Law: The high cost of conveyancing: Is this the last chance to improve the standard of legal transactions? Martin Davies reports

It is difficult not to compare the current price war being waged between the broadsheet newspapers with the unholy mess that we lawyers have made of conveyancing during the last 10 years.

As a marketing strategy, price- cutting has never been a recommended policy. It has the initial attraction of enticing people to use your service or product, but you must then provide the service or product at that cost, as that has become its perceived value. Any attempts to increase costs will inevitably mean losing clients.

Meanwhile, your competitors see their market share dip, and react by cutting their own prices to match yours or, more frequently, to below your price. They recapture some of the market. Your reaction is a further cut. And so the game goes on until one or both players either gives up voluntarily or is forced to concede.

Some would say that this is good news for the consumer, who can get the service or product at a much better price. There are two problems with this argument. The first is that quality inevitably suffers as profit margins are squeezed. The second is that price becomes the overriding factor in the consumers' minds in future transactions.

The legal transaction of conveying a house has thus been devalued in the eyes of the public to nothing more than a simple routine through which lawyers can make some money. If it really is such a money-spinner, then why have the big institutions not jumped at the chance of doing their own conveyancing?

The reality of the situation is that even in a buoyant housing market, the profit margins on conveyancing work are marginal. Charges have gone through the floor as solicitors have fought to retain their share of a dwindling market.

As prices have fallen, so conveyancing departments have been reduced in numbers and quality. Price has dictated that each partner needs to take on an excessively large caseload and thereby devotes less time to each individual case.

If the general public knew how many unqualified secretaries dealt with their entire conveyancing transaction, rather than the qualified lawyer they retained but can never be reached on the telephone, there would be uproar.

Of course no one will recognise their own firm in this description, but they will all know a firm that fits the bill. Those who strive to provide a quality service despite pitiful returns can only be applauded.

Is it too late to change the public's perception and to convince them to pay a little more to ensure the service that the most important transaction in their lives deserves? What is really needed is a sensible pricing structure and extensive advertising by the Law Society, to explain why you should make sure that only a qualified and experienced conveyancing solicitor handles your next move. There is the opportunity for this - if the profession is sensible enough to agree to current proposals for quality standards and give some form of kitemark to those who can meet them.

However, the Law Society must ensure that it is no easy task to obtain the kitemark, and must back this up with a strong and continuing marketing campaign, so that the kitemark is recognised as an assurance of quality.

A relatively small contribution from all kitemark holders would undoubtedly produce sufficient funds for a sustained national marketing campaign, which will not only raise the profile and image of conveyancers, but also that of the whole profession.

We must hope that lawyers and the Law Society take this chance, because it could be the last one for quality conveyancing.

Martin Davies is a solicitor and director of marketing at White & Bowker of Hampshire

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