A fictional tale, but I suspect it’s close to the mark…
Hello, I’m Charlotte. I’m looking back wistfully on those happy days when I first started work.
Landing a ‘professional’ job isn’t easy for today’s young people. Three months after graduating, I gratefully accepted a position as a legal assistant at a family-owned firm in our city. We were a small team, and I soon learnt the various admin tasks that enabled Sharon, our chief conveyancing solicitor, to act. Because she had a family, she worked a four day week, so it was often myself who spoke to the clients. I thoroughly enjoyed this part of the job. By copying my colleagues, I quickly adopted a calming, ‘we’ve got it under control’ demeanour. Once we’d finished talking about their business, I enjoyed a little light banter. Our clients became familiar, almost like friends for a while. We were delighted to see them satisfied, even more so when they provided glowing reviews.
Although I’d been given help to study, the route to career progression seemed very slow. Three years later I attended an interview, was offered a job with Universal Conveyancing Services at 25% higher salary, and handed in my notice. I received a generous leaving present, enjoyed an emotional goodbye party, and basked in the kindness of Sharon’s farewell speech.
Universal boasts a large, countrywide presence in the conveyancing market. I gasped as I entered the plush carpeted foyer of this tall building with its grand marble façade. On the third floor I was introduced to my boss, Lionel, and given an organisation chart and a programme for my induction.
But I wasn’t to work in the same office as Lionel. The solicitors inhabited a palatial suite with armchairs, whilst I sat in a more modest environment with other legal assistants. And then it became clear what was in store.
All over the office, phones were ringing. Nobody was answering them. A colleague called Carole explained to me that it was much more efficient for us to wait until the end of the day then listen to the messages en bloc. Some were from our clients, others from solicitors. These were graded urgent to non-urgent and answered in order; non-urgent calls were, effectively, ignored. This struck me as rude, but it became even worse when I heard what the callers actually said. I was asked to deal with a message for Lionel, from a Mr Brown.
“We’re all ready to move but the seller’s solicitor is still waiting for you to send the contract. It’s been three weeks since we heard from you, and the Government’s Stamp Duty holiday’s about to end. What the hell’s going on?” The anger and frustration in the guy’s voice was scary.
I found my way to Lionel’s office. He was in a meeting. I managed to attract his gaze, to be met with a dismissive wave of the hand. At the third attempt, I finally placed a transcript on his desk. With a smirk, he remarked, “Three weeks? Who does this Brown think he is? If we complete the sale too soon, my girl, they’ll think this job’s too easy and they’ll complain about our fees! Besides, the stamp duty’s no concern of ours; it’s his responsibility. It won’t cost us anything, will it? Look, call him and assure him I’m putting the finishing touches to the contract, then we’ll put it in the post.”
“Ooh, I do love leaseholds!” Thus remarked Lionel on a rare occasion when he needed to visit our office. “Mr and Mrs Watkins’ sale’s becoming nice and complicated. Lots of opportunity to spin things out and help our insurance friends to earn a few extra bob!”
I was puzzled. Back at my first company, Sharon always delved into the history of the leaseholder. Usually she decided it wasn’t a problem. Often, the land on which half a town is built, is owned by a single company who has held the lease for 100 years or more, charging about £10 a year per house. Sharon would have regarded the risk as negligible and would have progressed the sale. But Universal would point out that it was theoretically possible for the lease to be bought by some unscrupulous landowner who would hike the prices. There was a remote risk that, if they didn’t fuss about it, Universal could be held liable for some modest costs. The answer was to force the seller to take out an insurance policy to indemnify the buyer against this eventuality, the odds of which were infinitessimal.
On this occasion the buyer became so frustrated with the delays that he pulled out, leaving Mr and Mrs Watkins shattered and heartbroken. But Lionel rubbed his hands in glee.
“Excuse me, Lionel,” I protested, “Aren’t the Watkins our clients? Aren’t we trying to give them a service they’ll be pleased with? I mean, what if this was you or me selling a house?”
By now I’d learnt to despise Lionel’s smirk. His answer was, “My dear Charlotte, why on earth do you think the Watkins are important? Most of our profit comes from our commercial property sales not from Joe Bloggs living on a housing estate. Can’t you see, the system’s set up to benefit solicitors, not the general public! Don’t you understand? Every failed conveyance means the parties involved have to start from scratch, so each time they have to engage a firm of solicitors and pay the legal costs all over again!”
I stuck it for four months. I could no longer bear the thought of working for an exploitative agency. As I gave Lionel my letter of resignation, I ventured this thought:
“Lionel, England’s the only country in the world where selling a house is such a painful and protracted process. I think it’s time the system’s changed to be like everywhere else.”
He looked genuinely puzzled, and replied, “That will never happen! Remember, our regulatory body’s run by solicitors for solicitors for the maximisation of profit. Why change the system?”
“But in other countries, the whole process is so easy! In the USA and Canada it typically takes a month from start to finish,” I said.
“More fool them!” replied Lionel, smirking as, for the last time, I left his office.