Interview with Peter Powell, Partner at Ellisons Solicitors

Peter Powell is retiring from Ellisons today (Thursday 30th April) after 52 years with the company, working in both residential and commercial and as senior partner from 1988 to 1997 and 2007 to 2012. Today’s Conveyancer asked him what changes he’s seen in the industry over half a century…

How did you start out in conveyancing, Peter?

“I started with Ellisons in August 1963 – aged 16 – and qualified as a solicitor in 1971. Ellisons was the first job I was offered out of school and I took to it like a duck to water. I was very fortunate.”

How has Ellisons grown as a firm in the time you’ve been there?

“It’s grown enormously – when I joined in 1963 we were 30 people with a main office in Colchester and a branch office in Harwich. And now we’re 140 people and we have offices in Clacton, Frinton and Ipswich too.”

What was conveyancing like in the 60s and 70s?

“It was totally different. Residential conveyancing used to be a far more professional and gentlemanly – and I don’t mean that in a chauvinistic way – industry. It wasn’t commoditised back then –it was all high street lawyers. Conveyancing used to be the engine room of firms – most solicitors relied on residential conveyancing for their profit and other things, such as litigation, were simply done as a service to clients.

“At that time, conveyancing was limited to solicitors – only a solicitor could practise it. And solicitors could only practise if they followed the scale fees laid down by the Law Society –we weren’t allowed to undercut a competitor. By the same token, a solicitor couldn’t charge more than a competitor and cut them up that way. So if a client rang me and said they were buying a house for £4000 – unbelievable now, I know – I would look on the scale fee and say: ‘That’s £95’.

“People tended to go with the solicitor on their high street until scale fees were abolished when resale price maintenance – which was when manufacturers controlled the prices their products were sold at – was abolished. And that opened up competition in conveyancing pricing. People thought it was ‘money for old rope’ and everybody started having a go.”

So 40 years ago you had more of a relationship with the vendor?

“Definitely – we didn’t used to write 25-page long reports on the searches. Instead we’d have the client in the office and explain it all to them. And we’d only sign the contract after we’d explained it all and the client understood it. It was a much slower and more personal process.

“Today clients might be recommended by their estate agent in Colchester, for example, to use a conveyancing factory – that sounds derogatory and I mean it to – in Manchester or Newcastle. So the conveyancer is just someone to process the papers.”

How do you think the Internet has changed things – has it made it easier for conveyancers to become more impersonal in their service?

“The Internet has speeded up life in so many ways and that’s a double edged sword.

“In the old days often the solicitor would arrange the mortgage for the client. We’d ring up Joe or Fred – the building society manager we’d had lunch with a few days earlier – and say: ‘We have a young client here who needs a mortgage. Can you help out?’ And usually the building society manager would do us a favour and give our client the mortgage.

“These days you’d call yourself a mortgage broker and charge £1000 for doing that – in those days, we made the phone call and didn’t charge anything. It was just part of what we did to look after our clients’ interests.

“We used to do completions personally too – we’d walk or catch a train to the other solicitor’s office and inspect the deeds against the copies we’d been supplied with. Then we’d hand over a cheque for the purchase money. And if it was a solicitor who was out of town – perhaps we’d come up to London for a completion – we’d hand over a bankers draft. It was a million miles more proper and civilised, in my opinion.”

Have you as a conveyancing solicitor and Ellisons as a firm tried to maintain personal relationships with customers even in this day and age?

“We have. We aren’t trying to compete with firms who buy work from estate agents at £150 a time – in my view they don’t give the clients the service they deserve. It’s all become quite a rat race but Ellisons aren’t trying to chase down the fees. There’s no point as we can’t contend with the Ryanair-type firms – and we don’t want to. That market can fight itself down to the last £25 as far as I’m concerned. There’s nothing wrong with it if that’s what the customer wants – the most basic service – but it’s not the way we see our business.

“Sometimes our clients will think at the outset they don’t want to pay an extra £300 for a more personal service. But when they realise what they get for that extra £300 – support through one of the most expensive transactions they’ll undertake in their lives – they appreciate it.

“And because of our service levels we have clients who’ve stayed with us for years – even if they have moved to another part of the country altogether. We’re on first name terms with all of them.”

Why did you move from residential into commercial?

“Whereas residential conveyancing used to account for more than 50% of Ellisons’ income I think it’s dropped to well below 10% now. But over time we’ve started to do a lot more commercial conveyancing and I moved into that sector. There’s stress in commercial, of course, but nothing like the stress put on poor residential conveyancers these days. Commercial clients are prepared to pay a reasonable fee and if something is urgent it’s because it’s genuinely urgent as there’s a large amount of money involved. Residential conveyancers are told it’s urgent because the curtains are arriving from John Lewis on Friday!

“I do find more job satisfaction in commercial as I’m working all day – all week perhaps – on just one job for a client whereas in residential I’d be skipping between 50 matters in the course of a day.”

What advice would you give to someone just starting out in conveyancing today?

“It’s all about job satisfaction and taking pride in a day’s work well done. In long established, good quality firms – and despite my cynicism there are still plenty of them – it’s possible to provide what I’d call an old-fashioned, traditional conveyancing service. If we can maintain those high service levels, we can work with pride and pleasure. But I don’t believe there’s much satisfaction in conveyancing when you’re doing it all on computer for a client you’ve never met who lives 200 miles away. That’s like a factory.”

How are you celebrating your retirement?

“I’m having a big bash at a local restaurant and some of the clients I’ve acted for over the past five decades are attending, along with the partners and a few of my colleagues. There’ll be about 55 people in all. But I wanted to invite past clients – so many have become friends over the years.”

And how will you spend your retirement?

“Travelling and watching Colchester United. I was a director of the club for 19 years – in fact, I was the third partner at Ellisons to have been a director there. I work on the FA Disciplinary Panel so that’ll keep me busy every three weeks. And for the next year I’ll be an occasional consultant at Ellisons. I shouldn’t grow bored.”

Today's Conveyancer