Rethinking the Conveyancing Practice
Benefits of an Automated Workflow Process
Based on the statistics in the Law Society of Singapore Annual Report 2016, there are 715 law practices having one to five lawyers in 2016, constituting almost 83 per cent of the entire population of law practices in Singapore.
LegalWorks Law Corporation (LegalWorks) falls into this category of law practices. At LegalWorks, we focus primarily on two areas of practice, namely corporate and real estate law, with the latter providing a significant portion our law practice’s revenue.
In this article, I would like to share some of the issues that we, as a small law practice, have faced in our conveyancing department and which I believe are experienced by other small law practices as well.
Fishing in a Small Pond
For many small law practices, conveyancing work will often bring in a substantial, if not the greatest, amount of revenue. From our experience, conveyancing practice is highly susceptible to the ups and downs of the real estate market. When the property market experiences a high volume of transactions, law firms offer high wages to a small pool of conveyancing secretaries in a bid to recruit (or retain) experienced conveyancing secretaries.
This is financially taxing on small law practices who find their margins from conveyancing work whittled down because of lower professional fees due to competition and higher staff costs.
When the real estate industry experiences a downturn, law firms that are unable to sustain the high fixed monthly overheads are forced to lay off lawyers and secretaries in the conveyancing department.
This vicious cycle of “hire and fire” creates an unhealthy environment in the industry as there is no job security for conveyancing secretaries, and it discourages new talent from joining this segment of the job market. As experienced secretaries retire or leave the profession altogether, law firms will be faced with the unpleasant prospect of competing against one another for an ever-decreasing pool of talent.
The “BYO” Culture and Its Shortcomings
One of the reasons why law practices prefer to hire experienced conveyancing secretaries is because it saves the law practice the time and resources to train new staff to get them up to speed. Experienced secretaries can hit the ground running.
Part of the “package” that comes with hiring experienced secretaries is the collection of template letters (usually saved in Microsoft Word or other word-processing formats) they have accumulated through the years. When she is assigned to a case, the secretary would search through her personal collection of template letters to find the ones that are suitable for the work at hand.
She would then duplicate the template letters into a folder in her computer system and replace the relevant information such as the name of the addressee, property address, purchase price, payment amounts, etc, in these template letters.
The biggest shortcoming of this bring-your-own (BYO) culture is that the quality and standard of each secretary’s work will vary greatly from one another, depending on the quality of the secretary’s collection of template letters. The “look and feel” of the letters generated for the same category of transactions will, as a result, differ from one secretary to another.
To exacerbate matters, each secretary, through their letters, will inevitably organise the sequence of tasks that they must perform differently. As a result, it is possible for two or more workflow processes to exist within the same team of conveyancing secretaries.
From our experience, this gives rise to the following problems:
- The lawyer-in-charge spends more time to monitor, keep track and supervise the work of the various secretaries in his/her team.
- A secretary who is assigned to cover a colleague who is away on vacation, medical or maternity leave will experience substantial downtime (and stress) in having to go through the latter’s files and take note of what has been done and what is outstanding. A similar situation arises whenever a new secretary takes over conduct of files of a secretary who has resigned.
- In the long run, this results in lower productivity as a lot of time and resources are spent on work that is non-revenue generating.
- The aforesaid problems also increase the risk of crucial tasks being missed out or overlooked, such as exercise of an option to purchase, the lodging of the mortgagee’s caveat, arranging for clients to sign mortgage documents, or calling for drawdown on the housing loan, etc. This exposes the firm to late payment interest and even potential lawsuits.
A common bugbear of secretaries and lawyers alike are clients calling up to enquire about the status of their transactions. Secretaries must divert their attention away from the work they are doing to attend to these requests. On hectic work days, these requests may be overlooked and eventually forgotten. This results in unhappy clients who feel that the firm does not have their interests at heart.
This gripe does not end when the transaction is completed. It is not uncommon for clients to call up the law firm to request for documents of transactions that were completed years ago, and the physical files are now stored in the warehouse.
Precious time and resources are spent having to recall the files to retrieve the necessary information or documents. Even more time is spent photocopying or scanning and forwarding the necessary documents to clients.
Automating the Process
In a nutshell, conveyancing practice can be distilled into three considerations, namely (1) the type of transaction the law firm is appointed to do; (2) the party or parties it represents; and (3) the variables unique to that transaction. Based on these three considerations, the workflow process for that particular transaction can be broken into smaller, discrete steps.
With that in mind, LegalWorks has collaborated with a software provider to develop a case management and customer relationship management platform, called Convey:ance, which consists of the following components:
- a checklist itemising the steps of various conveyancing transactions such as sale and purchase, refinancing, redemption, etc; and
- a collection of template letters categorised according to the conveyancing transactions.
Future features in the pipeline include:
- a calendar with reminder function;
- a repository of documents for transactions (live or completed) accessible by clients; and
- an online portal through which clients are able to retrieve documents from an online repository, update their personal particulars and obtain information on the status of their transactions.
Through the platform, we have experienced the following benefits:
Being Able to Tap into a Wider Pool of Talent for Our Conveyancing Work
Convey:ance addresses the “hire and fire” conundrum by giving us an opportunity to tap into a wider pool of manpower. Employees without any prior conveyancing experience are able to gradually pick up the necessary skills and know-how through the task checklist which takes them step-by-step through the processes that the different conveyancing transactions entail.
And this, in turn, addresses yet another common problem: that of experienced conveyancing secretaries who, swamped with work, do not have the luxury of time to train their inexperienced colleagues. The task checklist has allowed us to cross-train our secretaries from the other departments, with the experienced conveyancing staff taking on supervisory roles.
Better Allocation of Time and Resources
The greatest benefit of systemisation is that it saves our conveyancing secretaries a substantial amount of time looking for the appropriate set of templates for the transaction that they are handling, copying them, removing the existing particulars from the template letters, and filling in the new information.
The software eliminates the risk of a secretary accidentally leaving old information in the word processer-based template letter that may (1) cause confusion and misunderstanding, (2) give rise to potential malpractice liability, and (3) more time spent having to re-produce the letter again. With Convey:ance, the work is done once and done right. Work on each file is performed in substantially less time, increasing the conveyancing department’s productivity exponentially.
Further by virtue of a consistent, streamlined work process, the lawyer-in-charge is able to supervise his/her team more efficiently and effectively.
Lastly, as the platform is available online, it allows the lawyer-in-charge to retrieve information on the status of any given case without the need to refer to the physical file.
It Ensures Consistency, Each Time and Every Time
Through the platform, our conveyancing department has adopted a standardised workflow for every transaction that our law practice is appointed to undertake. Each secretary who is assigned a file for a purchase transaction, for instance, will perform her work tasks in the same chronological order as her other colleagues who are also handling purchase transactions. This creates a culture of uniformity where all conveyancing secretaries practice the same workflow process for any given real estate transaction assigned to them.
Consequently, a secretary who is assigned to cover for a colleague will be able to get up to speed in substantially less time. In the same way, Convey:ance allows a newcomer to take over the reins from a secretary who is leaving the law practice and be apprised of the stage of work that each file is at in a fraction of the time it would have previously taken her.
The platform also ensures a consistent quality, look and feel in the letters produced, regardless of who the secretary is and the level of her experience.
Any amendments to the template letters on the platform, whether brought about by a policy change affecting the real estate market or a change in regulations governing the conveyancing practice, can be immediately implemented firm-wide with minimal disruption. No secretary gets left behind.
The Platform Helps a Law Practice to Create a System of Workflow Processes for Its Conveyancing Department
The platform forms the foundation from which the conveyancing department operates. It shifts the current mindset of conveyancers from focusing on the need to maintain a group of experienced conveyancing secretaries to do the work, to adopting a platform with an automated workflow process which will do the work regardless of the level of experience of its users.
It Gives Our Clients the Information They Need, When They Want It
Once the additional features are added to the platform, clients will be automatically updated via email or text messages of significant milestones in their transactions, eg, the exercise of the option, lodging of purchaser’s caveat, and reminder to fix an appointment to sign documents, etc.
By logging-in securely, clients would be able to access, and retrieve information from, a repository of the documents relating to their transaction, even after the transaction has been completed. They would be able to download soft-copies of documents, eg, Option to Purchase, Title Deeds, Stamp Duty certificates etc, at a click of a mouse.
They would also be able to log-in through a secure channel to update their personal information such as a change in their correspondence address, mobile number or email address. This information is immediately uploaded into the system’s database, thereby ensuring that any letters generated by the platform will always contain the latest information. This creates a “stickiness” ensuring client loyalty and better customer retention.
Most importantly, it would free the lawyers and secretaries to do meaningful, revenue-generating work.
The true value of the platform comes from the intangible benefits that cannot be measured in terms of dollars and cents:
- Conveyancers experience less stress and sleepless nights worrying about potential time bombs in the files.
- The directors of the law practice can have the peace of mind knowing that the conveyancing secretaries and the lawyer-in-charge are on top of their work.
- The conveyancing department being able to provide a higher standard and quality of work to its clientele, and as a result of which clients experience a better quality of service.
- The conveyancing department is able to generate more revenue from increased productivity and a reduction in irrecoverable out-of-pocket expenses arising from late payment interest and late completion interest etc.
- It allows the lawyers to do meaningful work instead of “fighting fire”. For proprietors of small law practices, it means being able to channel energy and resources into management and rainmaking.