Coming around to conveyancing

When I worked in my father’s firm, I generally avoided conveyancing work i.e. sale and purchase transactions of landed property.

However, every now and again, I would take on a file or two to do. I wanted to remind myself how the process worked. I worked on contracts for the sale and purchase of landed properties with titles and those without; with loans or without; apartments, houses, or land. No exotic animals or bizarre objects for us as we lacked the wildly eccentric clients likely to possess such things.

I also went back to conveyancing every now and again to see if I would take to it. You never know. Sometimes coming to enjoy something we previously didn’t is a matter of timing and context or incentives. But earlier on, with me, where conveyancing was concerned, I did know; I didn’t enjoy it. It was like me and vegetables when I was young.

Conveyancing had too little legal drama and action about it. There is no demand to read urgently, widely, or deeply about the law for the usual sale and purchase transactions. If the transaction goes wrong, then sure, we would bring out dem books. But to work on the transaction itself, there is little need. The contracts have seasoned templates that require some revision to customize it for the transaction, the standard forms and letters are set, and the places to submit the relevant documents are known: the stamping office, the land office, the banks, and the other party’s solicitors. The application of the law is only prominent in concluding the terms of the agreement; the rest of it is administered to facilitate the transaction.

Cross the tees and dot the eyes and do things when they are supposed to be done and it’s all good. That’s conveyancing. It’s not as if litigation lacks that aspect. It does have its less contentious elements and moments too. But litigation has its regular Himalayas to cross, dragons to slay, catacombs to discover and hotel buffets to pillage. So it has a touch more drama, urgency, and a whole lot at stake to go with the food, drink, and law.

And there is a lot of law in play. It doesn’t begin or end with procedural law and substantive law; those are the easy areas of law. The challenges that arise when we have to contend with the likes of Murphy’s law, Finagle’s corollary to Murphy’s law, Murphy’s Second Corollary, Hofstadter’s Law, Parkinson’s Law, Willoughby’s Law, Monly’s Rule, Peter’s Principle, Power Law Distribution, Sayre’s Law, Goodhart’s Law and so on. As I said, there’s a lot of law going on.

When I started my firm, I assembled my lawyers and pupils and told them:

“Gents, we are a litigation firm. I want us to do kick-ass litigation work and have fun while doing it. I don’t care if it’s civil, corporate, criminal, industrial, arbitration, or anything else, if there’s a dispute to be resolved or fought out, we’ll do it and do it well. I don’t want us doing anything else. So no conveyancing, trademark, or administrative kind of work. If you get that kind of work, you are at liberty to reject it.”

A few months after my firm was set up my maternal uncle called me up.

“Hey Fahri, how’s the firm going?”

“Oklah, uncle. Taking it one month at a time. So far, so good. What’s up?”

“I bought this apartment some time back. Recently, the developer sent me a letter. They are asked me to see their lawyer to sign some document, a memorandum of transfer?”

“Ah. That means the title for your apartment is out.”

“Oh. What does that mean?”

“That letter is telling you that the title for your apartment has been issued. The developer can now register the transfer of the property into your name on the title.”

“So what do I have to do?”

“All you have to do is sign the memorandum of transfer; we call it an MOT. Then you have to settle the stamp duty and make sure the assessment for the property is paid up. The developer’s lawyers will submit the MOT with the title to the relevant land office. The land office will process the transfer and issue you with a copy of the title with your name on it.”

“I see. Can you do it for me?”

It was a simple matter. I think even the developer’s lawyer could have helped him out with it.

But this was my uncle and an uncle I liked. He looked for me because I am the family lawyer for my mom’s side of the family. He always invited my family and me to his excellent Chinese New Year and Christmas cookouts. He took me to play tennis with him when I was younger. He was always nice to me growing up. When I put all that together with me telling him to go somewhere else because I only did litigation, I felt petty and unhelpful. Wasn’t I suppose to help those within my capacity to? This was fam and it wasn’t as if I had a whole lot to do at the time either.

I wavered as I recalled my little speech to the troops a few months prior. Doing this little piece of work didn’t mean I was now a conveyancing firm. I was wrestling with it in my mind.

“Fahri? You there?”

“Sorry, uncle. Yes. Yes, I’m here. I spaced out for a moment.”

“Oh, sorry. I know you must be busy. Did you manage to catch what I said earlier?”

“Yes, uncle. I heard. Of course. Of course, we’ll sort you out. I’ll send you a text to tell you what I need and we take it from there?”

“Okay. I will wait for it. I am glad you can do it for me. I know you just started out so I don’t expect you to do it for free, yah? Please send me your bill. Thanks, Fahri!” Then and there, I liked him some more.

Several months later, out of the blue, I received a call from a company my father helped some years ago. I did some work for them previously at my father’s firm but nothing very much. It was my father’s personal client and he dealt with them mostly. I did, however, get to know the company’s founder’s children at a few social events and discovered we shared a penchant for dry English humour.

After some small talk they asked whether I could handle a sale and purchase transaction for them. At the time, I was going through a challenging stretch. I had four lawyers on a learning curve with not enough paid litigation work to go around. Naturally, I said, yes. It was fortunate I did. That transaction carried us for a few months.

I approached the re-acquaintanceship with conveyancing practice with a beginner’s mind, Lainah Oi Lin Yow’s, Conveyancing Practice and Procedure in West Malaysia (2nd Edition, 2005), a consideration of a selection of reported cases on lawyer’s negligence, and a whole lot of curiousity and humility.

Conveyancing is not a difficult thing. It’s mundane, transactional work. Everyone is always waiting on someone else and there’s not a whole lot to do in between. And yet it is important that the lawyer gets it right because if they don’t all kinds of things could go wrong.

The part that worried me most turned out to be the least warranted. That was the presentation of the transfer documents at the land office. I had heard about all kinds of horror stories about transfer documents being rejected for what I felt were the flimsiest of excuses. I wanted to avoid that. So prior to the actual presentation, I went to the land office to learn how it was done.

It was not very different to what my father had me do during the early part of my pupilage. He wanted me to learn things ground up. So he did not allow me to use the office dispatch boy at the start. He had me do everything myself. I did service of documents, affidavits of service, affirmed it too; company and IC searches; photocopying, bundling, and filing. The first few affidavits were my own affidavits of service.

“If you do it yourself, you know what it takes and how long it takes to get done. When you know, the clerks and dispatch boys cannot fool you.”

My father

Big truth in that.

I arrived at the land office in black and white. The officer at the inquiry counter looked at me with bemusement. He asked me what I was doing there. I told him I just established my firm and had a conveyancing file to handle. Since I had no clerk or dispatch to help me, I had to learn how to do it myself until I could afford one. Would he be so kind as to help me?

And wouldn’t you know, that opened up a world of help.

The officer broke out into a smile and immediately got down to patiently explaining the process and what I needed to do to ensure the presentation of my documents was not rejected. After the briefing, he gave me a file to put the documents for presentation together. He even wrote down on a scrap of paper the list of the documents to be presented and put it in the envelope.

I thanked him profusely and told him he was very kind. He said lawyers were an uncommon sight at the land office; it was mostly runners or members of the public that handled the transaction themselves; and the lawyers that turned up were often arrogant and disrespectful. I was unusual in declaring my ignorance upfront.

I left the land office that day very pleased and thinking what a beautiful world we would all live in if each of us were helpful to each other like that.

The conveyancing work that unexpectedly fell into my lap gave me an opportunity to re-acquaint myself with it. Whilst I found enjoyment in my own way with such work, I did not see myself doing this solely or daily. A supervisory role for such work suffices because it does not often require sustained and intense scrutiny like a litigation case would; unless something went wrong or there is some complexity to the transaction.

When I returned to the land office to present the transfer documents for registration, I met the same officer who checked my document folder to ensure everything was in order. It was presented and accepted without incident. I went on to do a few more sale and purchase transactions on my own because none of my lawyers were interested to touch it. They’d rather do a trial than a sale and purchase transaction! As much as I was annoyed about it, I completely empathized.

Even though our first year started out as I’m sorry, we do only litigation work, the next year we were, Of course, we do sale and purchase transactions! What type of property is it and is this with title or without?

3 thoughts on “Coming around to conveyancing”

  1. After I left RLp (where the focus was on corporate M&A and regulatory compliance advisory) and joined my dad’s firm, I had to learn anything and everything that came my way in order to get by – from general litigation to conveyancing (both titled and non-titled SPA transactions, Court and non-Court auction purchases etc).

    At first, I did feel that conveyancing practice is mundane, probably more suited to clerks and utterly frustrating that SPA files could potentially go wrong for reasons that many litigators (if I may say so) cannot wrap their heads around. There was always something that needed sorting out or inquiry with the authorities, and it often caused a small hiccup in the transaction which upset clients. I eventually concluded that the conveyancing realm has its own magical and mysterious aspects which many litigators cannot and probably will never understand, but I kept my head down each time and did my best, and looked forward to my remuneration.

    Because I cannot afford any full-time staff, I have to run my files alone – from negotiating the SPA terms to engrossing fair copies and signing, to adjudicating and paying the stamp duty, taking delivery of vacant possession and etc. I am however genuinely grateful for the learning experience, although occasionally a fair bit of time is spent travelling and lining up. I sometimes outsource the presentation or consent application part to friends who run their own small practice for a small fee, if I happen to be caught up with another litigation matter at the time. I have made many good friends this way.

    But, I have to say that the experience of doing conveyancing work has helped me significantly. I previously handled a misrepresentation case which involved an alleged deficit in area measurement of the subject-matter real property, wherein some basic knowledge of land titles and how to read the pelan tanah was quite useful.

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  2. Enjoyed this piece because it reminded me of sleepless nights thinking about conveyancing problems.
    I sleep like a baby doing criminal and civil. Convey stresses me out. Make a mistake (even if it’s not your fault) and you are dead meat and have to jump through some crazy hoops to fix it.
    But it’s all a good experience and I am grateful for the lessons learned.

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  3. It is as always, reading your work is an enjoyment tho they are law related. What do I know but thru these writings, the privilege to peek into your world which is way opposite mine gives a sense as what’s behind the scene.

    Not forgetting, I find myself often catching phrases and sentences that are beautifully composed “… But litigation has its regular Himalayas to cross, dragons to slay, catacombs to discover and hotel buffets to pillage…”

    Buffets to pillage… hehehe!

    Keep writing please Fahri, always looking forward to nice reads when I need a break from FnB! 🙂

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