Practice Management

Can you see the wood for the trees?

One of the distinctions between firms that are doing well out of conveyancing and those that are not is that the latter are so embroiled in the day-to-day issues of conveyancing that they can't see the wood for the trees.

We're not advocating that conveyancers abdicate responsibility for the accuracy of their documents - competent paralegals are, after all, quite capable of managing most matters. But the problem is that some conveyancers insist on being involved in every aspect of every matter, and they quickly become the bottleneck.

But there's a limit to how many instructions the ''old-school'' conveyancer can process. The result? They become burnt-out conveyancers, who can't afford to take leave, and who resent the fact that, despite not being able to work any harder than they do, their partners still aren't happy with their performance.

The secret's in making business
The secret of successful practices? Most effective practices have at least one conveyancing partner who spends a large amount of his or her time making business. This function could range from talking to customers (by email or telephone) to actually visiting them. It could also include generating meaningful reports for clients such as banks or estate agents, or putting together a regular newsletter for estate agents who bring the firm business.

Management by exception's the key
Through management by exception the conveyancing partner is able to keep tabs on secretarial performance, sources of business, problem matters, etc - becoming involved in the process itself only when necessary. So how can conveyancers make this leap from ''old school'' to ''rainmaker''?

From technophobe to technophile
One of the traits of ''old-school'' conveyancers is that they don't use email. They prefer to write letters or send faxes to clients, and they still dictate instructions to their secretaries. (And the reason they haven't learned to use email yet is that they are too busy sending faxes and dictating instructions to their secretaries!) Again, we're not saying that dictation in other facets of legal practice is bad; simply that it doesn't have a place in progressive conveyancing departments. Not only does the conveyancer's refusal to use email exacerbate the bottleneck. It also costs the firm a bundle - since faxes and letters are at least ten times more expensive than sending an email, not to mention a lot slower. So the first way in which conveyancers can make this leap is to take the time to learn how to use electronic mail.

Capitalising on competencies
The next leap derives from using conveyancing secretaries more effectively. Many paralegals or conveyancing secretaries are highly competent. Given the opportunity, they are able to handle most conveyancing matters, only involving conveyancers for the signing of documents, or if and when a more complex situation is encountered.

So how does an ''old-school'' conveyancer find the confidence to let go? First, we recommend that he or she purchases a book on delegation that shows how they as managers can delegate successfully. Of course, one of the rules for effective delegation is that the secretary needs to be capable of carrying out instructions. So it stands to reason that the firm should hire quality conveyancing secretaries who are sufficiently competent to free up the conveyancer. And it also goes without saying that conveyancing secretaries should be properly trained in the tools of their trade.

Harness management tools
Such tools include technology, which really makes this leap possible: by using a graphic management package such as GhostPartner, for example, the conveyancer can see at a glance what's happening in the practice. Problem matters can be identified, sources of business can be measured, time to registration can be checked, and secretarial performance can be viewed in any number of ways. With this management tool, the conveyancer has complete control - without having to go into every single matter.

What if ''old-school'' conveyancers don't want to move with the times? In our opinion, it's just a matter of time before the more progressive firms start taking business away from ''old-school'' firms. We also believe that the more competent secretaries will gravitate to the progressive firms, partly because these firms will be able to pay better salaries, but also because such secretaries actually want more responsibility.

If you're an ''old-school'' conveyancer, you should not lose heart, however. Quite the contrary, in fact. Because it's really easy to learn how to use email (and most other software systems). Allow yourself to take your first step out from under the trees ... take the quantum leap from Sisyphean ''old school'' to proactive ''rainmaker'' - and just watch your practice grow!

Reader Comments:

Heather 03/04/2003:

Very good article. It seems to often be the younger conveyancers who want to work in the "old school" manner as far as staffing is concerned. They don't like to let go of the power of being in control of everything and everybody, and in order to save on salaries employ inexperienced secretaries who need constant assistance and supervision. As a result the conveyancer doesn't have sufficient time to devote to the complex matters, and certainly doesn't have time for efficient marketing. I've been in this line of work a very long time and I've seen it all. The conveyancers who employ the top staff, let them get on with the job and ask for help when it's needed, and themselves have plenty of time for client relations, get the work and make the money. The top conveyancing secretary can keep the office going without assistance while the conveyancer is on leave, and has extensive knowledge gained over years of doing the work, which allows her to know when a word, a clause in a document, an entry on a print-out, is likely to cause a problem. But one has to PAY for this ability. It's expecting the inexperienced to have that knowledge which causes the problems, as quite serious errors occur all too often and the conveyancer loses clients as a result.

Ian Johnson 03/04/2003:

With old school paralegals one could leave it up to them. They had learnt the hard way how to be accurate and prepare documents. Problem is most of them have retired, in most cases their retirement precipitated by the fear of having to learn how to use new technology. So now we have to manage so called "paralegals" who may well be adept in the art of data capturing but have not clue as to which extending clause to use or which conditions to omit etc etc..... so the only way to survive is to attend to the complicated matters yourself....which means that technology has turned "Old School" conveyancers into data capturing clerks. Step forward?? Technology has probably now served to advance the interests of those who are of the view that conveyancing should not remain the preserve of specialised attorneys.

Maybe time has come to take the plunge and push the technology to the extreme so that everything is done electronically with the proviso that only qualified conveyancers who have acquired a special "computer literate licence" may input the data. That way there should be enough work left to be done to ensure that all admitted licensed conveyancers will have at least enough work to survive. Imagine no more paralegals to have to train, supervise, retrain, chastise, retrain, encourage, retrain, etc. Imagine being able to retain the bulk of one meagre fees.

Perhaps technology will eventually enable conveyancers to be able to afford to buy that elusive Porsche, which if folklore is to be believed, was once a real possibility with the advent of the IBM golf ball type writer, in the days when no bank manager dared to suggest that you needed to reduce a fee and clients were grateful that you were attending to their transaction and when estate agents patiently and respectfully waited a few days for an appointment so that you could rule lines through their pre-printed agreements and charge a fee for doing so, and the Deeds Office actually often processed the transaction a few days quicker than now and one did not have to spend what would otherwise have been your retirement funding on technology!

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