Tag Archives: ABS

The devil is always in the detail

At the risk of offending anyone, I have to say I have never thought of conveyancing as the sexiest area of law. Of course it’s necessary and I have no doubt every conveyancer has at least one really exciting transaction story they can tell at parties, but it doesn’t often get to make the headlines, certainly not like its bolshy and sometimes unruly cousin personal injury.

That said, it is the area of law most of us are most likely to have contact with at some time or other, which makes it disappointing that this week the Legal Ombudsman (LeO) has been giving out rather mixed messages to consumers.  Yes I know the Ombudsman is not a ‘consumer champion’, and nor should it be, but it also shouldn’t be putting out confusing information or, worse, scaremongering. 

Based on really no evidence at all, at least nothing more powerful than anecdote, the LeO has warned that “alternative business structures (ABS) will create ‘conveyancing factories’ that exert a downward pressure on prices and could lead to an upsurge in complaints because of a focus on volume over service”.  I can hear dinosaurs everywhere rejoicing.

As the excellent Richard Moorhead has pointed out on his blog (so I won’t do it again here) there is nothing in the LeO’s report to suggest that ‘conveyancing factories’ necessarily lead to a drop in quality.  In fact, I would go as far to suggest that in some circumstances a factory (read, I assume, ‘automated volume system’) could quite possibly lead to an increase in quality by eliminating human error and ensuring a quick turnaround (runs for cover).

But I don’t just want to play devil’s advocate.  The problem with the tenor of the LeO’s report is that it strongly implies ‘alternative’ providers of legal services are going to have a detrimental effect on consumers and that fixed fees could lead to more complaints, neither of which is demonstrated by the LeO’s data (Richard Moorhead again). 

Now I don’t have the benefit of the LeO’s first-hand experience and wealth of data (even data that isn’t used properly), but I find extremely hard to believe that there could be more consumer complaints and more problems with legal services in general, and conveyancing in particular, than there were before the reforms ushered in by the Legal Services Act. 

The LeO’s own figures illustrate how, after years and years of rising relentlessly, the level of complaints about lawyers has fallen since it was set up.  There could be many reasons for this, including the unlikely one that the LeO is less visible than its notorious forebears.  All the same, it seems odd to start sounding the alarm bells, particularly in relation to fixed fees where the likely reason for increased complaints about them is simply that there are more of them on offer.

Still, at least we have the data, which is an improvement on the darkest of dark days when the Law Society handled its own complaints (can you imagine such a thing?).  And knowledge is power, or at least it should be, although I am not convinced the consumer is getting the true benefit of knowing a lot more than we used to about legal complaints.

The LeO asserts it may be years before complaints information, comparison websites, word of mouth and quality schemes will build up into ‘anything particularly meaningful or representative’.  Which is small comfort for consumers put on their guard against risky conveyancing factories by the self-same organisation.

The following warning about online or call-centre conveyancers is taken from the LeO’s Using a conveyancing lawyer: Ten helpful tips “you may be taking a risk if anything unusual, or unexpected, crops up during the transaction.  The individual responsible for your case may not have the same qualifications or experience as the lawyer on your local high street, which could mean that the advice you get may not be as informed as you’d like it to be”.

There is so much wrong and unhelpful with this statement I don’t know where to start.  Who knew it was the consumer’s job to work out whether the professional they are using has the requisite qualifications? I rather thought that was the point of regulation.  Silly me.  And how am I supposed to know whether or not my conveyancing transaction is likely to be “straightforward without any particular issue”? 

It’s taken me all afternoon, but in my capacity as ‘consumer champion’ I have managed to come up with some scenarios in which your conveyancing may not be the ‘straightforward’ kind the LeO refers to.  But don’t quote me on any of this.  I am not a lawyer.

  • If you are selling and getting divorced at the same time.  And good luck with that.
  • If your property is not registered with the Land Registry, which means checking back over at least 15 years of documentation to certify ownership.  Disputes over title are not uncommon, so if it’s not your dream home I wouldn’t bother going there.
  • If your property is leasehold, which is where one building or block has multiple owners.  If there are fewer than 60 years on the lease, you may also need a huge deposit (like 100%).
  • If your property isn’t a house.  Assuming flats are covered by the above, not sure what this means, bungalow? Boat? Barn?
  • If you are only selling part of your property, like a bit of your garden to a developer (it is presumably larger than mine)
  • If you’re selling at auction, homes-under-the-hammer style
  • If your property isn’t freehold.  
  • All of the above (God help you)

It’s worth pointing out that you would be well advised not to attempt to DIY any of the above transactions either, particularly if, like me, you get bored reading through the self assessment form.  With apologies to all the splendid licensed and solicitor conveyancers out there, it may not be the sexiest job but someone’s got to do it.

To infinity and beyond: Google law prepares for blast off

Several years ago, when I was campaigning to bring about the Legal Services Act, some bright spark at Which? suggested to me that it wasn’t Tesco law that would bring about a revolution in legal services, but Google Law.  I wouldn’t say I dismissed his prediction out of hand, but at the time it was quite a big leap to see how you could buy legal services in Tesco, never mind from Google.  Well, last week this colleague’s prediction turned out to be right as the Google-backed Rocket Lawyer announced its intention to launch in the UK in 2012.  It’s a measure of how far we’ve come that the news caused merely a ripple, rather than the tsunami we would have surely had in the past.

It is a strange coincidence that this was the same week in which the Law Society launched its annual ‘solicitors are great’ campaign.  As you can imagine, I’m a bit of a sceptic when it comes to this sort of thing, but to be fair, the Society’s efforts have improved immeasurably since the toe-curling ‘my hero, my solicitor’ of a few year’s back.  This year’s effort, a slightly more modest call to ‘choose quality advice’, will be seen, the Society says, more than 450 million times, which is about eight times for every man, woman and child in the country (although as lots are too young to read that’s even more times for the rest of us).  I have no idea how they work this out, but it sounds pretty impressive.

I also have no idea if these annual forays into mainstream advertising are beneficial to high-street law firms.  The Society claims that last year’s campaign generated 85,000 click-throughs to their website and a 40% increase in searches on its ‘Find a Solicitor’ database.  On the face of it, this is quite a result, but I’ve had a look at Find a Solicitor and it’s little better than the Yellow Pages (if you’re old enough to know what that is..).  Without customer feedback or complaints information, getting a long list of solicitors is next to useless (for more on my views about this, see my blog about the Solicitors from Hell website here).

Which is where Rocket Lawyer comes in. I’ve had a look at their website and even registered on it (I pretended to live in Arizona so I could imagine I was sitting by the pool in the sun rather than snuggled up in my loft room as the rain beats down on the skylights).  Generally I don’t like making such an overt plug, but I love it.

It’s exactly what an online legal service should be – it’s clear and easy to navigate, it has bucket-loads of information and, on the whole, seems to be written in comprehensible English (which is quite a feat given, at the moment, it’s just an American site).  There’s even a nifty little section with tips on working with a lawyer (I would make this available as a checklist to take to the solicitor’s office – that would put the wind up them).

I am particularly excited (yes, genuinely) by the ‘legal health check’ as this taps into what, à la Richard Susskind, I have been banging on about for ages:  the latent demand for legal services.  As reported on Legal Futures last week, founder Charley Moore argued that services such as Rocket Lawyer expand the market for legal services, rather than compete with lawyers, by making them more accessible, citing as an example that, as in the UK, less than half Americans have a will.

This latent demand is something traditional lawyers, on the whole, have failed to address.  This is partly because individuals might not think they have a legal problem:   research published last year by the Legal Services Research Centre found such issues included faulty goods and services, noisy neighbours, benefits, children’s education and homelessness.   But it is also because your average high-street solicitor doesn’t take a ‘holistic’ approach to the law.

This is where Rocket Lawyer really comes into its own.  When you register, it asks about your lifestyle – work, home and family – and makes recommendations for legal services based on your answers.  Alternative business structures, and the multi-disciplinary partnerships they will enable, are all about this ‘lifestyle’ approach, enabling consumers to purchase packages of legal services at certain points in their life – getting married, buying a house, having children, retiring etc.  This not only makes more sense for the consumer but taps into that lucrative ‘latent demand’. This is surely how legal services should be delivered in future, whether online or by more traditional means

So back to that advertising campaign.  The problem is that it fails to acknowledge any of these developments.  It may well encourage someone already looking for a solicitor to go to the Society’s website and use Find a Solicitor.  But it is still harping back to the ‘good old days’, when solicitors were learned men in stripy suits and bowler hats sitting behind mounds of dusty books.  What we are approaching now is beyond Tesco law and buying legal services like a tin of beans.  Whether the Law Society and the firms it represents like it or not, we are approaching the age of Google Law and nothing will ever be the same again.