Today’s Conveyancer speaks to APL’s Stephen Coupland about thriving in a difficult market

Advantage Property Lawyers  (APL) has just celebrated its fifth birthday. In 2013 its annual turnover increased by over 40% to £2.42M and it completed over 4000 sale and purchase transactions. Jane Common spoke to Head of Sales and Marketing Stephen Coupland about how the company has managed to thrive in a difficult market….
What do you think are the secrets of APL’s success during challenging times?
‘When we set up five years ago there were 15 of us with many years of experience in the sector — I’ve been in conveyancing for 25 years. Whilst we were entering a difficult market in 2009 we had a strong management team across the whole of the business, be that operations, finance or from a sales and marketing perspective.
The key thing we’ve done from day one is adopt ‘best practice’ in all aspects of our business including compliance, risk management and customer service.
We also created a friendly working culture with sensible working hours for our staff. I hear of firms that are taking on too much work too quickly and that’s dangerous. Our emphasis has been on growing organically and steadily and ensuring our foundations remain strong. We started with 15 team members — we’re now approaching 60. And out of the 15 that started 12 are still with us. That’s something we’re proud of.
Another factor in APL’s success is that we’ve learnt lessons from the past and taken account of how things can go wrong. The whole conveyancing industry went helter skelter in a buoyant market — but, when the market tightened, many had problems. You have to be sure that you’re robust. We’ve built the business up with no debt, no borrowings and with a good balance of work sources so we’ve tried to insulate ourselves right from the start.’
That’s the last five years — what about APL’s plans for the coming five years?
‘Over the next five years, we’re going to have more automated processes and move towards electronic files and paper-free conveyancing, leaving more time to focus on good customer service and on building strong relationships with introducers.
In December 2013 we achieved our highest place in the Land Registry stats for completions — 24th. Our aim for 2014 is to regularly appear in the top 20. We’re not aiming to be the biggest conveyancer in the country — but we are aiming to be one of the best.
There are potential threats within the next five years too, however — changes in legislation (for example perhaps a ban on referral fees) and an uncertain economic future which could have knock-on effects with the lenders (who have ever increasing power). To this end, it is vitally important we continue to tick all the boxes for the lender requirements.’
What are the three things you would recommend all conveyancers should consider in the current market?
‘Firstly, look at the structure of your firm.  We are an ABS doing just residential conveyancing which gives us flexibility and enables us to react quickly to outside factors. If you are part of a larger law firm it can sometimes be harder to react quickly because you’ve got other, non-conveyancing, departments to consider.  Being a specialist firm and an ABS gives us the flexibility to talk to players outside conveyancing while maintaining the integrity of what we do as conveyancers.
Secondly, be innovative — use technology to work smarter and more effectively. We had a belt and braces review of our IT systems in 2013 and as a result we have put in place an 18-month plan to establish a more intelligent and dynamic system that will deliver an even better level of customer service to the client and connected parties by making the experience quicker, smoother and taking away duplication of work.
Third, manage controlled growth. You must understand your cost space and your margins — that’s something we’ve learnt from experience. There are many conveyancers out there who don’t understand how much they need to earn per case — and knowing that is critical. You should only be doing work that makes a profit and you should ensure that you can manage that level of work. At APL, I’m personally responsible for capacity management — overseeing the amount of work that comes in and checking that no member of staff is overburdened with files. Don’t fall into the trap of taking on too much work too quickly with inexperienced staff. It will result in aggravation for management, high stress levels for staff and extended turnaround times. Ultimately, you’ll have unhappy clients and introducers.’
What are the advantages to you of being a Council for Licensed Conveyancers (CLC) regulated firm? 
‘The big advantage I guess is that the CLC fully understands the conveyancing business. The impression we get — having been audited by the CLC and having an on-going dialogue with them — is that they want us to succeed and are working in our best interests. If there are things they believe should be changed they’ll help businesses to achieve that. The CLC has a good track record and the majority of lenders acknowledge they have far fewer issues with CLC firms than they do with solicitors’ firms.’
What are the important things you do to manage compliance and risk in the day-to-day operations of your business? 
‘From day one, we wanted to ensure that we were going to set the strongest possible foundations from a compliance and risk perspective. When CQS came in we decided that, since as a licensed conveyancing firm we’re not eligible for CQS, we would have a full external audit with Legal Eye for the whole of our compliance systems. The result was that last year we were the first conveyancing firm in the country to achieve the Legal Eye Quality Standard. That meant that when we had our CLC audit, we knew we ticked all the boxes — there was no stress and we could enjoy peace of mind.’
Do you think that with conveyancers being stretched from a capacity perspective and there being a shortage of conveyancers we’ll see a rise in prices? 
‘What we are currently witnessing is that there are fewer firms that we might call ‘serious’ conveyancing firms and that there’s a huge capacity issue as firms struggle to recruit quality staff. Inevitably, in a market with these factors, prices will increase — whether that is through a higher cost to the consumer or a reduction in referral fees to enable conveyancing firms to run successful and profitable businesses remains to be seen.
The margins are currently very tight, putting financial constraints on businesses. The more we increase the margins the more we can invest back into our businesses, in IT and training for example, which will benefit our clients and business partners in the long-term.’
You won a clutch of awards in 2013 — the Silver Award for the Best Large Conveyancer in The Sunday Times’ Estate Agency of the Year Awards as well as Gold for the Best Conveyancer in the North-East and Silver Overall at the LFS Awards. What does this sort of recognition mean to APL as a company?
‘Winning these awards has boosted our credibility in the industry and given our management team the confidence to take the business to the next level with the knowledge that we are doing a lot of things right. The judges’ reports contained some very complimentary comments about the firm and this was even more satisfying as the judging panels were made up of some key people in the industry.
The Sunday Times Awards ceremony was on the day of our Christmas party. I didn’t ring anyone and tip them off that we’d won — instead I caught the train back from London to Leeds and arrived at the party where I ordered champagne and produced the plaque. It was such a good way to announce it because the award isn’t just about management — it’s a tribute to our staff as well. Everyone is part of it.’
On a personal level, how do you find the conveyancing business at the moment?
‘Everyone in the industry has had issues over the last five years. It’s been, without doubt, a very difficult period in the property sector. But, out of that environment, a strong bond has developed between some of the key people in conveyancing, whether they be running firms, panel managers, search providers or compliance auditors. We’re all in the same boat, after all.
I’ve become very friendly with a group of a dozen or so people in the industry. We’ve all had different — and sometimes difficult — experiences but we’ve helped and supported each other through adversity. We don’t see each other as competition.
At a meeting five years ago when we were all under pressure and struggling one of us joked: ‘Anyone fancy going golfing in Marbella?’ With the constraints we were under that sort of thing just seemed totally off limits. But, for all of us, things are looking brighter now — and, in April, we are going golfing in Marbella. Maybe that’s where the competition will emerge — on the golf course. Roll on April!’
Today's Conveyancer