We have interviewed James Liffen, Head of Residential Property at Mishcon de Reya and asked a few questions on his practice and the current market situation.
What led you to practice residential property law?
I think like a lot of people I fell into it!
Why at Mishcon?
The original reason was because they offered me a job when my then boss was moving firms. I think the reason that I've stayed over the years is it's genuinely probably the best place to do it because of the nature of the firm. I don't think any other firm is able to offer the services to private individuals that Mishcon de Reya can in such a broad way, and it's also a firm at which, as a residential conveyancer, you have the opportunity to work for a really wide variety of clients. At some firms you might be pigeonholed into just acting for high net worth individuals; at Mishcon you might do work for them one minute, but you might also be working for a large corporate or a charity the next minute. You really gain a breadth of experience. We have such a strong reputation in so many areas of practice that it gives you immediate kudos just by being here. And the people are nice!
What is your most memorable transaction?
I did a transaction a couple of years ago which was interesting because the client wanted to do some tax planning and potentially claim the refund from the higher rates of SDLT. But to do that, rather than selling their property, they actually gifted their property to a charity, which subsequently then sold the property, and we acted for the charity on the sale. So the client ended up donating effectively a £20 million asset to a charity. The client got their £1m SDLT refund but clearly that’s not the whole reason to give away a £20 million asset. So that one's stuck in my mind because it was genuinely someone doing something good for the world, which doesn't often come up when you are doing conveyancing.
What is a typical transaction and who is a typical client for you?
I've been really lucky in that I have, as far as conveyancing goes, a really broad practice. So, one minute I'll be dealing with an ultra-high value property in Central London and the next minute it might be a country estate, or it might be a development plot sale. I've done all of those different things throughout my career and never really wanted to be pigeonholed. It means you can deal with more in terms of resolving problems more accurately when you come up against them. Even within our primary client base of wealthy individuals, it's such a broad church. I'm lucky enough to have worked with lots of very different people.
What do you enjoy the most about your work?
I like the people that I've worked with over the years. I'm very lucky that I've always had good colleagues and I think the good thing about residential conveyancing is it's very much a people business, so you get to know people who are on the other side of transactions. You get to know the agents, the buying agents, the bankers, everybody involved, and you build up relationships over time so that you actually can enjoy working with them.
What do you enjoy the least?
That it’s a never-ending treadmill so you are never going to finish what you have to do. You're never going to clear your desk. You're never going to clear your inbox or feel truly 100% on top of it. But that’s just the nature of the beast, because doing the work creates more work.
Are there any changes you would like to see in the conveyancing industry/process?
I think we've got to get to a point where documents are properly handled digitally and cut down on the registration gap, because it's ridiculous that a simple transfer can take years to register just because it's waiting for someone to process it. I expect that tech will solve a lot of those problems and I reckon other than that, the process isn't actually as flawed as people make it sound. I think there are advantages to people having a bit of time to do their due diligence, and it's not the end of the world if some people withdraw from transactions or some people get gazumped. I believe most of the problems with the conveyancing process are actually caused by people squeezing lawyers and surveyors on costs, so that they have to pile them high and do the work very cheaply. Things would run a lot more efficiently if people were willing to pay a bit more and, if they're not, then you have to accept the service levels aren't going to be there.
Do you see overseas clients continuing to purchase in London?
Yes, there doesn't seem to have been any noticeable drop off. There’s clearly been so much uncertainty in the markets in the last few years that there has been a little bit of resistance. But there's always been people circling and interested in investing and I think we're beginning to see things pick up again. The vast majority of Prime and Super Prime properties go to people who certainly have an international footprint.
And finally, what are your expectations for the residential property market this year?
The last time someone asked me this question was in January 2020 and I predicted a period of stability following the general election where Boris Johnson won by a landslide. The next thing that happened was COVID-19, and then we've had Russia invading Ukraine and an energy crisis, so I'm going to say I don't know. I would like to think that we should have a period of relative stability and that should mean that we move back to slightly higher transaction volumes. I imagine there will be a slight adjustment in prices at the lower end of the market. Even at the £2 million to £5 million mark there might still be downward pressure on prices. At £5 million up, because you are getting into the territory where people are genuinely discretionary about whether they buy or sell, and people tend not to be borrowing because they really need to borrow, that’s usually a tax planning thing. I'll be very surprised if there was a downward pressure on prices at those levels because that’s already happened: there’s been a big drop off since 2014 when they first introduced the 15% rate of stamp duty. But I don't consider there’s going to be anything else that has a major impact at that level. Obviously, if there's a huge geopolitical event things can change.