2 January 2008
Whats it all about?
As a solicitor in a private client department, you will find yourself advising individuals and families rather than companies. Such people are often high net worth individuals who can be based anywhere. It is becoming increasingly common for such individuals to be truly global and for a family to be based and have interests in a number of jurisdictions. The range of work is very wide indeed, but you will advise on estate planning (wills etc), personal tax planning (in particular capital gains tax and inheritance tax), trusts (both offshore and onshore) and other structures through which individuals may hold their personal wealth.
One of the most exciting and interesting aspects of work in a private client department is the input you have on a familys global strategy. It is far more than merely advising on tax although this plays a major part but instead also involves getting to know the individuals concerned and their particular motives, then creating a structure (be it a simple estate plan or a truly global trust structure) which serves those particular needs. It is true that everyone is different and this is reflected in the wide range of solutions that you end up preparing for clients.
The working culture
One of the perks of life in a private client department is that you are unlikely to spend as many hours in the office as your corporate colleagues and, on the whole, you are able to maintain a good work/life balance. That said, if you find yourself working on a large offshore trust restructuring (involving, say Bermuda, Cayman and the UK), you will find that it is very similar to a corporate transaction in terms of the excitement generated and the hours worked.
It is likely that even at the most junior levels you will have the opportunity to take on a lot of responsibility for the day-to-day running of a number of matters. You will end up establishing what are hopefully long-term relationships with certain clients or families and will become the first port of call for a number of different matters and concerns.
A typical trainees day might involve a telephone call to a Bermudan lawyer about documents being prepared for an offshore restructuring, the drafting of a will and letter of wishes for a client, preparing the first draft of a taxation paper on the consequences of a particular transaction for an individual and an obscure piece of research that a longstanding client has thrown up. You will find that no two days are ever really the same.
The most important skill for a private client lawyer is confidentiality as it is of the utmost importance that a clients affairs are kept private. You may end up working for some household names, but you are not allowed to tell your friends about it later. You will also need to have good attention to detail and excellent drafting skills. You will find yourself working with a number of different people, be they the client, other professionals or even lawyers from other departments in your firm, and so good communication skills and an ability to get on with people are also very important. Finally, the nature of much of the work means that private client work is often more legal and technical than other areas of law.
The most important recent developments in this field were the changes introduced by former Chancellor Gordon Brown in his Budget in 2006. Such changes have had a fundamental impact on the way in which certain trusts and wills are taxed and has led to all existing trusts having to be reviewed and, if appropriate, amended by April 2008. Another recent major trend has come out of a number of big-money divorce cases (such as Charman v Charman (2007), which has just been heard by the Court of Appeal) and which all may have a major impact on the way trusts are established and run.
Private client is an ever evolving sphere, due to the changes that are constantly being introduced to the tax regime and also to all other developments in the law, all of which have an impact on the individual and therefore on the private client lawyer. One thing for certain is that the law will never stop changing and so neither will the working practice of someone in this field.