Interview with Richard Durrant, Head of Residential Conveyancing at Boys & Maughan

Richard Durrant is Head of the Residential Conveyancing Department at East Kent solicitors’ practice Boys & Maughan which has just won Residential Conveyancing Firm of the Year (51 or more employees) at the Property Forum Awards. He told Today’s Conveyancer why the award is a triumph for traditional high street solicitors’ practices across the country…

What does winning the Property Forum award mean to staff at Boys & Maughan

“Over the last five years there has been a lot of suggestions that ABSs and the like – the bigger outfits – will sound the death knell of high street conveyancers, but winning an award like this shows the high street firm can still exist and thrive. We’re very proud of the award because we were up against some big names and also because, even though we’re a multi-disciplinary practice, we were chosen from amongst dedicated conveyancing firms, which is a real accolade.

“Winning gives us a target – to keep growing and succeeding. Over the last ten years, we have become one of the largest conveyancing firms in East Kent in terms of numbers of conveyancers, and in the past 18 months we’ve taken on 11 new members of staff because of our increased workload and to maintain customer service. So we have to build on that. There are some slightly bigger firms in our area, but some of them do panel work whereas our work is all recommendations from local estate agents and existing clients coming back to the firm, which is testament to our high standards of customer care.”

Why did the judges choose Boys & Maughan

“They praised us for our clear strategic vision and improving performance year-on-year and picked up on the fact that we’re a good example of a firm that interacts effectively with estate agents – that’s paramount to our success. I was an estate agent for ten years and then, 15 years ago, through ILEX, I became a Legal Executive, so I have a good understanding of how estate agents work – of course the technology has moved on but the underlying principle of estate agency is unchanged.

“We do a lot of training with local estate agents and obviously, with my background, I’m at the forefront of that. We have helped train new and existing staff at agencies in how conveyancing works so they have an understanding of it. I think that is an important link because it helps us build a relationship with both senior and junior staff. There’s no point only being in contact on a daily basis with the owners of the estate agency because if the staff don’t have a relationship with us and want to work with us they’re not going to recommend us.

“If you talk to a lot of solicitors they’ll complain that estate agents are the bane of their lives – always ringing up and interrupting what they’re doing with seemingly irrelevant questions. But if, as we do, they spend some time with estate agents explaining how things work, they won’t ring and ask lots of questions – instead, they’re much more likely to ring and ask what they can do to help.”

What made you want to switch from being an estate agent to a conveyancer?

“At the time I switched I was 29 and, that seemed old for an estate agent – a lot of my colleagues were in their early 20s. Since the recession, that’s changed. A lot of estate agents are in their 30s, 40s and even 50s now, but 15 years ago that wasn’t the case and I asked myself whether I wanted to be an estate agent forever. I was a branch manager at a local agent and I did a lot of sales chasing, so I talked to solicitors on a daily basis and found the whole conveyancing process really interesting. So I thought ‘I could do that’ and I trained for a year while I was still an estate agent, through ILEX, and then worked for another law firm in East Kent where I was lucky enough to have a very good teacher – the senior partner there. Then, eight years ago, I came to Boys & Maughan.

“My favourite aspect of the job is the same in conveyancing as it was when I was an estate agent and that’s ringing someone and telling them they’ve completed their sale or purchase. I still get a buzz from that after 25 years in the industry.”

The judges said of Boys & Maughan: ‘the determined and brave approach to fees and streamlining has helped the firm grow’. Can you explain that?

“Well, over the past couple of years we’ve increased our fees rather than decreased them. So we’ve streamlined costs and tried to be very clear about what we’re charging clients. A lot of solicitors provide clients with search packages for example– I’ve been looking at a contract package this morning where we have to reimburse £370 for searches provided by the sellers but the cost of the searches only amounts to £240. So there is a cost there to the client. We undertake the searches that are necessary, rather than a package of searches; we stick to our fees and we don’t charge for any add-ons because we don’t feel that’s fair and transparent. If we’re charging someone £650 we’re charging them £650.

“We are not going to compete with other firms on a price basis – where we hope to stand out is on a service basis. And it appears to be working – in our area of East Kent, we’ve grown while others have contracted naturally, through staff retiring or leaving. Since the recession other local firms have shrunk from around four or five conveyancing staff down to one or two while we’ve expanded to meet demand in the area.”

That’s why the judges believed Boys & Maughan deserved to win – why do you think your firm stands out?

“Well, 99% of clients in the feedback questionnaires we’ve been sending out at the end of each transaction over the past three years say they’d recommend Boys & Maughan and that’s a great statistic. We are only upset it’s not 100%!

“In all seriousness, if somebody comes back with a questionnaire that says they wouldn’t be happy to recommend us, I will telephone them to find out why. Often it’s down to something that is out of our hands, like timescale. We would like to think we get it right all the time but, on rare occasions, it doesn’t quite go to plan.

“One of the things I’ve learnt, over 25 years in this business, is that conveyancers should under-promise and over-achieve. Rather than say it will be done tomorrow and then panic, say it’ll be done by Monday and then, if it is done tomorrow, you’re ahead of the game and have kept your sanity along the way.

“There are far too many times when you come across situations with conveyancers and estate agents telling clients what they want to hear rather than being honest with them so we’ve made that one of our central tenets – tell clients what’s happening instead of what they’d like to hear is happening. As conveyancers we’re often at the mercy of somebody else in the chain getting mortgages, searches or surveys and there has to be a degree of realism about that. At the moment, for example, there are often delays with mortgages. It used to be searches holding things up but now it is mortgages although, to be fair, we’ve always been lucky that in Thanet we have a very efficient local authority.

“So, for us, it’s about client care and honesty and giving someone an A1 service. Clients are paying us quite a lot of money to do a job for them and if I were paying someone quite a lot of money to do a job for me, I’d expect them to do it well.

“We often hear a complaint from conveyancers – ‘the client thinks they’re my only case!’ Well, so they should – the client should feel the conveyancer is at their beck and call. So every time we work for a client we try to make them feel they’re our only client – that’s our ethos.”

What’s the residential conveyancing market like in East Kent?

“The market is strong and agents are fighting for properties to sell because the moment something appears on the market it goes. Property prices are rising too – not in massive leaps but they’re definitely on the up.

“We’ve got the faster train lines now – Canterbury is only an hour to London. That’s just 20 minutes more on the commute than, say, Tonbridge, where prices are almost double what they are here. Consequently Canterbury is popular. Lots of buildings in the city were converted into flats in the 1980s and there’s a constant turnover of those. We had a Canterbury office about 25 years ago but they broke away from us at the time, and went on alone – then, last year, in what some considered a brave step, we set up there again. And, thanks to Liz Thomson, and her great team, it’s proving a very successful office.

“Then, further down the coast there’s Margate – only an hour and a half on the train into London and there are some wonderful older, character properties. People are moving in from London and further afield. Margate has been much maligned over the years but it is changing.”

For more information about Boys & Maughan log on to www.boysandmaughan.co.uk

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