Legal Recruitment from Ten-Percent Legal

Wednesday, October 20, 2021

Conveyancer Recruitment Shortage - the Perfect Storm

 

Conveyancer Shortage - the Perfect Storm (and a lengthy read)

There is a huge shortage in the conveyancing job market at the moment, with a shortfall of conveyancing lawyers in most law firms and increased amounts of work coming in. As I write this article in September 2021 we have already had reports from industry experts that the market would crash or drop after June and the end of the stamp duty holiday, and subsequently that the market would drop or crash at the end of September 2021 at the end of all support to the property market.

What these reports and predictions don’t take into account is that there have been seismic shifts in the numbers of conveyancers either looking for work or currently in roles.

A Brief History According to Ten Percent Legal

In order to explain the conveyancing job market a bit of history is needed. Back in the mid 1990s conveyancing was starting to be seen as the poor cousin to most other areas of law on the high street. The government had removed a whole load of different bits of regulation - solicitors could now advertise for work, they could set prices, drop prices, pay referral fees (to a certain extent) and generally take part in competition to bring down prices of conveyancing. The bottom dropped out of the market and soon pretty much every firm was heading rapidly downhill in the amount of money it could make out of conveyancing. The theory was that if protection for the market was removed, it would increase competition & effiiciency and therefore drive down prices with the work being done at the same level of quality.

What actually happened was that firms started making less money out of conveyancing, mistakes were made, professional indemnity insurance shot up and large operations started to appear to do vast amounts of conveyancing at low prices.

The Big Collapse

Fast forward to 2008 and the bank collapse followed by the property crash put an end to a lot of conveyancing business for quite some time across the UK. We watched as a legal job market driven by the property market and making up a sizeable chunk of our profits drop down to less than about 5% of our turnover and the vast majority of conveyancers either not looking for work under any circumstances because there wasn’t any to be found, and if there was any it would be done on a profit share, or moving out of the profession completely.

It got to the point where we were getting reports from conveyancing lawyers of many years standing that they were now earning more doing their part time jobs on the side to support their families than they were from the actual conveyancing work they were doing as well, whether on a profit share or part time or zero hours contract. We came across conveyancers taking roles as council planning officers and working night shifts in Tesco. Teaching and lecturing roles seemed very popular.

Slow Movement

This market remained in place for about four to five years with very little conveyancing work and recruitment going on. When there was recruitment the salaries were not sufficient to attract anyone back into a role, or to get someone to move from one practice to another. Certain law firms deluded themselves into thinking that there were lots of willing and able conveyancers out there happy to work for less than they would get if they were working as a HGV lorry driver, and this was not necessarily the fault of the law firms, who since the 1990s had seen their own profits plummet from doing conveyancing, and therefore were not in a position to pay very much more.

Also quite a few conveyancing solicitors had discovered locuming work, partly by accident, and did not really want to move back into a salaried permanent role. Locuming for conveyancing took off in about 2014 and has got busier every year since.

The Pandemic

However fast forwarding to the start of the pandemic and the property jobs market was nice and stable, consistent place, with a regular movement of staff from one firm to the next, a reasonable supply of conveyancing lawyers, whether locum or permanent, and a steady supply of work to most firms.

Unfortunately the pandemic then hit in March 2020 and the property market yet again went off a cliff. There was very little conveyancing going on because there were no viewings and no-one was allowed to travel to work. Pretty much everything across the economy stopped, but as usual the property market was excessively affected by all the seismic movements in the economy.

This meant that yet again conveyancers needed to be flexible and start to look at other options, whether within or outside the legal profession, and yet again there was very little work around for anybody who had found themselves out of a job at the start of the pandemic, or in need of locum work to sustain themselves.

Of course this meant that at about this time people were looking at alternative options, and therefore moving away from their traditional work of conveyancing into other things. So when we fast forward to the summer of 2021 and the huge amount of conveyancing going through law firms because of the stamp duty holiday and the sudden build up of savings in the economy, there were not enough conveyancers to do the work.

Conveyancer Shortage and £75k Salaries

Conveyancers who were available to do the work suddenly found themselves in huge demand for other firms who were, due to the amount of work coming through, suddenly able to pay increased amounts of money to attract staff. These increases in money meant that conveyancers were now able to start looking for alternative jobs, and in the same way that some houses across the country started to change hands at ridiculous prices, conveyancing staff found themselves being offered salaries by firms who used to offer £45,000 who are now putting out figures of £75,000 in order to try and get somebody in to cover the work.

Even so, we found that a good number of roles where firms were advertising at very high prices were still not attracting staff in because conveyancers who had been working flat out over the summer dealing with the increased caseload, were getting increasingly fed up of doing more of the same.

External Factors and Stress Levels

The conveyancing process is still incredibly creaky and much, much slower than it could be. From the various searches, title checks, each party arguing and communicating with the other through all sorts of different means without any set procedures, the Land Registry not being sufficiently staffed or automated, title maps not being sufficiently accurate to record ownership in all cases and delays being thrown up at just about every single stage of the whole transaction.

We know ourselves from anecdotal experience that when there is a delay in the sale/purchase of a property all the parties simply blame the solicitors. The solicitors then get contacted constantly by just about everyone even when its nothing to do with them!

All of this makes the experience for most people buying and selling houses much more stressful than it ever needs to be. No-one has ever managed to really get control of this and sort it out so that the whole transaction becomes so much smoother, without any need for lengthy discussions or interventions from different parties.

The reason I’ve included this bit in this article is because the pressure all of this puts on conveyancers for the work they do is tremendous and a lot of them find it to be so stressful they simply don’t want to continue. We get conveyancers contacting us fairly regularly looking for work in anything other than conveyancing and this has been the case now for a good number of years but dramatically increased since the pandemic.

The stamp duty holiday caseload has resulted in a number of conveyancing lawyers deciding they never want to do conveyancing again. Just to add to that is also the issue that quite a good number of conveyancers are older staff who have been doing it for long periods of time, and reaching the end of their career. Newer conveyancing lawyers coming into the market do a couple of years and then decide it’s simply not for them and move on to other things, to have less stress, shorter hours and better pay.

Conveyancing and HGV Drivers

So a little bit like HGV drivers, the market in smaller firms is top heavy with experienced staff who in turn work in their own way that may or may not include maximising the use of technology. This in turn causes issues for firms - we get a number of calls from practice managers who want to book a locum but are most apologetic because Bob Jones the conveyancer has his own way of working and most files are paper based and no remote working is possible (which in turn removes a large number of available locums!).

Locums - a Cog in the Wheel

Conveyancing locums provide short term solutions to increases in work or absence of staff, whether through sickness or annual leave. Unfortunately the recent pandemic has drastically reduced the amount of availability of conveyancing locums because a number of them have taken fairly well paid permanent roles, others are not willing to travel to do conveyancing work, others have become disillusioned at the sheer amount of work that was dumped upon them when the stamp duty holiday came in and simply don’t want to do work for certain firms, and others charge so much that firms cannot afford them. Similarly the market is aging and a number of locums are retiring completely (and others have passed away).

It has gone from a situation where if a conveyancing assignment came in to us we would be 80-90% sure of filling it or providing at least one potential locum to the firm for them to consider. In the summer we found ourselves being able to supply just one CV for every five conveyancing locum assignments that come our way, and even then it’s likely to be someone we either haven’t worked with before or charging serious amounts of money to do a job that would have cost a lot less a few years ago.

So where does this leave the conveyancing market?

If the cost of undertaking the conveyancing is going up then surely it is time to increase the cost per conveyancing transaction in the hope of reducing the work yet maintaining turnover and profit from doing less of it for the same amount of money. Easier said than done of course, and we know as much as anyone else that as soon as you increase your prices you lose business! However the one area we think everyone can improve their staff retention is to reward them in the good times wherever possible.

Allow your staff to benefit

Whilst increasing salaries may not be an option, firms perhaps need to look at their bonus structures and make it easier for staff to benefit from any boom in the conveyancing market, and to avoid the whole saga of conveyancing lawyers looking to move on as soon as the market gets busy because other companies are paying a lot more than yours.

Obviously partners of law firms will say, “Yes but in the quieter times we look after our staff and still pay them, so our staff ought to show us some loyalty when we stick by them in those times when we get to busier times and we take more of the profit”.

I entirely agree with this sentiment but it’s not reality. People who are not being particularly well paid in the first place will always look to move on if somebody comes along waving more money at them for the same work, provided there’s no other issues involved. It’s human nature and I think at times partners of law firms forget that everyone has to pay overheads and bills, and it’s easier said than done to retain staff solely on a loyalty basis.

Going forwards from 2021 it is highly likely that the market will drop down to more quieter levels as all sorts of new crises kick in and the property market quietens down a lot. It is these times when firms have to start thinking about the next boom and how they’re going to deal with it, and perhaps put things in place now that will enable them to survive in the longer term.

This article was first published as part of the Legal Recruitment News in October 2021 - www.legal-recruitment.co.uk

Jonathan Fagan is Managing Director of Ten-Percent Legal Recruitment and a non-practising Solicitor. Ten-Percent Legal Recruitment provides online Legal Recruitment for Solicitors, Legal Executives, Licensed Conveyancers, Legal Cashiers, Fee Earners, Support Staff, Managers and Paralegals. Visit our Website to search our Vacancy Database.

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