E-Conveyancing – Is it going to Help the High Street Lawyer

August 31, 2002

Conveyancing has always been a major breadwinner for High Street practices and over the years it has also witnessed some major innovations in terms of technology. Some of the first, true case management software products – such as the Oyez Legal Support and AIM HomeCharter systems in the early 1980s – were conveyancing applications. More recently, products like the Solicitec Solcase Online system have provided the High Street with a viable way of delivering Web-enabled legal services (typically 24/7 online access to matter progress reports) to their conveyancing clients and related parties, including estate agents and mortgage lenders. But, with conveyancing now apparently heading for some of the biggest changes in processes and procedures since the 1925 reforms, how is the proposed e-conveyancing revolution really going to help the High Street lawyer?

Why bother with the expense?

With so much hype currently surrounding various Government initiatives to promote a “joined-up legal system” and “e-government” generally, it is easy to dismiss many aspects of the e-conveyancing revolution as just all spin and no substance. For example, one concern expressed by many solicitors is why should they go to the expense, time and effort to commit to one of the National Land Information Service (NLIS) “channels” (in effect retail outlets) and invest in the relevant technology today, when they will still have to process a lot of conveyancing business by traditional paper-based methods because so many other elements within the property market, including lenders and local authorities, will not be geared up to handle matters electronically for several years to come?

Given that in March this year just under 13,000 searches were ordered electronically via NLIS channels, compared with approximately 132,000 property transactions completed during that month, this is a justifiable concern. Although, for the record, NLIS is confident that by the end of the summer well over 10% of all searches will be made through NLIS channels. It is also worth noting that NLIS has been up and running for under 18 months and that the third of the three licensed channels was only authorised in October 2001, so this is all still quite new. The three channels are: TM Property Service (previously Teramedia – www.tmproperty.co.uk ), NLIS Searchflow (Searchflow was the winner of the SCL’s 2002 IT Award – www.searchflow.co.uk) and Transaction Online (www.transaction-online.co.uk). All operate on different business models and have different plans for the future.

Current benefits

According to Steven Foster, the chief executive of NLIS channel provider TM Property Service in a recent interview in Legal Technology Insider: NLIS “is already proving itself to be a very good way of ordering and accessing information online.” But Foster also says it is important “to realise that NLIS is just the starting point for e-conveyancing and not the whole picture.”

Foster concedes that the failure of the seller’s pack legislation has left the market without a catalyst for change and agrees with HM Land Registry’s analysis that it could take another 10 years before all the pieces of the e-conveyancing revolution are in place. However he also believes that although NLIS only deals with just one part of the conveyancing process – local authority searches – this is no excuse for law firms to do nothing today.

“Of course it may be tempting for lawyers to ‘wait and see’ how the e-conveyancing revolution pans out before they commit to the new technologies but the ease of connection, the ease of payment and the time saved in the office mean the existing NLIS services already offer a value proposition for getting online.”

We recently published a report (copies in a PDF file format can be found on the Practical Solutions Web site at www.inpractice.co.uk)

on the measurable financial savings that a conveyancing practice can achieve by using online searches effectively, based on evaluation of the NLIS Searchflow system in operation at a variety of legal firms and these echo Foster’s views. We concluded that these savings and other benefits can be very substantial, “genuinely have the potential to make a big difference” and suggest that every conveyancer in the country should, at least, be trying out the online system now with all three providers.

As to how big a difference could it make? After taking into account the different pay levels of everyone involved in a typical High Street conveyancing practice, from the office junior carrying out photocopying through to conveyancers and partners, plus an analysis of the average time taken handling each step of the process, Practical Solutions calculated that to complete three searches by conventional postage-and-paper methods, a firm can expect to spend between 65 and 76 minutes or the equivalent of £23-to-£26 in billable time.

This is in contrast with a cost of 15 minutes – or £4.75 – when using Searchflow. We also suggest that if firms also integrate the Searchflow system with case management software, they can expect even greater benefits, with the time involved falling to 12 minutes (£3.67) or less.

Looked at in isolation these figures may not seem much but when projected across a month, by switching from conventional local authority searches to Searchflow, a firm handling just 25 conveyancing transactions a month can expect to save between 21 and 29 hours in total time – or between 250 and 350 hours during the course of a year. For larger firms with major conveyancing practices – handling say 300 conveyances a month – the saving could amount to between 3,000 and 4,200 hours a year or the equivalent of two or three members of staff. (Our own research suggests that while the average High Street firm fee earner clocks up about 1,600 hours in the office during the course of each working year, the amount of chargeable time actually recorded is between just 1,200 and 1,300 hours.)

Just how a firm chooses to leverage the maximum benefit out of these savings will depend upon the individual practice but the options would certainly include enjoying a wider profit margin on each conveyancing transaction, having more room to compete on price while still remaining profitable, and being able to reallocate staff to other areas of legal practice – or even cut back on the total head count and, as a consequence, overall operating expenses.

Clearly different firms will have different objectives and priorities including, if you are going to be totally cynical, cutting prices to the point where they can squeeze out other conveyancers in their area but without cutting their own throats. The key point however is that with ‘the new math’ – focusing on the margins, rather than seeking big bang benefits – law firms are in a position to break out of the old cycle in which a 10% increase in turnover could only be achieved by a 10% increase in fee earners and associated overheads.


By way of presenting a balanced picture, any such gains in productivity and profitability must be offset against the potential increases in overheads associated with implementing NLIS compatible systems. These extra costs fall into two main categories. The first is the additional charge per search for the service. Although the natural tendency of lawyers may be to resist this, in my view two simple elements of online searches virtually justify this cost on their own – the ability to do multiple searches in one hit and simplification of the payment process.

The second cost centre relates to the investment in hardware, software, training and associated implementation. This is a legitimate concern and has to be addressed by ensuring that the conveyancing practice is financially viable. Conveyancers need to review their long-term business and marketing plans – and probably in a way that few conveyancing firms have done in the past. This is a business reality in any commercial enterprise now, where technology has become business critical for most firms. The Land Registry consultation suggests that case management systems will be needed. The sooner a conveyancing practice commits to going down this route, the better prepared they will be when it becomes an imperative.

Taking time to learn

There is a lot for firms and individuals to learn here and it takes time – and you want to make mistakes at your own pace, not when the pressure is on. Having worked extensively with conveyancing lawyers from firms of all sizes on these projects and on training courses we run on marketing conveyancing services, it is evident that most conveyancers have been so tied up in their day-to-day work that they have been unaware of a lot of the discussions and developments that have been taking place during the past three years. Although the move towards e-conveyancing may actually prove to be evolutionary, as distinct from revolutionary (even Mark Riddick, the managing director of another NLIS channel provider Searchflow accepts there will be no ‘Big Bang’ that prompts an overnight switch to online searches), it is clear that a more streamlined conveyancing system is on its way.

Conveyancers cannot change the way they and their technology work overnight. But the sooner a start is made, the better prepared any firm will be at any stage in the future. The danger is that the average High Street firm allows the inevitably cautious pace of implementation of all these developments – mostly invisible in the day-to-day work of a conveyancer – to lull them into a false sense of security. Conveyancers need to experiment now with any technology that is available to begin to learn what is needed to cope with the more extensive requirements that are likely to hit them in the future.

Allan Carton is a former practising solicitor and the managing director of the Practical Solutions consultancy – acarton@inpractice.co.uk.