secretary. A computer system takes the donkey-work out of repetitive administrative tasks and allows more contact with the customer – the word 'client' has been dropped in recognition of the retail parallels.

In this way CWC is not only keeping its head up in the conveyancing maelstrom but is bullish about its future.

Shirley Garrard, marketing manager, says: “We have a lot of fee earners who devote most of their time to doing conveyancing and they are keeping their business. Our view is that firms have no option but to rationalise their systems.”

But whereas larger firms such as CWC, with 100 fee earners, have the flexibility to replace lawyers with administrators, smaller firms cannot see the future so clearly.

People wander in off the streets of Devizes to the offices of family firm A Hodge & Co and expect to discuss their business there and then. But Judith Chamberlain, a former partner, can foresee the day when conveyancing will be off the agenda altogether.

“It has become very unsatisfactory remuneration for the effort you put in and it's rarely appreciated because shortcuts only show when something goes wrong. I take the line that I won't do a job for under cost,” she says.

“We have long-standing loyal clients; most of our business is repeat business for existing clients. But still, what we can charge bears no relation to the effort we put in and I think there will be nothing like the same number of solicitors to service rural areas. People will have to travel to a large centre.”

The South West is full of these small, established firms which conduct their businesses as part of the town fabric. But even with the benefit of a loyal customer base, they can find themselves charging the same fee as a decade earlier to carry out conveyancing.

Waiting to move in are firms from other areas, some from more than 100 miles away, which take the trouble to advertise their low-rate postal service in the local Yellow Pages.

John Bracey, a Bristol licensed conveyancer, with 50 year's experience in the profession, maintains that standards are being forced into decline. “The only way in which some firms can survive is to compromise,” he says. “You get people dealing with work who are incapable of dealing with it, having neither the knowledge or the expertise. The legal profession is in crisis.”

Lynne Curry is a freelance journalist.