Solicitors and How to Love Them

The relationship between solicitors and estate agents has always been a difficult one. Estate agents often get very frustrated by what they see as unnecessary delays and poor communication. Solicitors often get frustrated by unnecessary calls from estate agents asking for updates and many agents’ lack of understanding about the conveyancing process. Relations have become even more strained since Covid because the average time that it takes to complete a sale has risen sharply and both sides blame each other for this. So, what can you do to improve your relationship with the solicitors that you work with?

The most important thing by far is to work much harder to influence which solicitors you work with. Many negotiators just accept the customer’s choice of solicitors without comment and even if they do recommend their own solicitors, they do so too late in the process and accept defeat far too easily. Every estate agent should have a panel of preferred solicitors chosen for their efficiency in getting sales through rather than how much introductory commission they will pay. An introductory commission might increase the amount that you earn from each sale by 10% but a bad solicitor will increase your fall through rate hugely and the introductory commission will not be nearly enough to compensate for that.

Some firms have set up formal relationships with the conveyancing factories and panel managers. Some of these offer better service than others, so you need to do your research carefully before you start such a relationship. You should also run a pilot scheme with a few cases before signing an exclusive contract. It is important to understand that there are two different business models. Some firms employ their own in-house solicitors. Others use panel solicitors and just take a cut of the fees. This means that service standards will be wholly dependent upon maintaining the relationship with their third-party contractors.

Many other firms are still referring work to local conveyancing solicitors.  Some firms do not pay introductory fees but if you choose the panel carefully, stick to specialist conveyancing solicitors and base your choice on service standards rather than price, they can often be the best way to get consistent levels of good service.

Having chosen your preferred solicitors, you need to ensure that they get as much of your business as possible. Some firms manage to persuade over 50% of all their clients to use one of their panel solicitors. The key to achieving this is to sell conveyancing at the earliest possible stage of the process. Vendors should be offered a solicitors quote when they put their house onto the market. Purchasers should be offered a quote as soon as they make an offer. If you leave it until their offer has been accepted, you will often find that they have made their own arrangements. Lastly, you need to ensure that you have an effective sales pitch with well-considered reasons to use your recommended firms together with supporting statistics about average transaction times and fall-through rates. You also need to learn how to overcome common objections such as, “I’ve had a cheaper quote elsewhere”, or “I’ve used the same solicitor for years.”

On a day-to-day basis, the best way to improve your relationships with the solicitors that you deal with is by taking the time to learn more about how the conveyancing process works. There are plenty of good books on the subject. Alternatively, you could ask to spend an hour or two with one of your panel solicitors to get a better understanding of the process from their perspective. There is nothing that annoys a solicitor more than spending ten minutes explaining that there is an uninsurable defect in the lease which will need to be corrected by a deed of variation only to receive another call the following day to ask, “Have we exchanged yet?”

Finally, you need to agree a communication process and schedule with all your panel solicitors so that you can make sure that you can stay on top of each case and are made aware of problems without having to phone them every day. Our own panel solicitors give us a weekly update on every case in progress so that we do not need to bother them with unnecessary phone calls.

In my work as a business sales broker, I deal with solicitors every day and we have a panel of five solicitors who between them have completed the sale of many hundreds of letting and estate agency businesses. A high proportion of our clients use our recommended firms but I always worry when a buyer or seller insists on using their own solicitor. I place hundreds of thousands of pounds of legal work every year so I know a thing or two about how to get the best out of solicitors. The golden rule is always to choose an expert in their field. If you are getting divorced, choose a matrimonial solicitor. If you are writing a will, choose a specialist probate solicitor. And if you are buying or selling a business, for heaven’s sake use a specialist commercial solicitor. Buying or selling a business is a very specialist area of the law and it is not a job for a general practitioner. In addition to finding a specialist, you need to ask them three questions: one, do you spend 100% of your time on commercial law? Two, have you ever dealt with the sale or purchase of a letting business before? And, three, will you agree to work on a fixed-fee basis rather than just giving a vague estimate? Unfortunately, not all buyers and sellers heed this advice and over the years we have dealt with quite a few sales where the solicitor that is appointed is the one who has done their conveyancing work for many years or someone that they went to school with thirty years ago and who has made a career in patent law. In my experience, this is usually an utter disaster and just means that the sale will take longer, cost more and have a much higher chance of falling through.

I feel so strongly about this that I think there really should be a law that prevents solicitors from taking work in areas of the law in which they do not specialise. Your local doctor would not be allowed to perform brain surgery. For the same reason, a general practice solicitor should not be allowed to give advice in a field in which they do not specialise.

Adam Walker is a management consultant and business transfer agent who has specialised in the property sector for more than forty years. 

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