Today's Conveyancer: Interview with Tim Higham of Trethowans

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The below interview was published in Today's Conveyancer on 28th July 2014.

Tim Higham is a Partner at Trethowans, specialising in all aspects of residential conveyancing. He tells Today’s Conveyancer how he always pushes for quality in the industry – and wishes other firms would do the same.

Do you believe there is a quality issue in conveyancing at the moment, Tim?

‘I’m always one for pushing the quality badge in conveyancing because it’s absent at the moment. I think the industry is at the lowest level of quality for conveyancers that it has seen, certainly since I started my career in conveyancing in 1995. And it’s just not good enough. Since the start of the downturn so many law firms have looked inwards. They’ve thought: ‘how can we make the maths stack up because transactions are down?’, which, as a consequence, has resulted in redundancies. Corners are cut to preserve what market share firms had instead of focusing on quality.

I am pleased to say that this has never been the case at Trethowans. I love conveyancing and I’m proud of the profession. This lack of focus on quality tarnishes it. We handled things differently when the recession kicked in. Instead of looking inwards we continued to focus on quality. Our attitude was – let’s impress and keep the work coming in and when the economic climate improves we’ll be a phoenix. And we are.’

What do you believe needs to be done to improve quality?

‘Every conveyancer has to take a good, hard look at the quality of work they’re producing. They have to brainstorm – what are the 20 points that they want to change this month? They should go out to the agents and listen to feedback rather than just sitting back thinking they are the bee’s knees. Here in Salisbury, for example, most of the estate agents are independent – they don’t have targets and a head office telling them what they can and can’t do. So if you show you’re a dynamic lawyer, they will align with you – and vice versa.

The pyramid structure in conveyancing teams is still there which personally I think is a little archaic, with the lawyers at the top and the unqualified clerks lower down the pyramid doing too much. The lawyers, in fact, need to do more – the qualified professionals should be pushing themselves forward and showing this quality to clients. For me, if another lawyer produces sub-standard work, I feel I have no choice but to warn my client that this may delay things. When lawyers don’t perform it can lead to negative press, which has an adverse effect on the whole industry.’

What makes Trethowans a quality organisation?

‘When I had my first interview for the job at Trethowans, the interviewer, although smartly dressed, wasn’t wearing a tie. That greatly influenced my decision to take the job. The firm wasn’t stuffy and the people weren’t arrogant and there was a down-to-earth atmosphere with a focus on quality. It was about getting the best lawyers in and longevity – about still being around in 50 years. It’s ingrained in us when we have meetings that we should try and exceed expectations all the time. Price-matching, for example – we are competitive but we’re not going to lower our standards to match another firm’s price. We are more bespoke – we would never go down the volume route. The public deserve better than that.

We’ve ridden out the storm over the past few years without losing focus on quality and now we’re seeing the effects. We had our best year ever as a firm in terms of growth, revenue and turnover in y/e2014.’

If, as you say, a lot of lawyers haven’t been focusing on quality during the downturn, what sorts of problems will that throw up now the market’s improving?

‘Look how many recruitment adverts there are around for conveyancers – firms are jumping up and down to recruit. My worry is that people are just snapping up anybody to fill the space whereas we’re recruiting for two people and rejecting CV after CV. We can’t pick the wrong person because that would impact immediately on our quality of service and the agents wouldn’t be happy. They refer work to us after all. So I would rather us be very busy and coping than employing people for the sake of it. But the people we’re rejecting are promptly securing other jobs and that concerns me.

It’s extremely important to build your brand but it has to deliver what you are promising your customers. There are all these grandiose marketing bigwigs out there talking about branding law firms with certain adjectives to prove how good they are. But it’s all very well being big and bold if the quality is there – if not, there could be a backlash. There is no point walking into an estate agency and saying you’re the best because if you then don’t deliver, people talk.’

Are you seeing the effects of the current property boom in Salisbury?

‘We have a branch in Southampton that does a lot of work in London which has been consistently busy with transactions for the last few months. Of course the prices there are sky high. And they’re shooting up in Salisbury too. I think that’s down to a lack of supply – sellers can name their price. There are so many buyers out there who are tired of fence sitting but my concern is that they’re paying silly prices. It’s a worry because when supply improves they could be left with a house that’s been over-valued. Are they going to be in negative equity? I’m looking to move and I’m seeing places that I think have been over-valued by £50,000. But they’re snapped up.

We’ve just had an offer accepted and I’ve learnt so much – I really empathise with clients all over again, this being our second move. You have your offer accepted and then it goes quiet for two weeks while the survey is done. That’s where the lawyer needs to step in and communicate – say hello and don’t worry about the silence. Agents do that, to their credit. But that first couple of weeks is a lonely time and people need reassurance.’

How did you get into conveyancing and what makes you get up in the morning and look forward to going into work?

‘I wanted to be a criminal lawyer but then I did some holiday cover with a conveyancing firm as a trainee and I realised this industry is part of the fabric of people’s everyday lives, which appealed to me. I found it exciting because it was quick turnover and you didn’t have to study for five years to make your name – you could be in the cut and thrust quite quickly.
I appreciate when clients praise the service. Conveyancing is stressful, particularly when someone is saying: ‘I have to be in tomorrow’. We always strive to accommodate but behind the scenes we’re flat out. But we get the client in and they’re delighted and that’s the reward.’

Do you find it difficult to switch off?

‘I do. A client at the weekend pings me an email and if I have a spare few minutes to reply I will, rather than the client waiting and being stressed about something until Monday morning – even though my wife threatens divorce. Sometimes I even take the Blackberry on holiday! But buying and selling a house – it’s an emotional time for clients and I get caught up in that. That said, quality of service means being there when your clients need you and that’s what it’s all about.’