Exclusive Interview with the Former Chairman of The Conveyancing Association
Entrepreneur, conveyancing specialist and former Chairman of Conveyancing Association (CA), Eddie Goldsmith retires from the industry after 35 years heading up GWLegal, known as Goldsmith Williams until May 2017.
Eddie was a former Partner at GWLegal, a leading national firm with over 34 years in the property field. The firm has an abundance of experience in conveyancing and is home to some of the best property solicitors in the country – which received The Law Society’s Conveyancing Quality Scheme standards.
The CA is the voice of the UK Conveyancer and the leading trade body for the conveyancing industry. Former Chairman of The CA, Eddie, is very passionate about improving conveyancing services such as buying and selling homes and believes that the property industry needs to unite to tackle the many problems and challenges facing the conveyancing sector today.
Eddie has played an influential active role in his career within the property sector and his expertise has ensured that clients receive the best possible customer service – and will continue to strive to achieve this until he reaches his personal end goal of purely streamlined digital conveyancing process which fits customers’ expectations.
Below, Eddie talks about his career in conveyancing, his time working for the CA and his future predictions and aspirations of the conveyancing industry….
How did you get into conveyancing?
In retrospect I suppose it was hardly surprising I decided after school to study Law at University having been brought up in a family of Liverpool lawyers. My father built up a firm of solicitors at the end of the War which carried out a mixed practice of conveyancing and litigation whilst my 2 brothers went to the Bar in London. Whilst I gave up early on trying to compete academically with my brothers who went to Cambridge I spent a happy 3 years at Leicester, and at the end of it came back to Liverpool to start my career. I ended up doing my Articles (Training Contract to you youngsters) with my father’s Firm as quite frankly no one else in Liverpool wanted to take me on. I like to think it was because they took the view that they would train me and then see me leave to join my father’s Firm but there may have been other reasons!
Did you have a mentor when you were starting out? What’s the single most important thing they taught you?
When I started my Articles in the late 1970’s the world of law seemed (and probably was) much simpler. There were no formal seats for training – you just became an Articled Clerk of your Principal and he (it was invariably a “he”) then gave you whatever work he had – my Principal was in fact a litigator who didn’t do conveyancing at all. The first job I was given was to draft my own Deed of Articles – the second job was to park one of the other senior partners Jag in the nearby car park! I managed that successfully, but I wonder if I had scratched it whether my blossoming career may have been cut short abruptly!
Why did you choose conveyancing as a career?
In those days conveyancing was very much a service provided by pretty much every firm. There were no national firms of solicitors as such, until 1967 there was a maximum number of partners set at 20 and of course it was impossible to practice as anything other than a traditional partnership. All business was therefore done locally and without any formal referral arrangements it was a question of getting out and about with the local estate agents for business, and of course the firms former clients who would come back. There was no advertising allowed other than a small plaque to announce your location. No advertising then, no marketing of your services, a referral fee ban backed up by a general practice rule against “touting” which was rigidly enforced by the Law Society. The atmosphere and culture were very much against any form of entrepreneurism – the attitude of the Law Society at the time as the Regulator was that anything new was frowned on and by default against the Rules.
You would wonder on that basis why anyone – including myself, would want to take up Conveyancing!
But against the climate of the status quo and a rigid rule book conveyancing itself was simpler and well paid. There was even a scale rate prescribed by the Lord Chancellor which prohibited changing under the scale which was only abolished in 1972. Under the scale our fees would come in at routinely £750 plus charging separately for lender work – at a total of around £900 plus Vat and Disbursements some 40 years ago it would be easily double in today’s money. Also, taking into account wages at the time (as an Articled Clerk I was paid £15 per week with secretaries on little more) you were talking very comfortable margins. Not only that but there were no such things as written reports in those days or indeed pages and pages of terms and conditions. The client was seen before Exchange and the solicitor (there were no licensed conveyancers in those days) would go through the contract and documentation with them in a 30-minute interview, at which they would sign up there and then and pay the deposit (no money laundering processes to deal with). Completion was always 4 weeks after exchange and that was an inflexible date – at least everyone had time to organise removals and draw down the money from the Lender.
Completions were always personal, as the buyer’s solicitor you would attend the office of the seller’s solicitors and have a chat for 10 minutes before handing over a draft and receiving the deeds in return. This was an opportunity to meet with local solicitors who, with a couple of memorable exceptions, were pleasant and accommodating to Articled Clerks learning how to mark up an Abstract or a Memorandum of Sale on a Probate. Whilst it was still buyer beware I remember a collegiate culture where everyone was helpful to everyone else and of course there was not even a hint of scams/frauds/money laundering and clients never complained!
Conveyancing was the mainstay of every practice and the revenue tended to support other less profitable areas of work. Even without a case management system one solicitor and a good secretary could handle a reasonable case load and produce a very healthy return without any risk of being taken off a lenders panel or a dealing with a formal complaint. Yes – overall simpler, more profitable and much less risky to the Practicing Certificate … Ah – those years of blessed memory!
What advice would you give to a young person considering a career in the law today?
If I had one piece of advice to give (apart from wearing sun cream!) is to listen to what other people say – it is often good advice and generally its free and for gratis – you can always ignore them but hear what they have to say!
What are the biggest changes you’ve seen over your time in practice?
Of course, markets never stay the same and over the course of the last 20 years or so I have seen the home buying industry change markedly. Not only the introduction of more formal “rules of engagement” for solicitors and conveyancers, but the statutory framework for mortgages introduced in 2004 which transformed what was a self-regulated (and self-interested) gentlemen’s club into a modern regulated industry has been the model of regulation for the likes of the Solicitors Regulation Authority. Those “halcyon” days pre-2004 have long gone now never to return and with it the margins comfortably achieved in the first 15 years of my practice, but so have the barriers to competition. There is no doubt that those solicitors who see conveyancing as a serious part of their services can do very well – even with the cost of regulation and all that it entails.
Looking back do I think that the pendulum has swung too far from the personal conveyancing of my first few years to what we are faced with today? The answer is probably yes but then the client who is now a consumer has a substantially raised level of expectation in every service and product they consume, and conveyancing is no different, and why should it be?
I remember the early days of the Direct Conveyancing Association which generally met in Leeds. We did not have any secretariat or indeed raise any regular subscriptions. We raised enough money to pay for a lovely meal and good wine and we sat around the table peer to peer talking about the issues of the day (with some gossiping of course). That was fine for then – the Direct Conveyancing Industry was in its early stages and other than the 15 or so firms around that dinner table that was pretty much it. As enjoyable as those dinners and meetings were the reality is that the direct model which I refer to as interface to interface rather than face to face was a growing model being adopted by entrepreneurs, whether solicitors or conveyancers, and it became clear to me when I took over the Chair some 7 years or so ago that we needed to reach out to other “serious “ conveyancers and see how we could together improve the lot of our clients and ourselves at the same time.
And of course there is a lot still that can be improved. When I think about conveyancing 35 years ago compared to today of course technically there is more involved now such as reports to clients/ environmental issues/verification of ID/3rd parties etc but the communication between the various stakeholders, whether lender/estate agent/broker and the solicitor, still leaves a lot to be desired. It hasn’t really moved on in the last 30 years other than the adoption of email. There is still a conveyancing vortex which does nothing for the client or their expectations and customer service is arguably worse now than then. Much of this being down to the heightened expectations of the client and their estate agent advisors. If we had the opportunity to take a blank sheet of paper and write a conveyancing process fit for 21st Century clients we would not duplicate our existing system – it is slow and uncertain and leaves clients in limbo for months not knowing if they will end up with their dream home or waste £00’s on abortive fees on a property fallen through. This of course was picked up and researched by the Conveyancing Association in our White Paper and was a precursor to the Governments own Call for Evidence on the Home Buying Process.
So, there are lots to be done yet, the road to a conveyancing process fit for modern day purpose is now tantalisingly close. We must work together as an industry to build it brick by brick – our clients deserve it and so do we.
What professional achievement are you most proud of over your career?
My proudest moment was probably starting my own firm with Chris Williams and our first Christmas Dinner when I had to invite my wife along to make up the table for four!
Whatever the future of conveyancing is I am sure there are opportunities for those who look for them – conveyancing has treated me well – I am sure there is plenty more where that came from for others as well!
What are you looking forward to most about retirement?
Friends and colleagues in the conveyancing Industry have been very kind to me since I have retired. Some have asked me whether I have actually retired and what I will be doing in my dotage, for those who queried whether you have seen the last of me, the answer is ‘nope’ as there is a job still to be done and I fully intend to provide support to my good friends in the CA and in the wider industry to make my personal dream happen – a truly digital conveyancing process end to end which produces the right customer experience and which is no longer the 3rd most stressful experience in life!
Looking to the future how do you see the industry changing over the next 5 years?
Looking ahead they say that the best way to predict the future is to create it, in our case I think the future is pretty clear, blindingly obvious in my view. It will involve us still, but we have to make ourselves relevant and have a role to play in an increasingly digital conveyancing process. We may not need to do as much admin as we do now nor regurgitate volumes of documents which clients don’t read anyway, but we have a role to play as the co-ordinator of a process which involves £000’s of client and lenders funds and keep that safe for all concerned – and ensure that buying that dream house does not turn into a nightmare.
What’s the biggest mistake you’ve made in your career? Technically? As a business person?
Looking back at my career there are of course highs and lows, for someone who was never that brilliant technically there have been a few close shaves and sometimes the odd case has come unstuck. My attitude has always been to own up to any mistake, we are all human and at least mistakes by lawyers don’t kill clients unlike Doctors.
Looking back at your time in the CA – what’s your fondest memory? And what are you most proud of in relation to the CA?
One of my proudest moments as the Chair of the CA was to see the endorsement by Government of so many of the suggestions for improvement set out by the CA but of course the real work on how to bring out improvements in the process is only just starting.
During my career I can look back at with pride at business achievements, but they tend to be transitory. The real pleasure I have comes from having met some great people over the years, people far cleverer than me but all good people willing to pass on their experiences and share good and sometimes not so good times. The memory of friendship with folk like Rob Hailstone and my good friends at the CA will live on and continue to make me smile.
Good luck to all of you and in the words of Douglas Adams “So long and thanks for all the fish.”