The first part of Conquest stands for conveyancing,” says Richard Berenson, chair of the legal network. “It doesn't mean we want to rule the world.”
Maybe not, but since its inception in 1991 and launch in 1992, the network has grown quickly from a few dozen firms to 250, with 350 offices covering England and Wales.
The impetus behind Conquest's growth has been the move towards the creation of panels of firms by lenders to handle conveyancing work.
But the management of panels creates its own problems for individual lenders, which is where Conquest aims to capitalise.
“There is no question that the most important focus is conveyancing activity,” says Berenson. Conquest aims to deliver firms which can be relied upon to reach a benchmark of efficiency and quality in conveyancing work. This takes care of the headache of panel management and recruitment for lenders. At the same time, member firms benefit from introduced work.
But selling the Conquest brand to lenders demands quality at a keen price in deed, not work. And this requires a good central support operation and, if necessary, a boot in the pants for firms which are letting the side down.
Membership of Conquest is not cheap – u2,500 a year for a range of discount schemes on services, as well as the benefits of introduced work.
But the commitment to standards brings its own costs, which often means investing to improve them.
“It is important that networks are not just a collection of sen-ior partners meeting in their spare time. You have to have a full-time executive,” says Berenson. “Any firm entering the network is visited – our expectations of quality commitment pre-dates the practice management standards.”
The network has its own complaints procedure, aimed at reaching an independent adjudication between firms and clients when problems arise. “We have expelled one or two firms when they haven't measured up,” says Berenson.
The original aim was to create a network of at least 120 firms across the country which would be so large that lenders would take it seriously as a panel.
Having achieved that, Conquest now has 20 people working for it on a range of centralised services – an operation which Berenson says quickly swallows up subscriptions.
So the network has not been slow to increase its membership to 250. But Berenson insists that recruitment has not been rushed.
Conquest has also worked hard to develop a county court agency panel to help lenders and other clients efficiently process actions for repossessions, debts, and other claims.
“The reliability of agents and their costs are difficult to keep under control,” he says. “Our panel has proved to be successful, and we now have 10 lenders using our service which covers every county court in the country.”
Conquest has also helped 100 of its members to apply for legal aid franchises which involved liaison work with both the Law Society and the Legal Aid Board.
Berenson believes that this representation and business development work will become more important to how Conquest and its competing networks deliver the goods to its members.
Conquest has also committed itself to creating a matrimonial mediation panel. Berenson says that this is “a tremendous opportunity for a group of solicitors to leap ahead of the profession”.
“Membership is not just about new business, but also supporting firms in developing strategies which they cannot embark on alone,” he says.