We have just bought a place and did not have a lawyer. Apart from the usual ups and downs of a property purchase this worked fine.
It is however useful if you don't speak French to find out if the Notaire is English speaking or has someone in the office who speaks English, this makes phone calls and queries a lot easier.
Also if you are remaining in England while you purchase the property I would recommend visiting the NOTAIRE and meeting the person who is handling your transaction.
We found ours incredibly helpful and the whole experience far more positive than the English adversarial system where both sides have there own solicitor.
It is important to remember that the NOTAIRE is there to ensure that the legal particulars of the sale/contract are correct and nether represents you or the vendor. It is also important to remember that this is your first interface with FRENCH CIVIL SERVANTS and although they can seem KAFKAESQUE and the long lunch breaks, tardy response times (ours would regularly take up to 10 days to reply to an email) holidays (where your contact disappears for days at a time) are frustrating it is important to remain calm and polite at all times... if you need any more help give me a call..
and finally if your property is a country one MAKE SURE YOU UNDERSTAND HOW SEWAGE IS DEALT WITH..then check that all the sewage certificates are in place, septic tank mains drainage. village drainage are a bit of a pigs breakfast in FRANCE