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Snakes and ladders

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With the property market looking up, many conveyancing firms are back in the recruitment market. But how can you ensure that you recruit the appropriate staff resource to cope with future market changes? Victor Olowe explains

A rising market presents conveyancing firms with many opportunities, but at least one challenge: finding the right conveyancers to meet increasing customer demand. The ‘right’ conveyancers for any firm will be those with the appropriate technical and interpersonal skills to keep their promises to clients. However, firms are not all the same, and neither are their customers, or the promises that they make to them; the ‘right’ conveyancer is relative to a firm’s strategic objectives, culture and customer profile.

This is made even more challenging by the uncertainty and volatility inherent in the housing market – how can firms recruit the best talent for the good times, without being overstaffed in the less good times?So how can firms find the right people, in the right place, at the right time, and at the right cost, to meet the demands of their specific customers?

Snakes and ladders

© omadoig@btinternet.com

This article looks at the current recruitment market and why it is challenging for conveyancing firms, and outlines some strategies for both meeting current recruitment needs and ‘future-proofing’ your staff resource for this highly volatile market.

Throughout this article, I use the term conveyancers to cover solicitors, licensed conveyancers, legal executives and other suitably competent employees with direct responsibility for handling conveyancing matters.

Why is there a talent shortfall?

Today’s market presents a ‘perfect storm’ of issues for conveyancing firms to tackle – too many firms recruiting, a smaller and more demanding talent pool, and increased focus on firm reputation. These are explored in more detail below.

War for talent

In today’s strong property market, many conveyancing firms are recruiting at the same time, which invariably means that the competition for the best conveyancers is more intense. Talented employees are increasingly seeking not only good remuneration, but also meaningful work, and ways of working that are aligned to their values. Firms must do more than just match the remuneration packages of local competitors.

Legacy of recessions

The way that employees are treated during a slowdown / contraction in a particular sector is likely to leave long-lasting scars, including an erosion of trust, which can make recruitment in an upturn more challenging. This is more likely to be the case if the stories and memories of the widespread downsizing of firms in that market are still relatively fresh.

These lessons apply to conveyancing firms following the large-scale redundancies made in the recession of recent years. Add to this the knowledge that the conveyancing market is highly vulnerable to volatility and uncertainty, and the result is that potential hires will be increasingly circumspect about the type of firm in which they would wish to work in the future, and increasingly focused on the sustainability of a potential employer’s growth strategy.

Increased transparency

Transparency, through social media and other digital channels, is increasingly shaping the behaviour of both experienced and new conveyancers.

Conveyancing firms should approach recruitment with the same focus on making the business attractive as do businesses seeking capital investment from investors

Poor web presence, poor client feedback, or poor online reputation may discourage good conveyancers from seeking opportunities in a particular firm. Such firms may be forced to hire what is available to meet their demanding workloads, potentially leading to high turnover of new employees and exacerbating the disillusionment of existing employees.

There is also more pressure on firms to minimise the risk of error, as it is not uncommon for mistakes to leave a digital footprint that may affect a firm’s reputation. This makes it increasingly important to hire highly skilled people, thereby further increasing competition in recruitment.

Market volatility

The ongoing uncertainty about the long-term stability of the housing market means that potential new employees are unlikely to consider relocation to pursue employment opportunities. Potential employees are also becoming more wary of pursuing careers 
in legal services sectors that are more prone to volatility, as the likelihood of redundancies is higher when the market experiences a contraction. Experienced employees 
may either retrain or decide to refocus 
on careers perceived as more ‘future-proof’.

Desirability of conveyancing

It is not unreasonable to speculate that the current shortage of conveyancers might be down to negative perceptions of this area of work. To ensure sustainability in a low-margin sector, conveyancing work is becoming ever more transactional; this will not appeal to potential employees looking for professional autonomy and the scope for creative challenge. In addition, conveyancers have borne much of the brunt of increased regulatory focus on risk management – robust risk management is obviously 
to be welcomed, but may also bring a perception of micromanagement of highly skilled employees.

Conveyancing firms are also generally not good at presenting themselves to potential employees. The wording on their websites is often very similar, making it difficult to identify unique attributes that potential conveyancers would find attractive. Unless firms do build a compelling  ‘employer brand profile’, they will not be able to persuade ambitious conveyancers that their firm is innovative and represents the ‘future’ in conveyancing.

How can we recruit and retain staff effectively?

None of the problems outlined above are insurmountable for any firm prepared to make real change in order to attract the right people. I outline below a number of steps for firms to take, which should help them to secure the right people to support growth and take advantage of the opportunities afforded by a rising market.

Make yourself attractive

Conveyancing firms should approach recruitment with the same focus on making the business attractive as do businesses seeking capital investment from investors. The right conveyancers are seeking a firm in which to invest their portfolio of skills, aptitude and attitude, and firms need to make it easy to chose them over their competitors.

One way of enhancing the attractiveness of a firm is to have a clear and compelling organisational purpose, addressing more than just the achievement of financial or performance targets. An appropriate vision which may resonate with new conveyancers and help to retain existing ones might be something like: ‘We aim to support social mobility by helping a thousand disadvantaged families to own 
their first homes every year or make a fresh start.’ Conveyancers who have a genuine empathy for home-movers will also, subject to appropriate training and coaching, be more likely to deliver a better customer experience.

Firms also need to articulate clearly the values that they genuinely hold dear; this will help attract and retain conveyancers who are like-minded, and therefore more likely to stay with the firm for years to come. Such values could include entrepreneurialism, recognition and reward, empowerment, innovation, creativity, customer focus, risk-taking, a commitment to continual learning, flexible working arrangements, community involvement, and being a fun place to work. Shared values foster an emotional connection between an employee and a firm, resulting in deep engagement and commitment. This often also translates to excellent customer service, as employees will present as passionate and committed.

Remuneration is another area for firms to consider. Conveyancing is recognised as a relatively low-margin business, with a tight focus on cost control; conveyancing work is therefore often among the lowest paid in legal services. However, the skills required are multi-dimensional, and it is questionable whether the remuneration packages routinely offered adequately reflect the role’s responsibilities and pressures. However, addressing this doesn’t just mean beating the remuneration offered by your competitors; I would suggest that the real issue is the message your remuneration package gives about the firm’s culture. Would the firm’s ‘target’ conveyancers consider the level of remuneration offered fair and equitable? If you need to keep costs low, are there other ways than salary of boosting the overall package and representing your commitment to ongoing staff development, recognition and reward?

Enhance retention

Some conveyancing firms appear to find it relatively easy to hire 
new conveyancers, but not to retain them for a reasonable amount 
of time.

Having the right culture is the foundation of an effective retention strategy. Such a strategy will ensure that the following elements are aligned to the business strategy:

  • training and development;
  • reward, recognition and remuneration;
  • flexibility of working arrangements;
  • job variety and job enrichment; and
  • career progression (both within and without the firm).

Firms looking to retain ambitious, valued employees also need to address the repetitive nature of some aspects of conveyancing. One way to do this is to demonstrate through compelling stories or a compelling purpose – like the one outlined above about helping disadvantaged families – that the work is meaningful. A compelling vision of the purpose of conveyancing work shifts employees’ focus away from the inherent repetition in the work and towards how it can make a positive difference and creating positive social outcomes. Firms should also bear in mind any potential impact on job satisfaction created by the redesign of conveyancing workflows and processes to improve efficiency and speed.

One factor which may be contributing to the high turnover of conveyancers in some firms is leadership. Not all great conveyancers make good leaders. Investing in appropriate leadership development is the only way to ensure that the leaders in conveyancing firms maintain an environment that fosters the retention of key conveyancers necessary to support sustainable growth.

Develop a pipeline

One current market trend is the mismatch between experienced conveyancers who have left or will soon leave the sector, and the number of new conveyancers entering the sector. This presents a likely double whammy of shortages in both quality and quality of conveyancers at a time of considerable growth.

Firms can address this by creating a pipeline of future conveyancers within their own firm – investing in and training secretarial staff and other non-conveyancers to develop their skills. A number of firms have, through such investment over the years, developed non-conveyancers up to heads of their department. Conveyancing firms with such a pipeline are strategically positioned to respond to volatility in the market, changing customer needs, and changes in the profile of the conveyancing workforce.

How can we ‘future-proof’ our staff resource?

The future in conveyancing is likely to be characterised by rapid and unpredictable change, particularly with regard to the impact of technology and changing customer expectations. Conveyancing firms need to plan to ‘future-proof’ their staff resource by developing more ‘agile’ teams. An agile conveyancing team is one that can easily ramp up and down its conveyaning workforce to meet customer demand, without damaging its culture and financial stability.

Implement a flexible resourcing model

A flexible resourcing model helps build organisational agility and minimises the risk of failing to respond to changing consumer demand. It includes a core team of conveyancers, supplemented by an appropriate ‘bench’ (to borrow an analogy from team sports) of substitutes to cover times of emergency or unpredictable changes in circumstances.

Firms adopting such a strategy must build the right conveyancing ‘squad’ (another sporting analogy) of both core team members and substitutes. Developing a substitute for every key role in the conveyancing team is a healthy way to build flexibility and agility into the firm’s operations. Such substitutes could include temporary and contract staff, former employees, and other conveyancing firms, through collaborative relationships (subject to appropriate disclosure to lenders).

Conveyancing firms will have to consider new ways to create roles that combine transactional elements with more intellectually challenging work

One key opportunity presented by this strategy is the use of talented conveyancers who may have left their firms for reasons not connected with the work itself or the firm’s working environment – things like child care obligations, caring for family members, pursuit of entrepreneurial endeavours, or by virtue of redundancy. Assuming that there are no performance or probity concerns with such former employees, firms can harness the skills of these former employees through mobile and digital technologies, and thereby build their bench strength.

Once you have your ‘squad’ in place, you need to invest in their continuous development, to enable them to seamlessly cover for each other in crisis situations. This will provide the resilience that successful firms require to respond to the vicissitudes of the housing market.

However, conveyancing firms should be aware of how such a model could compromise the core values that underpin their current success. For example, if a firm achieves excellent performance through its strong focus on collaboration, this may be compromised if a flexible resourcing model that combines permanent and bench resources necessitates a disparity in reward strategies, including terms and conditions.

Build workforce planning into your strategy

Successful conveyancing firms proactively and accurately anticipate their recruitment needs, optimise the contribution of their existing conveyancing team, and maintain healthy retention of their key conveyancers.

Resourcing implications (including appropriate resourcing strategies) should be considered when drawing up strategic objectives, and then integrated into ongoing strategic reviews. This will ensure that there is a clear understanding, among those responsible for achieving resourcing targets, of the quantity and quality of conveyancers required to support the firm’s strategic objectives.

Redesign jobs

As discussed earlier, the increasing focus on transactional work and risk management may have a negative impact on the variety and stimulation of conveyancing work. This may affect engagement among both established practitioners, trained to autonomously provide bespoke solutions, and new entrants, who will be more focused on job satisfaction. As it becomes more difficult to offer conveyancers a defined career path within one firm, the emphasis on providing more challenging and interesting work becomes 
more important.

Conveyancing firms will therefore have to consider new ways to create roles that combine transactional elements with more intellectually challenging work, and which engage their people while maintaining the robust internal controls and tightly controlled standardised processes expected by  their lender clients.

One option to achieve this is to offer less generic and more specific roles, to enhance the degree of intellectual challenge and scope to make a difference. For example, firms could break down the work between individuals by community / segment of customers, to offer interest to the conveyancer while delivering a better experience to the customer. Firms could also offer more project-based assignments to provide variety and stimulation outside everyday transactional work.

In relation to risk management, firms will need to strike the right balance between oversight and discretion in order to ensure robust risk management while allowing conveyancers the scope to grow.

Develop new skills

Continuous upgrading of the skills of employees to meet growth strategies helps to build agility. These skills should cover not only property law and practice, but also customer service and IT, including social media.

A focus on ongoing skills development will also help with retention, because the firm is seen to invest in its people. The flipside is that your conveyancers will be more employable, and may leave sooner. However, it’s obviously better to have an employee who is 90% engaged for four years, than someone who is 50% engaged for 10 years, particularly given the adverse impact of less engaged employees on team morale, engagement and productivity.

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